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Making Modern Families with Donor Eggs and Donor Sperm: A Conversation with Dr. Diane Tober

Dr. Diane Tober, a medical anthropologist and adjunct professor at the University of California San Francisco’s Institute for Health and Aging, joined me on the July 25th The Egg Whisperer Show to talk about her new book, a film she has in the works and her ongoing research into the role sperm and egg donation plays in the changing meanings of modern family. Dr. Tober has been researching egg and sperm donation for over 25 years, and in this time, she has seen the cultural landscape change — and the number of donor-conceived children increase as more single women, and LGBT couples start families with donor eggs and sperm.

I was really interested in how people felt about donors, and how perceptions of genetics influenced donor choice

Dr. A: What is a Medical Anthropologist?

DT: Medical anthropologists study cross cultural beliefs and practices surrounding health and illness. My own research is on fertility, meanings of family, how we think about kinship and how technologies are influenced by and influence society. Other researchers have looked at topics from HIV in Africa to folk healing in the Amazon — there’s a wide range of possibilities, which is what makes the field exciting.

Dr. A: I can imagine that doing research on sperm donation 25-years-ago was considered quite obscure. What inspired you to study it?

I was a graduate student at UC Berkeley, working as a research assistant to Professor Gay Becker. She was very involved in research on infertility. She wrote a book called Healing the Infertile Family, and another one called The Elusive Embryo. She was conducting research on gender differences in infertility, but it only looked at heterosexual married couples. I interviewed couples about deciding to choose an egg donor or sperm donor, and some of the struggles that they went through. Single women and lesbian couples were calling up to be part of that research, but they were outside the scope of the study. I thought it would make an exciting project to focus on that group, so I started interviewing these women. I was really interested in how people felt about donors, and how perceptions of genetics influenced donor choice. Later, I got a fellowship to look at sperm donors and the sperm banking industry. My research eventually lead to my book.

An excerpt from an interview with Rebecca, a single mom by choice woman in Romancing the Sperm:

The idea of being a single mother got to be pretty, really amazing, it got to be a real…How can I even describe it? It really felt like quite the spiritual quest when I was wrestling with it. It doesn’t feel like that now, but it did very much so then. And, I struggled a lot with, “Could I do it by myself? Would it be O.K. with my friends and family, if I did it all by myself?” and a lot of sadness about not having it be the ideal way, not having it be the storybook way. It’s amazing, but there was a period when it was like walking on a very thin path, and on either side of you is this enormous ravine, and if you take a step off either side, you fall into the ravine, and there are flames, and it’s like you’re drowning, you know, it’s overwhelming, you know?

Dr. A: What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned about the sperm donor industry?

DT: It’s fascinating how women make the decision to choose donors. In the book, I talk about what I called grassroots eugenics. These are people’s interpretations of how genetics is fused with personal ethics and politics. For example, I spoke to one lesbian couple who didn’t want to use a German donor because of Nazi Germany, even though neither of one of them was Jewish. I also spoke to one couple who wanted to use a known donor because they were really concerned about having a multi-ethnic donor that they couldn’t find in sperm banks at the time. I did field work at different sperm banks, including The Sperm Bank of California, The Repository for Germinal Choice, which was known as the “genius sperm bank,” and Rainbow Flag Health Services, which was a sperm bank that emerged to help LBGT parents create their families.

Dr. A: I love the title Romancing the Sperm. Where did it come from?

DT: I was in a writing class, and I was talking about how many women in my research created these fantasies about their donor. For example, there was one woman who spoke about wanting to meet her child’s donor at some point in the future, but she hadn’t even conceived yet. She had all these fantasies about who this donor was based upon his profile, the books that he read, and all the things that they would have in common. She was looking for that commonality and a relationship in an alien space. She even had this idea that the donor and her child who was yet to be conceived, would someday meet and be together at said child’s graduation. She imagined that they maybe would hit it off and have a relationship. Someone in my writer’s group said “it’s like romancing the sperm!”

Dr. A: We know why women use donor sperm, but why do men donate sperm?

DT: It’s a range of reasons. For some, the compensation is a motivating factor. Another, which I kept hearing over and over from the donors I interviewed is “I have great sperm. I have great genes.” They felt it was their responsibility to pass them along. Others said things, like “I have a sister who is going through infertility, and she had to use an egg donor, so I want to pay it back by helping someone start a family.”

An excerpt from an interview with sperm donor in Romancing the Sperm

The couple hundred dollars I made wasn’t what motivated me. You have to go through all these blood tests, drive back and forth, and go through a whole screening before you ever get selected. It wasn’t even enough to pay for my time.

Dr. A: What kind of advice would you give a woman who is looking for a sperm donor?

DT: Bottom line: good swimming sperm. She should confirm that there are other successful pregnancies from that donor sperm. I’ve seen women, especially those who are going through infertility, come up with a whole laundry list of ideas of what they want in a donor, and then after a year of trying to conceive and purchasing the sperm, again and again, they finally get to the point where they’re like “just give me good swimming sperm. I just want to get pregnant!” It’s a personal decision, and that’s what I found with most of the women that I interviewed, that it’s really idiosyncratic what each woman finds appealing in a profile.

I also found it interesting that with egg donors, the recipient gets all this visual information about the donor. You can get bathing suit shots if you want them. But with sperm donors, you get a two-page profile and virtually no images. The way in which gender is present or not present in the sperm and egg banking industries is fascinating. Why wouldn’t we have visual information about the sperm donor? I would want to know what he looks like.

Dr. A: It’s a huge gender gap. What do you think are the most significant emotional challenges for women who need to turn to sperm donation?

DT: For single women, they have to let go of the idea of finding the perfect partner.

An excerpt from an interview with a lesbian single woman in Romancing the Sperm:

I started raising this issue with her that I wanted to have a child and she was vehemently opposed to it. We struggled around this one issue for many years — until I was about 35 or 36 — and I was about to have a gay male friend of mine be the donor and co-parent. Suddenly, she broke up with me, and I was devastated, but I decided to have a child on my own.

Then I met another woman who asked me to wait six months to see if we really wanted to be together. I had been about to start and then she said she didn’t like the donor I had chosen, so she and I looked for another donor. And then I did get pregnant in about 6 months, but it was what they call a “blighted ovum,” and I had to have a D&C. And that led to that break-up because it made it clear for her she didn’t want to do this. She did not want to raise a child with me. So I was on my own again.

Dr.A: Tell us about your documentary film, The Perfect Donor

Watch a clip from The Perfect Donor at the end of the show.

DT: It’s about egg donation. After hearing so many egg donors stories, I realized that there is so little information out there to inform people about egg donation and the experience of egg donors. There are a lot of films about infertility, and even sperm donation, both Hollywood films and documentaries about women who go looking for their donors, but there’s nothing about the experience of egg donors, recipients, and the egg donor-conceived kids. It’s an important topic because research is showing that being open with your child about the egg donor is important. Egg donor-conceived kids often have a curiosity about their biology and who helped to make them, and egg donors often have interest about what happened with their eggs.

Dr. A: Many egg donors may not think they will have the curiosity when they donate, but ten or twenty years down the road, they actually ask those questions. It’s one of the reasons I started Freeze and Share, which is a way to choose an egg donor and have the option for an open relationship. As a gift to the egg donor, the recipient also pays to freeze half of her eggs for her future fertility.

Catch more of me, and topics like this through The Egg Whisperer Show. Episodes are live-streamed on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and on iTunes on Wednesdays at 7PM PST.

Fertility Doctor, Reproductive Endocrinologist, Egg Whisperer:

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