"Sperm For Sale"

April 2006. Recently the New York Times Magazine ran an article entitled, "Wanted: A Few Good Sperm" dealing with the modern trend toward "open donor" sperm banks, where the donor agrees to meet any children born of his sperm once they reach the age of eighteen. The article included the story of a woman named Karyn and chronicled her odyssey as she sought the "perfect" donor for artificial insemination:
 

She did have a few ideas of what she might look for: she wanted a man of her same blood type, O positive. Because she herself is so tall, she preferred a medium height.… She was also attracted by the idea of a donor of another race. "I believe in multiculturalism," she said. "I would probably choose somebody with a darker skin color so I don't have to slather sunblock on my kid all the time. I want it to be a healthy mix. You know how mixed dogs are always the nicest and the friendliest and the healthiest? If you get a clear race, they have all the problems. Mutts are always the friendly ones, the intelligent ones, the ones who don't bark and have a good character. I want a mutt."

 
She eventually settled on eight units of donor sperm for $3,100. The donor had "proven fertility," meaning that at least one woman conceived using his sperm. His picture was available on the company's website, and she printed it out to keep on the coffee table of her Manhattan studio apartment. "I kind of glance at it as I pass," she said of the picture. "It's almost like when you date someone, and you keep looking at them, and you're, like, Are they cute? But every time I pass, I'm, like, Oh, he's really cute."
 
Buying and selling sex cells is becoming increasingly commonplace. Infertile couples, single women and even lesbians today can seek out the services of a growing number of companies to purchase sperm or ova. In many people's mind, the transaction is hardly different from buying groceries or office supplies. In a society driven by market forces, human eggs and sperm have rapidly become marketable commodities, with considerable sums of money changing hands as these cells are purchased from college students and sold to customers.
 
These practices point to a fundamental problem in the way we understand the gift of our human bodies. Our sex cells, or gametes, are special cells. They uniquely identify us. They are an intimate expression of our own bodily identity, and mark our human fruitfulness. Hence our own gametes exist in a discernible relationship to marriage. Each of us, in fact, has been given a capacity, a radical capacity, for total self-donation to a unique member of the opposite sex in marriage. Our gametes, and their exclusive availability to our spouse through marital acts, are an important sign of this radical capacity for self-donation. They uniquely denote who we are, and manifest the beautiful and life-engendering possibility of giving ourselves away to the one person whom we singularly love as our husband or wife. Hence, donating to sperm or egg banks violates something fundamental at the core of our own humanity. It dissociates us from the deeper meaning of our own bodies and gravely damages the inner order of marriage.
 
The notion that it is OK for a single woman to impregnate herself with a stranger's sperm is like trying to play a game of chess with oneself: it may look like you win every time you play, but you really lose every time as well. A truly good chess game requires two participants fully committed to the endeavor, and the same is true for human procreation. Children, thus, are directly related to the marital embrace of their parents. Sex and babies are integrally connected, but in the wake of widespread contraceptive practice, where sex becomes closed off to babies, this central point is no longer understood by many Christians. Babies, moreover, are never "trophies" or "mutts." Sometimes those who purchase other people's sex cells imagine that they have a "right" to children. But even when we get married, we don't have a "right" to a baby; rather, we have a right to those sacred marital acts that are ordered and disposed to procreating new life. Those loving genital acts are the unique and exclusive domain in which our sex cells properly become available to our spouse. Oftentimes, however, strong parental desires can distort the right order of transmitting human life, and a consumerist mentality may subtly convince us that children are our "projects" to be realized through laboratory techniques of gamete manipulation.
 
In 1987, while serving as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then-Cardinal Ratzinger issued a document called Donum Vitae (On the Gift of Life) which examines modern forms of reproductive technology. That document also discusses the donation of sperm and egg cells:
 
Recourse to the gametes of a third person, in order to have sperm or ovum available, constitutes a violation of the reciprocal commitment of the spouses and a grave lack in regard to that essential property of marriage which is its unity.... Masturbation, through which the sperm is normally obtained, is another sign of this dissociation: even when it is done for the purpose of procreation, the act remains deprived of its unitive meaning: "It lacks the sexual relationship called for by the moral order…"

 
The delicate design that governs this intimate area of our lives calls for a respectful and receptive attitude on our part. Nested within that receptivity to God's ordering of procreation, children can become fully appreciated for what they are: sacred gifts received within the Divine order, beautiful surprises blooming out of committed marital love.
 
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Ph.D. earned his doctorate in neuroscience from Yale and did post-doctoral work at Harvard. He is a priest of the diocese of Fall River, MA, and serves as the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia. See www.ncbcenter.org