The Courtship of the Known Donor

With borrowed sperm, creating a modern family

Hila Peleg for Lilith Magazine

Hila Peleg for Lilith Magazine

In the dining room of my family’s home, my fiancée’s fingers interwoven with mine, my mother across from us was ablaze with wild ideas as she announced, “You both should use Ilana’s college boyfriend as a sperm donor! He has a great hair color and I always loved his mother!” She had our best interests at heart, so we laughed, but as my partner keenly pointed out later, “Can you imagine her suggestion of an ex’s genes if I were a man?”

Two years later, now married to my wife and visibly pregnant, I realized that this incident was a prophecy into the sea of questions that threatened to knock us over if we weren’t continuously grounded and ready for prying strangers’ probing. We had decided to create our family with a known donor. He and his wife — close friends of mine for more than a decade — had volunteered to help us start our family, and we were immensely grateful to them both. After two cycles, each time using an oral syringe and a jar with the coveted ingredient, I got pregnant.

We felt our great good fortune in having these loving and generous friends, but the questions we were asked when we moved out of that first circle of closeness — whether making small talk at a party, or while seeing medical providers — sometimes felt like an affront to our intelligence, our values, and our privacy. People were curious, and they didn’t hold back. Will he act as your child’s father? (No.) What will your child call him? (“Uncle,” which is what our child would call him even if he weren’t the donor.) What if the donor changes his mind and wants more involvement? (We will take the legal steps to protect our family, with the donor signing away paternity rights immediately after the birth and my wife officially adopting our child.) 

Our private, celebrated decision felt like it needed constant public defending. Those questions made me feel more like an irresponsible teenager than an adult beginning to create a family with her spouse.

But whether we liked it or not, the known donor route included more explaining. Well-intentioned others saw this as the dodgier, road-less-traveled option. The safer, more typical route, in their minds, included a distant, anonymous donor from a sperm bank. We had many friends who had already travelled this path, but fewer examples of families with known donors. We read books, we wrote to a queer parent listserv, we spoke to parents with older children and known donors. We talked and dreamed, both to each other and with our donor and his wife, who were themselves trying to conceive by more traditional means. We found answers that didn’t guarantee certainty, but did reflect our values.

Over time, I think we became more comfortable with — and even welcomed — the curious questions; they gave us an opportunity to clarify exactly why we believed in our decision. I also believe there was a Jewish aspect behind my reason for choosing a known donor. I was comfortable with an overabundance of opinions, emotions, and dishes on the table. Similarly, it felt more comfortable for us to grapple with the complexities of too much rather than too little information about our child’s origin. It wasn’t that we were strictly apposed to the idea of an anonymous donor, but rather that we had wonderful men in our community, men who were going to have close and even avuncular relationships with our future children anyway.

After I wrote a “Modern Love” column about our family in The New York Times in October, close friends and even strangers reached out with their own experiences. Each family had arrived at their decision for infinitely different reasons. Each family held its own blueprint for building a foundation they believed in. Here, I have dropped the tidy categories of “known” vs. “unknown” donors for the far more complex and varied journeys of everything in the middle and outside of that. Here are the stories of five families. (Interestingly, the four women do not want their identities revealed, but the gay male couple, both male sperm donors, speak as themselves.)

Sara Herman* is married to a woman, and both are Jewish professionals, closely involved in the Jewish community in the New York area.

Before my wife and I had even decided whether we wanted a known or an unknown donor, two different friends offered to be donors. One made it clear that his parent wanted a grandchild. And that was not what we wanted. Our parents would be the grandparents! We knew we could find a donor we knew, but we didn’t want anyone else involved in parenting and we didn’t want to complicate a friendship.

With time, we realized that what made the most sense for us was an anonymous donor. We liked being sure that there was nobody else involved in an emotional way with our child; It seemed clearer and simpler. We were trying to keep things as uncomplicated as possible. The pregnancy process is complicated enough for a same-sex couple, and we didn’t want that extra layer of having to consider a third person.

We know a lot of people who took a really long time choosing their anonymous donor, meticulously looking through files. We didn’t. We sat down with a bottle of wine and narrowed it down. I think you can make yourself crazy with the choosing of your donor, and we decided we’re not going to do that. Most of all, we wanted the healthiest person we could find.

