Friday, 9 November 2012

The Extent of a Sperm Donor's Responsibility

A couple of weeks ago (27 October 2012), the British newspaper "The Guardian" reported that a gay man who several years ago had donated his sperm to a lesbian couple was now held accountable and told to pay up for the two children that he helped to be conceived. Apparently, if he did the same today, he would not be liable. What happened is that the lesbian couple separated. The children now live with one of them, presumably the biological mother, and the other visits them from time to time, but does not support them financially. In that situation, the mother sued the sperm donor, and he was sentenced to pay. Now, the question is of course whether that is morally justied. Never mind what the law says, can we really believe that he is morally responsible for the children, in the sense that he has a moral duty to contribute to their subsistence?

At first glance, this seems to be case of gross ingratitude. The donor was friends with the two women. They wanted to have children and asked the man for help. That's what he did. He did them a favour. As a friend. It was never intended that he have any part in bringing up the children or contributing financially. It was never part of the deal. The only thing that was expected of him, as a gift to his friends, was to hand over some of his sperm. Hence, if anyone should pay it is the former partner of the mother.

However, not everyone sees it this way, as the letters of Guardian readers prove that were published a week after the original article (3 November 2012). One reader wrote: "They are his biological children. He helped bring them into the world. He has a duty to cover their costs. He should have been less cavalier with his sperm." Another commented: "This isn't a question of gay rights, it's a question of responsibility for another human being - is a donor really any different to a man who has a one-night stand, which ends in pregnancy (wanted or not)? To reduce the conception of a child to 'doing someone a favour' is an appallingly cavalier attitude. Of course he should pay for the upkeep of this children. If he wasn't prepared to, he should have done us all a favour and kept his sperm to himself." Not much sympathy coming from these readers.

So the question is whether biological fatherhood really is morally so important that it makes the biological father responsible for any children that may result from the use of his sperm, independent of the circumstances. In this particular case, of course, the donor was aware that his sperm was to be used to conceive a child, but he also had an agreement with the mother that he would have no further obligations, that his only contribution would be the donation of his sperm. Does this agreement count for nothing because biological fatherhood overrides all other considerations? But why should biology be seen as having such paramount importance? Underlying the comments by those Guardian readers also seems to be the intuition that sperm is not the kind of thing that we should be allowed to sell or give away. It is not a commodity. But again, why exactly is it not? Is it because, as Monty Python put it, "every sperm is sacred"? But what exactly does that mean?

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