I hope he'll be tall. Blue eyes, wavy brown hair. And smart -- he has to be smart.
You thought I was talking about my future husband? I was describing my ideal sperm donor.
As a gay woman who will likely use artificial insemination and/or in-vitro fertilization (IVF) to start a family, I've watched the debates regarding the ethics of designer babies over the last few years with confusion and frustration. Everyone has an opinion on whether it's morally permissible for parents to influence the genes of their offspring. But very few of these voices come from the LGBTQ parents who are overwhelmingly the consumers of artificial insemination and IVF technologies.
The media is especially harsh when parents' private decisions appear to reinforce racist or ableist attitudes. They claim that white couples who want white sperm donors are racist, or that parents who choose to fertilize embryos with lower chances of developing autism are ableist. Eugenics! cried the Guardian. Prejudice! exclaimed Slate. While some of these critiques may be valid, what bothers me is their homophobic undertones. No one has ever thought to control or limit the heterosexual production of babies, but suddenly when LGBT couples attempt to build families using medical methods, their access to these procedures is strictly regulated due to "ethical concerns."
Making a 'Gayby'
If a straight woman in America wants to choose a husband based on his race, height, or intelligence, she can. It's called dating. While we might be critical of a friend who issues a blanket statement that she will not date individuals of another race, it is her right to make that choice. After all, no one would blink an eye if that same friend were picky about a potential partner's career or their physical features.
But if my future wife and I use the same criteria to select a white sperm donor so my baby resembles me -- I'm white -- it's called eugenics. This is ridiculous. When it comes down to it, selecting sperm donors for their specific traits is no different from what heterosexual couples have been doing for centuries. Individuals have preferences, and where procreation is concerned, they're allowed to act on them. Well, straight couples are allowed to.
IVF is plagued by the same thinly veiled homophobia. Just as a straight woman can break up with her boyfriend if he has an incurable, heritable disease -- or refuse to have a baby with him, my wife and I should be allowed to choose the healthiest embryo among several fertilized embryos. Not because we have obligation as parents to choose the "best" offspring, as neo-eugenicists argue, but because we have a right to privacy that precludes any intrusion into this emotional, private decision. The choice should be made by the parents -- not by society, not by the scientific community, and definitely not by a room of detached bio-ethicists with no personal stake in the issue.
I'm not arguing for "procreative beneficence," the pro-eugenics movement begun by Oxford philosopher Julian Savulescu. In his controversial paper, "Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children," he writes, "Procreative beneficence implies couples should employ genetic tests for non-disease traits in selecting which child to bring into existence" and that couples "should allow selection for non-disease genes in some cases even if this maintains or increases social inequality." In my view, parents don't have the obligation to choose specific traits for their children, but they should have the option.
Building a Family
Nowadays, family is no longer defined simply by blood. Lesbian couples and the LGBT community have always been on the forefront of this movement, demonstrating that all you need is love ,and a little sperm or a surrogate, to have 'baby makes three.' lesbian couples have several ways to add children to their family: they can adopt, they can artificially inseminate one partner, or they can harvest the eggs from one partner, artificially inseminate that egg with the sperm of a selected donor, and implant the fertilized embryo in the other partner.
Both artificial insemination and IVF open the door for allegations of all types of prejudice.the vast majority of fertility clinics require male sperm donors to be over 5'8" and to have a college degree. There is also an obvious preference for white donors -- a perusal of the Fairfax Cryobank website, which has a donor search feature, brings up 12 black donors, 14 Latino donors, 40 Asian donors, and over 350 white donors. It's unclear if this is the result of supply-side or demand-side dynamics . it could be the case that black donors donate sperm less frequently than Whites or that clients simply demand more white sperm. But the end result is clear: donors who belong to privileged majority groups are awarded the same freedom of decision at sperm banks. And the children born with the help of these sperm banks are overwhelmingly white.
So what if I want a baby that looks like the rest of my family? Supply rises to meet demand, not the other way around. If clients demanded a greater racial diversity in sperm, the clinics would meet it. In addition, couples have the right to choose a sperm donor for whatever reason they see fit. If prospective parents want to leaf through a catalogue of donors, looking for one with the perfect nose, as Julie Bindel wrote in The Guardian, that's totally fine. One could eavesdrop on millennials flicking through Tinder and hear the same comments.
Last year, a white lesbian couple in the Midwest made headlines when they sued their sperm clinic for inseminating one of them with the sperm of a black donor. In their contract with the clinic, they specifically asked for a white sperm donor so the child would resemble its parents, extended family, and community. The blogosphere went crazy, accusing the couple of racism and bringing back eugenics. While that is one way to interpret that incident, another is even simpler: negligence on the part of the clinic. The couple had made a legally binding contract with the clinic, but the clinic failed to uphold its end of the bargain.
Artificial insemination and IVF should not be shunned or overly regulated merely because they exacerbate the prejudices individuals are allowed to act upon in other areas. Even when the regulation of these practices appears facially neutral, it will disproportionately affect lesbian couples and single women. It would be ludicrous to impose similar checks on dating for heterosexual individuals -- imagine the minister at a wedding asking for proof that the bride hadn't discriminated against other men by choosing her particular groom!
Choosing a sperm donor or which fertilized embryo to implant is a private, personal decision. Parents should be given all the available medical information, and then time and space to make their own choices. Anything else is unjust.