We specifically didn’t want a Jewish donor because we don’t believe the donor needs to be Jewish for our son to be Jewish. And if the Ashkenazi list of genetic disorders is really scary, why would we choose a Jewish donor when that’s not how we define what makes our son Jewish anyway? We first narrowed down donors by physical traits, then health histories; we wanted the healthiest person. Finally, the staff notes had interesting things to say to about our donor’s personality; our donor is a doctor, and he saw donating as a way to give back. In Judaism, the highest level of tzedekah is to give to someone anonymously and have that person receive anonymously. That’s how we’re planning to talk about the donor to our now-toddler son. 

Rachel Kornfeld* lives on the East Coast with her partner; both work in nonprofits.

We’d said that if we were choosing to adopt, we would do an open adoption, so shouldn’t we come from the same approach if we use a donor? My partner and I have two children from the same known donor. We were trying to get rid of the mystery as much as possible. There is some fear about children not having a dad, and choosing a known donor for us was taking away the mystery and power of an unknown “father.” To me, the unknown part was very uncomfortable. A lot of the unknown donors were young and you were getting into a situation where years down the line, they may have changed as people, and I wanted to protect my child from that. Using a known donor, it’s dealing with the intricacies right away.

I also had some fears about the fertility industry, with too many people using the same donor. I had read this report about half of the bar mitzvah class in a San Francisco neighborhood coming from the same donor.

It was appealing to us to use a Jewish donor. We are both Jewish, and though we aren’t religiously observant we both strongly identify as Jewish, especially culturally. In the end, the man we had as our donor was part-Jewish, and we were fine with that.

Once we decided on the known-donor route, we sent an email out to all of our friends soon after we were married, saying we wanted to find a donor, and from that process a couple of candidates surfaced. One interviewed us on our positions on Israel, and said he didn’t want to work with a lesbian couple who wasn’t as Zionist as he is, and the second was really clear that his mother wanted “Bubbe privileges.” Another potential donor friend said he feared he wouldn’t be able to separate from being a dad. Finally, through friends, a gay man was introduced to us for the purpose of being donor, and we got to know him over time as we went through a long process of figuring out his relationship to our child.

Ultimately, we don’t know what the long-term in terms of how our kids will feel about having a known donor or how our donor will feel about his role in our kids’ lives, and we had to make some peace with the uncertainties of the future.

Yael Posner* is a psychotherapist living in Brooklyn, and her female partner is a graduate student. They define themselves as a queer couple.

Originally the idea about using a known sperm donor came from the adoption studies I’d read. My understanding was that there was some emotional baggage with not knowing to whom you were biologically connected. I had some anxiety about what that could mean for my child. If we couldn’t think of someone we felt good about, we would’ve gone with an unknown donor, but we found a very good friend of my partner’s — a college pal she reconnected with a couple of years before he became our donor. He was really clear on boundaries, and, queer himself, he was excited about helping a queer family, which felt good to us.

We talked a lot about what his role would be — not as a parent but as a close friend of ours. We talked about if we had a bris for our child would that be okay with him. We discussed how, as the donor, not the father, he would respond to questions like “Are you the dad?” Since he lives on the West Coast, that geographical barrier was helpful. We agreed that he’d be in the narrative from the beginning, and that once our child became old enough to make a decision to have more connection, we’d all navigate that when the time came.

When our daughter was born, he waited for us to contact him. If there’s something complicated going on in his reaction, we trusted that he would handle it elsewhere. We know that he has a lot of support from others if he needs it, though when he told his own family about his at-a-distance role, they didn’t quite get it. At one point his father referred to our child as his granddaughter, but our donor said, “It’s not your grandchild.” (And it was helpful that they already had other grandchildren.)

Our donor is not Jewish. It was always clear we would raise our child Jewish. Even under halakha (and I don’t agree with that) the child would still be considered Jewish because I am, and we are raising her in a Jewish home. I’m quite connected to the religious traditions, growing up in an egalitarian Conservative congregation. Our daughter’s baby-naming will be at my childhood shul. My connection to family and extended family feels linked to my Jewish identity, and this is part of why I wanted our donor to be a person who was known to us.

Lori Lutterman* is a writer and editor who lives in California with her wife and their two sons, 10 and 13.

Our donor is a Jewish man who’s a good friend of ours. I went to college with him and his wife, and his being our known donor was something we used to talk about even during college, sort of jokingly. They live across the country and have two sons who are older and a daughter who’s the same age as our youngest.

