By Tamara Audi
Detroit Free Press
May 21, 2006
First of a two-part series.
Kirk Maxey is a practical man, a scientist, and so he can calmly explain that, according to his own statistical analysis, he may have as many as 400 children.
For 15 years, Maxey, a medical doctor who runs a chemical research company in Ann Arbor, donated sperm twice a week to sperm banks.
His calculations, rows of long numbers on a yellow sticky note fastened to his computer, show he has donated 172,920,000,000 spermatazoa split into 2,161 vials. Using a 20% success rate, that equals 432 births.
Now 50, with four children of his own, Maxey finds himself thinking about what became of the others. "As you get older, it begins to weigh on you," he said. "What I would like to know is the biological outcomes for my own peace of mind. ... Did we have a champion lacrosse player? Or did we have someone who is mentally damaged?"
Maxey, who has hired a lawyer to explore his legal options, is among a growing minority of sperm donors who have taken the bold, uncommon step of making themselves available for contact with the families of these children. At least three of these men live in Ann Arbor. They include pediatrician Matthew Niedner, 34, who is gingerly establishing relationships with the mothers of three children in San Diego, and a 66-year-old donor named Jim, a lawyer who is leaving behind clues on an online registry so children conceived from his sperm might find him.
Their decisions, made for varying reasons, have opened a window on the motivations of a little-known group of men and reveal practices of an industry that is largely unregulated and relies on confidentiality for much of its success.
"These donors were promised anonymity, but a lot of donors are saying, 'We weren't given any choice,' " said Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site that helps half siblings meet one another and their biological fathers. "They're in their 30s and 40s ... and have kids, or have never had families, and they're becoming curious."
As sperm donation becomes more common and commercialized, its success has raised a host of ethical, medical, emotional and financial questions -- from children who may demand to know their biological fathers, to questions about how many children should come from a single donor.
Demand for donors growing
Industry officials estimate that 30,000 babies a year are born from sperm bank donors. Some estimate that the average donor has produced 20 children, though precise numbers are elusive since mothers don't have to report births.
According to SpermCenter.com, a Web service that compiles a donor database, there are close to 1,600 men currently donating sperm at 25 banks nationwide. That figure does not count freelancers who advertise directly to women and families online.
There is no shortage of willing donors -- particularly college-age men. But the number of bank donors has risen only slightly over the years because many fail to meet the banks' stringent physical requirements.
While college students are often drawn by the cash -- roughly $45 to $80 per visit, depending on the bank -- donors almost uniformly tell banks they are motivated by the idea of helping people who desire children. Many say they have personally known couples dealing with the pain of infertility.
"I had grown up next to some neighbors who couldn't have children," said Mike, a Michigan donor who didn't want his last name used. "They sort of adopted my sister and myself as aunt and uncle. So later I thought, 'I would like to help couples like that.' "
Niedner -- the tall, dark, handsome doctor from Ann Arbor -- began donating in San Diego after the mother of a young patient remarked, "You should be a sperm donor." Niedner laughed, but the woman pressed, saying she and her husband could not have had a child otherwise.
A few weeks later, Niedner drove to the Fertility Center of California in San Diego, filled out a flurry of medical and personality forms and had his blood and semen screened for disease. Six months later, after he'd passed every test, he became donor 48QAH -- a code conjured by the sperm bank staff, short for Quite A Hunk.
For the next seven years, he stopped at the bank once or twice a week, left a sample in a cup and went home. The $50 per visit was OK, but Niedner said he mostly liked knowing he was helping someone.
This past March, with his wife's support, Niedner revealed his identity in a "60 Minutes" segment on donor-conceived children. Since November, he has exchanged e-mails with three women in San Diego who conceived children with his donated sperm. According to sperm bank records, Niedner's donations have produced nine children so far.
Niedner, who posted his information on the Donor Sibling Registry, said he just wishes to make himself available. "I am open to a mature, friend-type relationship with these kids, if they're even interested," Niedner said.
