The Politics of Artificial Insemination

To prepare for a talk I’ll be giving in April, I am reading Cynthia Daniels’ book Exposing Men: The Science and Politics of Male Reproduction. I just finished the first part of Chapter 4, “Commodifying Men: The Science and Politics of Male Infertility and Sperm Banking.” It’s a fascinating and disturbing read, as has been the whole book so far. The central question of Chapter 4 is this: “In a social system that places male virility at the heart of ideal masculinity, how do we understand the development of a public market dependent for its success on public exposure of male infertility?” What motivated me to write this post was this paragraph from the beginning of the chapter:

Only men meeting standards of ideal masculinity are “hired” by the bank to “donate.” Donors may be rejected if they are too young (under twenty-one) or too old (over thirty-five), to short (under 5′ 8″) or too tall (over 6′ 2″), or if they weigh too little or too much. They may be rejected if they are of a race or religion, or ethnic group that is not in demand by consumers. They may be rejected if they are not heterosexual—if they’ve ever had sex with a man or had sex with a woman who has had sex with a bisexual man. They may be rejected if they’ve spent more than thirty days in prison. Reaching back three generations, they may be rejected if anyone in their family has ever had one of a hundred different diseases or physical disorders. Only men with no hint of history of human frailty or disease, no question about their sexuality, and a physical status not too different from the ideal fit man are accepted as sperm donors. Sperm banks sell their germinal product through catalogs that feature glossy photos of strapping, handsome male models (in a range of “colors”), presumably selling not just potent sperm, but the masculine ideals represented by such images. (74)

I knew, of course, that sperm banks catalogue their products according to a very specific set of traits, and I guess I always assumed that some men were excluded from being able to donate, but I had only the vaguest notion of what those disqualifying characteristics might be. I would never have guessed that they were not focused entirely on health, by which I mean, for example, preventing transmission of disease to the mother or avoiding–or at least making customers aware of–things like a risk for Downes Syndrome. As the above paragraph makes pretty clear, though, in addition to selling the possibility of children to couples and women who would not otherwise be able have them, sperm banks are selling to their customers a particular kind of man, which means also a particular vision of what manhood and masculinity (ought to) look like.

Within these parameters of masculine acceptability, the list of characteristics they use to catalogue their product begins to sound almost sinister. Here’s the list Daniels’ research revealed: height, weight, eye color, facial structure, skin tone, hair texture, religion, IQ, hobbies, talents, interests, race. Clearly there are two different kinds of characteristics here, those that are unambiguously genetic and those that are only potentially so—or perhaps predispositionally so is the more accurate phrase. The former are important in large measure because people commonly want to have children who look like them; the latter, because they want at least to imagine the possibility of intelligent, talented, successful, and perhaps even exceptional offspring. As Daniels shows, however, in a brief but very useful social history of artificial insemination, the list as a whole has some very unsavory roots.

The first documented account of artificial insemination is from 1779, when Lazzaro Spallanzani, an Italian priest and physiologist claimed to have successfully impregnated a spaniel with semen taken from a male dog. The documented history of human artificial insemination begins later in the 18th century. A man named John Hunter was said to have impregnated a woman by injecting her husband’s sperm into her vagina, resulting in a normal pregnancy (75). This is called “artificial insemination homologous” (meaning, by the husband) and it’s abbreviated AIH. AIH’s more controversial cousin, “artificial insemination by donor” (AID), which has its roots in eugenics, is the focus of this part of Daniels’ chapter.

In the 1930s, AID was promoted on the grounds that it offered an opportunity to practice what was called “positive eugenics,” meaning genetic selection for the benefit of society, and doctors urged that AID should therefore only be made available to patients who were likely to produce such benefits. Even as recently as the mid-1960s, the Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Hermann Muller was singing AID’s praises as a way to “rationalize” human reproduction. Daniels quotes him, “[T]he means exist right now of achieving a much greater, speedier, and more significant genetic improvement of the population. [We need only overcome the] psychological [obstacles] of our antiquated traditions” (81). In 1968, S. J. Behrman, a leading advocate for AID, gave a lecture at the annual meeting of the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in which he favorably quoted Muller. Daniels quotes a physician who attended that lecture, who said, “We need shed no tear over the lost lineage of the azoospermic husband” (82).

This idea, that infertile men were somehow unworthy (read: not manly enough) to leave anything of themselves for future generations, is a powerful one, articulating an inadequacy felt very strongly by men whose children have come to them through AID. A study done in 1976, for example, found that 80% of the husbands in the sample experienced guilt over the fact that they could not “give proof of their manhood or act as real fathers” (83). Shielding men from the shame associated with that guilt is one reason for the emphasis on producing children through AID who look as much like the father as possible. The 1976 study also found, however, that the men who successfully resolved AID’s challenge to their masculinity did so through the commodification of the donor’s semen. Because they paid for the sperm, the study concluded, they were able to see it as nothing more than a “fertilizing agent,” divorced completely from the man from whose body it came. Since he was no longer experienced as present in the transaction, there AID fathers no longer felt any threat. As Daniels puts it, “The masculinity of the father thereby rested on the commodification of the donor and his reduction to ‘one function’ as the ‘agent of fertilization’—in essence, an extension of the will of the infertile husband” (83).

Described that way, buying sperm is like buying anything else. You become the owner and the stake of the person who created what you’ve bought disappears into your ownership. I don’t know where Daniels is going to take this as the chapter progresses, but there are serious and disturbing implications, it seems to me, if one of the social functions of AID is to enable the purchase and affirmation of manhood through the purchase of the material necessary to produce a child. This is a very different set of concerns from those raised by the commodification of women’s bodies through the practice of surrogate motherhood and the donation of eggs, and it is one to which, as far as I know, we have paid all too little attention.


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