Laura Griffith (University of Birmingham) and Annalise Weckesser (Birmingham City University)
It has been widely reported that Jennifer Cramblett from Ohio is suing Downers Grove sperm bank, alleging that the company mistakenly gave her the vials from an African American donor, instead of the white donor that she and her partner had selected. She and her partner are suing the firm for wrongful birth and breach of warranty, citing the emotional and economic losses she suffered. Her concerns have been that it would be difficult bringing up a mixed race child in an all-white neighbourhood and her ‘limited cultural competency’ would have a negative effect. Her therapist advised the couple to move to a ‘racially diverse community with good schools’ and she now travels to ‘a black neighbourhood’ to cut her child’s hair. You can see more of the interview she gave to NBC here.
More widely, for both straight and gay couples, “race” and ethnicity are important in marketing sperm, and for sperm banks with more ethnic diversity is seen to be good for business. It was one of the reasons that the UK National Sperm Bank was located in Birmingham because there was a shortage (as determined by demand) of Asian and Black donors. The criteria used to select donor sperm is not limited to screening for a range of genetically transmitted disorders (e.g. Tay-Sachs disease) but can also include height, weight, BMI, as well as educational level, ethnicity, hair colour and many other social and physical characteristics. Sperm donation has come to operate increasingly within the private market place and the process is increasingly entangled with the economy, eugenics and inequality: “In February 2008, the image of a large heart-shaped candy box appeared on the website of California Cryobank, one of the country’s largest sperm banks. Taking the place of chocolates were baby photos of sperm donors, ready to be consumed by those who can afford to purchase the sperm of fertile men. […] Sperm is marketed like candy in a heart-shaped box that recalls the marketized consumerism of Valentine’s Day. The symbolism of free market choice is entangled with processes of human commodification and a faith in the genetic transmission of ideal human traits. It is clearly not just healthy babies that are produced in this process” (Daniels & Heidt-Forsythe, 2012, p. 719).
Although the role of markets in the UK is more limited than in the US, it is still significant. More assisted conception services are available on the NHS and private and NHS markets are becoming increasingly entangled. A leading fertility clinic, Manchester Fertility, has recognised the market demand for sperm donors from a variety of different ethnicities: “Our success in recruiting ethnic sperm donors is largely because of the emphasis we have put on campaigning to raise awareness amongst these communities, not only of the need for sperm donors but the issue of infertility as a whole and who it can affect. If you need a sperm donor of ethnic origin, please contact us on 0161 300 2730 to find out more about the sperm donors we have available. Remember you can specify many different characteristics in addition to ethnicity – including height, hair and eye colour, even interests or hobbies” (Manchester Fertility, 2014).
Sperm and egg donation has drastically increased the possibilities for alternative family formations across the board. The case study of lesbian parents can be a bellwether foOur success in recruiting ethnic sperm donors is largely because of the emphasis we have put on campaigning to raise awareness amongst these communities, not only of the need for sperm donors but the issue of infertility as a whole and who it can affect. If you need a sperm donor of ethnic origin, please contact us on 0161 300 2730 to find out more about the sperm donors we have available. Remember you can specify many different characteristics in addition to ethnicity – including height, hair and eye colour, even interests or hobbies.r current debates about race and ethnicity.
Culley and Hudson’s paper (2009) noted that there was a strong contrast between egg donation and sperm donation arguing that embodied motherhood had the effect of naturalising donated eggs for women and that fatherhood was seen as constituted by genetic relatedness in a patrilineal cultural context. Anthropological work generally framed under the heading of ‘new kinship studies’ seeks to investigate the ways in which society structures third party assisted conception and what new genetics does to forms of relationships and relationship forms.
With the numbers of gay couples seeking to have children via sperm or egg donation (or both), in line with the increase in heterosexual couples seeking donor sperm, concerns have arisen about the ethics of marketised reproduction. Commentators such as Julie Bindel wrote on the Cramblett case and its implications. Although concentrating on the Cramblett case, and speaking to the “designer baby” trends which extend to both straight and gay couples alike, Bindel wrote about her experience of interviewing gay men who flicked through catalogues of “Ivy league, blonde, posh young women trying to decide what type of nose they would prefer their baby to have”. Although she does also recall a couple of cases of white lesbian couples selecting a black or Asian donor as they thought mixed race babies would be more attractive than white ones.
Old debates in new forms?
It is common clinical practice with straight couples to create a resemblance between the donor and the non-genetic parent, a practice which is now mirrored in lesbians’ conception practices (Nordqvist, 2012, p. 649). Despite adopting non-conformist practices when it comes to creating families through new genetic processes, more standardised societal ideals around “race” and inheritance are still mirrored and reproduced. Nordqvist investigated this issue with a sample of, predominantly white, lesbian couples in England and Wales and found that choosing a donor who was white was often highly important for several reasons. Nordqvist discovered that couples often wanted to create visible family resemblance which strongly reproduced ideas of “racial” similarity. However couples were often anxious about children having to face both homophobia and racism with one participant commenting: “I don’t really want to stand out anymore than we already do” (Nordqvist, 2012, p. 651). Previously in an era before widespread assisted conception, similar debates around ethnicity were played out in adoption. Black children were frequently placed with white parents who hadn’t sufficiently recognised the degree and impact of being, visually, a different ethnicity from the child and of the ensuing experiences of racism that would need to be dealt with.
What is interesting about the Cramblett case is what it reveals about the intersecting layers of identity and discrimination. This is all played out against the fast changing landscape of assisted conception. Questions remain: As it is relative standard practice to create a resemblance to the non-genetic parent with straight couples, should this be any different in the case of gay parents? Would this case have had so much publicity if Cramblett had concentrated on the clerical error rather than the “injuries” that Cramblett and Zinkon have incurred as parents of a “mixed race” child? Would straight couples have undergone the same sort of public scrutiny? And most crucially how much does this case highlight the mixing of “race” with genetic traits and the policing of “racial” purity?
Advances in assisted conception offer gay, and straight parents, (with or without partners) the opportunity to create families through a variety of different means – offering them freedom from traditional constraints. However, the debate about family resemblance, of which racialized notions are at the forefront, highlights the fact that assisted technologies operate strongly within a “social context still characterised by a deeply heterosexualised, geneticised and racialised family discourse” (Nordqvist, 2012, p. 658). Instead of leaving “race” behind, the social practice of ART’s reproduce it in ways which are troubling.
Culley, L. and Hudson, N. (2009). ‘Constructing Relatedness: Ethnicity, Gender, and Third Party Assisted Conception in the UK,’ Current Sociology 57, 249.
Daniels, C., & Heidt-Forsythe, E. (2012). Gendered Eugenics and the Problematic of Free Market Reproductive Technologies: Sperm and Egg Donation in the United States. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 719-747.
Manchester Fertility. (2014). Are you looking for a sperm donor from a specific ethnicity?
Nordqvist, P. (2012). ‘“I don’t want us to stand out more than we already do”: Lesbian couples negotiating family connections in donor conception,’ Sexualities, 15(5-6), 644-661.
Laura Griffith is a Lecturer at the Health Services Management Centre, at the University of Birmingham and a co-lead of the Health and Well-Being group in IRiS (Institute for Research into Superdiversity). Annalise Weckesser is a Research Fellow at Birmingham City University’s Faculty of Health, Education and Life Sciences. She is a sociologist and is currently leading research into endometriosis and of women’s experiences of pregnancy whilst living with epilepsy.