His decision to go on "60 Minutes" surprised many in the donor community, where anonymity has been the hallmark since banking began in earnest three decades ago.
The success of the registry, the availability of genealogical databases and advances in DNA testing have stirred a national debate on privacy versus openness in the sperm banking community. Some grown children ignore anonymity agreements their parents signed and search for donors. And some donors have circumvented privacy agreements and posted contact information online.
A few banks now offer families the option of using donors willing to be contacted in the future. Others, like International Cryogenics in Birmingham, ban any exchange of identity.
"I think most married couples want that to be a very private thing," said Mary Ann Brown, director of International Cryogenics, Michigan's only major sperm bank. "Our experience has been that 99% do not tell their children" they used a bank.
But in recent years, industry officials say demand for sperm has risen significantly among two groups more likely to be open with their children about how they were conceived -- single women and lesbian couples.
"There's a huge demand, and it's growing," said Paul DiLascia, a technical writer at Microsoft who helped create SpermCenter.com. "The biggest problem sperm banks have is finding sperm donors to meet the need."
As the use of donated sperm grows, Niedner wants the industry to emerge from the shadows, arguing that an independent body should oversee sperm bank practices and verify information about donors. Niedner likens it to the Federal Aviation Administration overseeing airlines.
"If a plane crashes, we don't let American Airlines simply say 'Oh, this is a one in a million thing. It won't happen again,' " he said.
A surprise on television
Kirk Maxey also advocates more accountability, saying banks should be more honest with donors and families about births, background checks and the degree of genetic testing.
Maxey said his own search is not intended to disrupt families. "I think it would be very inappropriate to start inserting yourself into these families," he said, though he added he was open to meeting offspring who want to meet him.
When Maxey donated as a younger man, with his first wife's encouragement, he was wrapped up in the lives of his own young children. As the years passed, his curiosity about his other offspring grew.
One night a few months ago, he was watching an episode of "America's Funniest Home Videos" that featured a chubby-cheeked little boy using a toy drill to explore his nostrils. Maxey stopped cold. Not only did the boy "look like he was out of my baby book," but he was doing something Maxey would have done as a child.
"I thought ... that's one of mine," he said.
Maxey contacted the sperm bank where he made most of his donations to seek information. The bank refused to release information on the children, noting that he had agreed to give up any right to know which families used his sperm. He says he is not after the children's names. He just wants to know how many were born, if they are healthy, or have any special talents or disabilities. "I did not agree never to know if a child was born, never to know anything," he said.
The odds of someone like Maxey producing more than 400 children has given rise to another debate: whether to limit the number of children a donor should have.
The sperm of donor 1368, an extremely popular, 6-foot-1, 175-pound extrovert with hazel eyes, has been banned in Petoskey and five other cities because he has so many children, according to the Minnesota bank marketing his sperm.
Wanting to know more
The man known 25 years ago as donor C411 now says he feels driven to find living proof of his genetic imprint -- assurance that when he dies there will be something left of him.
His name is Jim, he's 66, a lawyer, and reluctant to give his last name because his adopted children do not know he donated sperm 153 times from 1980 to 1982 to the Birmingham bank.
He said he began after learning that his wife, now his ex-wife, could not bear children.
Jim, who also lives in Ann Arbor, said while he loves his adopted children, he donated because he yearned to become "part of the stream of humanity."
He says his family can be traced back to Massachusetts in the 1600s and includes a country doctor, entrepreneurs, ministers and musicians. "I had a good genetic background from my family. ... I thought I had something good to contribute to the gene pool."
He helped his adoptive children, now young adults, learn the identities of their biological parents. He thinks maybe his biological children are ready to meet him.
"Even if they very much love their dad who raised them, they might want information," he said.
So Jim has left clues for the children, by now young adults, to find him: his lawyer bar number and an e-mail address on the Donor Sibling Registry. He checks the e-mail account at least once a week.
So far, it's empty.
Contact TAMARA AUDI at 313-222-6582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.