The dark past of anonymous sperm donation

Michael Cook
January 25, 2016
Reproduced with Permission

The use of assisted reproductive technology (ART) is so common nowadays that it's easy to forget how quickly social attitudes have changed. The Atlantic recently published a feature about the early days of artificial reproductive technology under the headline "The First Artificial Insemination Was an Ethical Nightmare: The 19th-century procedure involved lies, a secrecy pledge, and sperm from a surprise donor".

The implication is that that contemporary ART is far more ethical than it was in the bad old days. Is that true -- or has it just been dusted off and given a fresh coat of paint?

Let's look first at the origins of ART. The first pregnancy after artificial insemination apparently took place in England in 1790. The eminent surgeon John Hunter used the sperm of a "linen draper" to impregnate his wife. A doctor in France claimed that he had achieved eight successful pregnancies in the mid-1800s. An American doctor named Marion Sims attempted it several times in the 1860s with one pregnancy (which miscarried). He had to abandon his experiments after a public outcry.

All of these procedures involved the sperm of the husband. The first successful pregnancy after artificial insemination by donor was the topic of the article in The Atlantic. It took place in 1884 in Philadelphia but was not reported until 25 years later.

The patient was a married woman who had been unable to conceive. After examining her thoroughly, the doctor, William Pancoast, realised that the problem probably lay with the husband. It turned out that he had become infertile after a bout of gonorrhoea which had happened before he was married.

Without seeking the consent of either husband or wife, the doctor anaesthetised the wife and inseminated her with the sperm of the best-looking of a small group of medical students, who were all sworn to secrecy. Pancoast eventually told the husband who, surprisingly, was delighted with the result. The woman never found out how she had become pregnant.

No report was made of this medical landmark until 1909. One of the medical students, Addison Davis Hard, by then a physician in Minnesota, published an account of the event in a medical journal . "That boy is now a business man of the city of New York and I have shaken hands with him within the past year," he wrote.

The main purpose of Dr Hard's contribution to the journal was to portray artificial insemination as a eugenic boon, "a race-uplifting procedure", which would generate children of "wonderful mental endowments" instead of "half-witted, evil-inclined, disease-disposed offspring". "Persons of the worst possible promise of good and health offspring are being lawfully united in marriage every day … Artificial impregnation by carefully selected seed, will alone solve the problem."

In his opinion, a personal relationship with the biological father was of no importance whatsoever to the offspring: "The origin of the spermatozoa which generates the ovum is of no more importance than the personality of the finger which pulls the trigger of a gun … It is gradually becoming well establisht [sic] that the mother is the complete builder of the child."

So there you have it: the whole ideology of assisted reproduction in one of its earliest defences -- the irrelevance of the institution of marriage, eugenics, the irrelevance of the father, faith in technology and trust in the integrity of the medical profession.

And one more thing. Who else could the father of this "business man of the city of New York" have been but Dr Hard himself? The pompous prose and the pseudo-scientific eugenic speculations cannot disguise 25 long years of yearning to hug that son he had so casually generated. ART cannot change human nature.

Has anything really changed since 1884? ART is increasingly divorced from marriage. Single women and lesbians shop for donors who will confer wonderful eugenic endowments upon their offspring. Many children become "genetic orphans" who will never know their fathers. To say nothing of the thousands of people who suffer the heartache of broken kinship links. Sperm donation always has been and always will be an ethical nightmare.

As a PS, the first significant article about artificial insemination by donor was published in the British Medical Journal in 1945. The authors, Austrian-born Bertold Wiesner and his wife Mary Barton and a colleague, described their experience at a London fertility clinic as a positive solution for male infertility. But many years later it emerged that Mr Wiesner himself was the father of perhaps two-thirds of the children produced at the clinic - probably about 600. No one knows how many because his wife had destroyed most of the records.

Donor insemination may blight the lives of children, but that's not the only evil. It also corrupts the character of the donors.