In 1974, a Los Angeles Times staff writer interviewed Dr. Donald Adler, a Beverly Hills gynecologist who ran a sperm bank out of his private practice.1 Adler described for the interviewer his process of selecting sperm donors for health and intelligence, and in turn the interviewer asked him whether he considered his practice eugenic. Adler, with no apparent hesitation, conceded that he was indeed practicing a form of eugenics because the men he selected as donors will be smarter and healthier than average. “Remarkably,” the LA Times writer noted, “the recipients seem to evidence little curiosity about the donors, the father of their children.” Adler informed him this was because they trust his judgment when it comes to picking donors but also because, during every insemination, they received the sperm of up to three different donors. Therefore, it’s impossible for even him to know which donor’s sperm successfully impregnated his patient.
In 2018, my life intersected with Adler’s. It was my birthday and my sister gave me an over-the-counter consumer DNA test to celebrate. She had spotted an advertisement promoting this test’s new approval to screen for BRCA, the breast cancer gene that makes women more susceptible to both breast and ovarian cancers. After a gynecologist told my sister that the cancer our father had in his early 40s could be linked to the gene, we pleaded with him to get tested for BRCA. He adamantly refused. And now, without involving our health insurance or seeing a doctor, we had an opportunity to find out whether we were carriers. It was a weird present, my sister conceded, but possibly a life-changing one. We had no idea.
This is what we learned: there was no chance we had inherited our father’s susceptibility for cancer because we weren’t genetically related to him. We learned this news from our genetic half-brother. We had connected with him through the DNA test’s website, after we reached out to him for an explanation about why he — and a dozen other people — were showing up as our half siblings. In a painful conversation, he told us that what our mother shared with his mother — and the mothers of our other half siblings — is that they all had visited Dr. Adler’s Beverly Hills clinic. They had all used a sperm donor to get pregnant because their husbands were infertile.
About a year after receiving this news, I called Adler (now in his late 80s and has his home number listed publicly) to ask some questions about his practice. He was surprisingly open to talking, although of course he didn’t remember the details of my conception more than forty years ago. I pointed out to him that he had used an Ashkenazi Jewish sperm donor, which matched my father’s ethnic profile, but he assured me that was entirely coincidental: his goal, he explained, was to try to make sure donors and husbands looked as much alike as possible. He prioritized traits like eye, skin, and hair color over religion or nationality. He similarly insisted that using the same donor for my sister four years later was also unintentional. His biggest priority, he claimed, was protecting each donor’s anonymity so all records were sealed after an insemination attempt. He maintained that even he did not know how many children were successfully conceived through donor insemination in his practice because women would often transfer to a different gynecologist once they discovered their pregnancy.
My parents conceived me in 1979 in an era when sperm donation, even if it wouldn’t have been openly discussed, was already a well-established practice in the U.S. In 1979, American obstetricians only used “donated” sperm to help heterosexual, married couples when the man was diagnosed with infertility. The few sperm banks that existed wouldn’t sell sperm to single women or lesbian couples, and few doctors in private practice, like Dr. Adler, would have helped unmarried women conceive. In turn, the doctors who controlled this business also controlled the sperm. Today, sperm donors are tested thoroughly for any physical or psychological health issues in their own history or their family’s history. Some sperm banks boast that it’s easier to get into Harvard than have your sperm approved by their bank for selling. In the 1970s and for much of the 1980s, the decision about what sperm to sell was almost entirely in the doctor’s hands and completely unregulated. Furthermore, couples had little say about what donor the doctor might choose, and as recent stories have revealed, many doctors lied to their patients about the donor’s profile. These doctors didn’t anticipate the accessibility of twenty-first century technology that would have the ability to expose their lies.
