April 29, 2004
Donor Pool Swim
Few days have haunted me like April 15, 2002. It was the day Time magazine screamed out from its cover that women cannot have it all.
Like a slap to the face, the writer reported that the biological odds are against getting pregnant after 35 and that stories of women conceiving into their 40s are anomalies, and nothing more.
I was approaching 33 and panicked. My biggest fear was becoming one of those women who troll the Bay Area's Jewish singles scene, frantically searching for a husband. So I visited my doctor.
Dr. Silvia Yuen strode into her Sutter Street examination room.
"How are you today?" she asked.
"OK," I began, "but I read that Time magazine article."
"Yeah, so what I'd like to do is freeze some of my eggs."
I wanted insurance that my biological clock wouldn't blur my dating judgment. Putting eggs on layaway would take off the pressure, I told her.
She offered me a fertility clinic brochure, but cautioned that while the freezing and thawing out of sperm had been perfected, the science wasn't yet there for women and their eggs. Frozen embryos were the best bet, she said, but they'd require committing to a sperm -- a step I wasn't ready to take.
But the discussion got me thinking. How is a woman supposed to choose the right man when he's reduced to a Petri dish?
My good friend, I'll call her Beth, had to find out. After trying to get pregnant for more than a year, she and her husband learned that he's shooting blanks. They mulled over their options and turned to California Cryobank (CCB), the mothership of sperm banks. Around for more than 25 years, CCB is spreading its seeds in all 50 states and at least 30 countries worldwide.
Agreeing on a donor was trying, Beth admitted: "We thought we'd found the perfect one, but when we pulled up his baby photo, he looked like a frog!"
Then there were those her husband rejected.
"I found one who was great, but he said he was too tall," she said. "I'm thinking about the best donor to help us have a child, and he views the sperm as competition."
Beth waved me over to her computer, selected a file named "Little Swimmers," and introduced me to their chosen sperm: Donor 5378.
I asked how she honed in on 5378, and she navigated to the donor catalog. Up top it read, "Click here to view our list of donors with at least one Jewish ancestor."
There were only 13 choices, and 5378 was off the menu, sold out.
Later, I called CCB. I wanted to know about the demand for Jewish sperm, why there'd been such a run on 5378.
"People choose on all different criteria," said Marla Eby, vice president of marketing. "It's almost the same as what they encounter when looking for a mate."
High demand for Jewish donors, she said, prompted CCB to create the special search field Beth had used.
But how Jewish can a sperm be? I appreciate wanting a compatible gene pool, but it's not like the little swimmer comes equipped with Torah knowledge or understanding of Jewish mothers and good deli. If halacha says a baby born to a Jewish woman is Jewish, does the donor's background matter?
For Beth and her husband, it did.
"The spirituality and values of the Jewish culture is so much of who I am and who [he] is," she said. "Knowing that the sperm was Jewish ... made us feel like we were connected."
This approach is common for Reform Jews like Beth, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of bioethics at the University of Judaism. But in the Orthodox community, he said, the opposite is true.
Based on a 1950s decision by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, non-Jewish donors are recommended to prevent incest and to protect against Jewish genetic diseases.
Beth felt safe knowing sperm at CCB is genetically screened.
I caught up with Dr. Cappy Rothmann, the co-founder and medical director of CCB, to see what he made of my sperm-shopping query.
"I don't understand. I just try to help the best I can."
He asked about my interest in this topic, and I admitted my age. Before saying goodbye, he offered, "Next time you're in L.A., come see me."
I hung up the phone, hoping I'd never have to.
Jessica Ravitz is working on her master's degree in journalism at UC Berkeley. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.