- Romancing the Sperm: Shifting Biopolitics and the Making of Modern Families by Diane Tober
Diane Tober's Romancing the Sperm is timely. Stories about donor-conceived children are popping up in the news regularly these days as over-the-counter DNA tests and websites like the Donor Siblings Registry are making it easier than ever to find biological half siblings and sperm donors. Tober's well-researched and far-reaching book covers a number of different components of the donor sperm industry: she includes the voices of women who have used donor sperm to have children (or in some cases, tried to have children); she visits a number of different sperm banks to examine their policies and practices; she interviews sperm donors to consider their motivations; she touches on the emotional difficulties of infertility; and she considers the philosophical implications of making a family through donor sperm. As she candidly admits in the introduction, the main subjects of her study are single women who chose to become mothers without a partner and lesbian couples who turn to donor sperm out of necessity. And she explains that she tried to include racially and economically diverse perspectives, but most of the women who agreed to be interviewed were white and middle class, in part because sperm banks themselves tend to have majority white sperm and are more accessible to women with economic means. Similarly, people who identify as transgender or gender queer are not well represented in the book because, as Tober explains, in the 1990s, when most of her ethnographic research was conducted, fewer people who were out as transgender were turning to sperm banks to have children.
Tober intentionally focuses on single women and lesbian couples in her ethnographic work because her driving questions look at the choices people make when they select sperm donors and what those choices say about how modern families are constructed. In her conclusion, she writes that she initially decided to focus on these two groups because she thought they might reveal something about how genetic ties are not necessary for forming a family. Instead, what she demonstrates throughout is that even as single women and lesbian couples might be making an unconventional choice by using donor sperm (and this choice is much less unconventional than when Tober was conducting her research in the '90s), the ways in which they choose their donors often follow conventional patterns and conform to heteronormative desires. In other words, many of these women chose donors who looked like their partner or a man they might be attracted to, or they chose donors considered attractive in traditional ways within our society (e.g., tall, athletic, college educated, etc.).
Tober's book also tells the history of the sperm bank and its ties to eugenics and breeding "superior" children. Tober visited the California-based Repository [End Page 181] of Germinal Choice in 1998. RGC was explicitly founded on eugenic principals: to create "fitter, smarter" babies, and when she visits, she notes that the walls are covered with photographs of blue-eyed, blond-haired white children who were conceived within the clinic's walls. While RGC would close a year after Tober's visit, in 1999, it still is shocking to imagine that a clinic with such an explicitly eugenic mission was in operation through the late 1990s. In contrast, she also visits a sperm bank that was founded by a women's health collective and that was opened with the principle that sperm donors should identify themselves to the children they helped conceive when those children reach eighteen, which to this day is not a common practice in sperm banks. As Tober notes, using non-anonymous donor sperm often costs more as an option in banks that mostly sell anonymous donor sperm (35).
Tober also spends a bit of time probing the motivation of sperm donors and finds, perhaps not surprisingly, that most men sell their sperm for financial reasons. However, more men than expected also indicate...