The secrecy surrounding sperm donation has a long history. Because sperm donation doesn’t require any complicated technology, it’s far from a new practice. The now infamous gynecologist J. Marion Sims, who practiced his experimental gynecological techniques on enslaved women, wrote about his failures trying to impregnate women using artificial insemination. He never succeeded in his experiments, we now know, because he misunderstood the timing of women’s menstrual cycles and thought that women were most fertile during their periods. Some journalists and academics believe that William Pancoast, another medical doctor, is the first known American doctor to successfully inseminate a woman using a donor’s sperm in 1884, but the history is murky because this account was written about twenty-five years after its supposed occurrence.2
Little writing about donor insemination, or any insemination for that matter, exists in either medical journals or the popular press until the 1930s when Dr. Frances Seymour, a New York City gynecologist created a maelstrom when she admitted that she not only regularly used artificial insemination in her practice but that several of her patients, including two successful single “business women,” have given birth to children with her help. The story was splashed on the cover of several major newspapers, including the May 1, 1934 issue of the Chicago Daily Tribune with the sensationalist headline, “13 Babies in N.Y. have Test Tube as Father.”3 The article named the couple that conceived using artificial insemination, claiming that the couple was so “rapturous” about their newborn babies that they didn’t care if the whole world knew they conceived “laboratory twins.” According to the article, Seymour acknowledged that in the previous two years thirteen babies in her practice were conceived with the help of artificial insemination. Eleven of those babies, she claimed, were born with the husband’s own sperm, and two babies were conceived with anonymous sperm for two “prominent business women” who were single. Seymour distinguished between the conception of these two types of children, and describes the latter, where an anonymous sperm donor is used, as producing “eugenic babies.” In a Boston Globe article from April 30, 1934, Seymour says she was reluctant to talk publicly about her work in artificial insemination but when the couple with twins leaked the news she felt compelled to answer questions about her work in order to clear up any misconceptions.4
The link between eugenics and sperm donation was only strengthened as World War II continued. As young men were dying and seriously injured on the warfront, Seymour warned British leaders that in order to counter population decline they should resort to donor insemination to repopulate England and the rest of Europe with the help of “eugenic donors.”5 Spoken in 1943, during the height of World War II, her words seemed to contain no irony even as millions of people were being killed in concentration camps in the name of eugenics.
My father is the child of Holocaust survivors who watched their parents and siblings—and in my grandfather’s case, his first wife and child—die because of Nazi Germany’s decision to take eugenic beliefs to their extreme limits. And then, barely forty years later, I was conceived in the shadow of eugenics as well. A photograph of my paternal grandmother hangs in the hallway outside my bedroom. My aunt, her daughter, likes to say that I look like her more than any of her other granddaughters, and I was always proud of that legacy. Because I always felt like I never looked much like anyone in my family, I would study that photograph to see whether it was cheekbones we shared or the slant of our eyes. We resembled each other because my aunt wanted to see that resemblance. I did too.
Researching the history of sperm donation, which feels like researching the history of my conception, I’ve come to realize how much the history of reproductive technologies is rooted in eugenic practices in ways that have become invisible today. The history of sperm donation, which lay the foundation for other forms of assisted reproductive technologies, should serve as a reminder of how eugenics was built on secrets and lies. Eugenics was a theory of optimism for a few that led to devastation for many. It may have given some couples children, but it took away many more. To be born in the twentieth century was to be touched by eugenics, even if you weren’t a test tube baby like me.
- “Physician’s Sperm Bank Solves Many Problems of Infertility.” Los Angeles Times. January 13, 1974. Return to text.
- Kara Swanson’s extensive research on artificial insemination suggests that it was practiced in the U.S. between 1880 to 1920. She uncovered a few scattered references of the procedure from mentions of doctors describing their mentors teaching them the practice to one published case report from 1910. See Kara Swanson, Banking on the Body (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014). Return to text.
- “13 Babies in N.Y. have Test Tube as Father.” Chicago Daily Tribune. May 1, 1934. Return to text.
- “Laboratory Twins Born.” The Boston Globe. April 30, 1934. Return to text.
- “Baby Production Line.” The Daily News (New York, NY). September 12, 1943. Return to text.