At the time we were trying to conceive, sperm banks collected from known donors very little information — information like (family history, medical background, pictures. To us, it felt like, “What a weird thing to have a kid with somebody whose face you haven’t even seen. Even a straight woman having a one-night stand would know more.” Our youngest son has a strong physical resemblance to the donor’s family, and there are a lot of little quirks he has in common with them; I appreciate knowing where they come from. To us, it felt important for us to know that if our kid had a question, that he could have answer. And if our kid felt some sort of pull to know the donor, the donor was available.

And from what I understood, the number of Jewish unknown donors was kind of small. To us, it felt important to have a Jewish donor. If we had chosen a non-Jewish donor, it felt like there was a possibility of our kid saying, “Well, I’m not really Jewish,” and I didn’t want that escape hatch. Ironically, my 13-year-old is in a Jewish day school now and is very skeptical of the whole religious program, so I’m glad for our decision.

Today our kids are completely incurious about the donor. At one point, our younger son even called him “my organ donor.” But our donor and his wife have a sense of relationship with our kids. Last year was our older son’s bar mitzvah. They came out to California for it, and they presented him with a tallis, and his donor spoke at the ceremony. Also, we don’t use the word “donor.” We just talk about him by name. We certainly never used the D-word (for Dad). It wouldn’t be an accurate description of him. We think of him and his family as our friends. A few years ago, my older son came home from Jewish summer camp one day saying that he and another kid and the bus driver were all talking about donors. The other kid said “My dad is in jail.” And followed with, “Well, he could be. We don’t know where he is.” My son knows where his donor is.

What about the sperm donors themselves? Josh Cohen and his husband Scott Ballum Cohen, both in their mid-30s, have each been donors for different couples they know. They’re now expecting their own daughter, conceived with a surrogate, whom they also know.

Scott: For both of us, we’d rather have more loving figures than not enough in our child’s life; that’s a big piece of it. I see this attribute in my husband and his friends, and it’s so much easier to come into these Jewish dynamics than the ones I came from, in the Catholic religion, growing up. As husbands, we felt very committed in the long haul to each other, in context of a loving community. When I learned of a same-sex female couple in that community looking for help, it really didn’t seem like a hard decision at all. There was something so powerful about our surrogate — my cousin’s wife — coming to us to volunteer to carry our child that I jumped at the chance to offer that feeling to someone else.

At the same time, we started trying to have a child with our surrogate, as well as be a known donor to our friends. We are all now respectively expecting daughters, 6 weeks apart!

Josh: In my experience as a known donor, I’ve been trying for the past few years to help close friends of mine, a same-sex female couple, conceive. They approached me a long time ago about wanting to start a family. I had always wanted to create a biological child. In my own life, I have two loving parents who used an anonymous donor to conceive me, but there’s a lingering question about who my biological father is. Because of this, separate from already having a supportive dad who raised me, I have been interested in playing that role as a known biological father. My brother had a different donor, and he’s never been interested in knowing his biological father.

Initially, I was conflicted that the women who were using my sperm would be raising the child Christian, since they’re both Christian ministers. I worried I wouldn’t be able to relate to the child. It wasn’t logical, more of an emotional fear that this child would grow up deeply believing in Jesus, and we would have that disconnect later on.

When Scott and I began to talk about having a family, we quickly realized adoption and gestational surrogacy were prohibitively expensive. There was no way we could afford it. We can’t do these things ourselves; we need our community, and that includes having a baby, and that’s also why we are ready to help others make families.

Scott: At one point, we talked to a friend about being a surrogate. In addition to being an affordable option, we liked the idea of having very close women in our baby’s life. We wanted it to be very meaningful, personal and connected. We bought land in the Hudson Valley to build our future home, and it’s people we know, friends and family, who have been helping us begin the building process. The same idea applies to creating a family. We wanted to try to do this with people we know and love and who love us. Our surrogate, who would have been an aunt to our child anyway, will now be “Amazing Aunt Sarah” instead of regular Aunt Sarah.

Josh: We told both of our parents we’re expecting a child the day after our wedding. It was just the four over pizza after they helped clean our house all afternoon, and we decided to share the great news.

Scott: I didn’t tell my parents that I was a donor until a month ago. They were just sort of amazed. Their response was “You live in a world that’s so different from the one we grew up in.”

Ilana Kramer lives in Northern California with her family and is at work on her first novel.