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From the Archives: My Test-Tube Daddy
He has green eyes, scored 1400 on his SATs, and is known only by his number—741. In the strange world of sperm banks, here is how Hannah’s mother went shopping for the perfect genes. By Tamar Abrams
Photograph by Stephanie Maze.
Comments () | Published August 12, 2013

“Da” was Hannah’s first and favorite sound. When she said it at nine months in the pediatrician’s waiting room, another mother told me, “She must be thinking of her daddy.”

Frankly, I doubt it. Hannah’s daddy has a number, not a name. He is 741, an anonymous Los Angeles law student who was paid about $50 to produce the sperm that helped create my beautiful baby.

I don’t know him, and I never will. But I’ll be forever indebted to 741 for his part in making Hannah possible.

As I slid toward my mid-30s, I thought often of the child I always had wanted. Even as a toddler, I toted around baby dolls and asked neighborhood moms to let me cuddle their babies. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get married and have children of my own. 

Yet suddenly it was my 35th birthday, and I was alone. My friends, family, and career were all satisfying. I was secure financially. But I knew motherhood was my destiny. Giving up on the idea of a loving husband was painful but possible; considering a life without a child was impossible.

I knew I would be a good and loving mother. The question was how to become one. Adoption was a possibility, but the urge to experience pregnancy and childbirth was overwhelming. I decided to explore the option of pregnancy first, but to keep adoption in mind.

Initially, I went through my address book for the names of all men I knew, past and present, who might be willing to father my child. Many had helped me move over the years—some several times—but this was a far different kind of aid I was asking for. I looked at the names of past lovers and felt squeamish about approaching them with such a request.

One of my dearest male friends once told me out of the blue that he would never serve as “Seattle Slew” for any woman. That was in the early 1980s. I assumed he had amazing foresight. I also knew he rarely wavered in his convictions. 

In the age of AIDS, I quickly rejected the idea of a one-night stand, especially one that would have to take place at the height of ovulation.

That left what is often the stuff of jokes and sitcoms—a sperm bank.

• • •

“Sperm bank.” The words were almost too siily. No one I knew ever talked about sperm banks. For all I knew, massive buildings in New York and Los Angeles had “Sperm Bank” etched into their concrete.

I started by calling my gynecologist and asking if she knew of any places in the Washington area where I could become artificially inseminated. She gave me a long list but urged me to call the fertility clinic at DC’s Columbia Hospital for Women Medical Center. She said they were expensive but “scientific.”

So, trembling and sweating, I entered the fertility clinic for the first time on August 14, 1991—one month after my 35th birthday.

My journal entry that evening: “Not sure what I expected, but certainly not the innocuousness of the waiting room—two women and a man sitting around in a spacious room reading current magazines. They looked so calm, unlike the turmoil I was feeling. I felt some shame at being there.”

As I sat in the waiting room, a UPS delivery man carried a large box to the receptionist’s desk. I was picturing motile little sperm swimming frantically inside, but I found out later it was a shipment of envelopes. 

When my turn came, the receptionist called out “Mrs. Abrams,” a mistake that seemed comforting at the time. I saw Dr. Belinda Marascalco, then with the hospital’s Reproductive Endocrinology Department. She offered no lectures on the inadequacies of single motherhood, no judgments. I realized as she spoke how little I knew of the reproductive process and how much I would have to learn. I also realized how truly committed I was to bearing and mothering a child.

I left the clinic with a temperature chart to keep track of my cycles and with a lot of hope. A week later, I wrote in my journal: “Sadness arises from a feeling that I am giving up on doing this in the traditional way. Envy of others who have it all. Unbearable sorrow that there is no intimate love relationship in my present. I have a need to fully accept this so that I can let go of it and make way for the joy that can follow . . . .

“Sweet child of mine—with every pang of indecision, there are fifty prayers for your safe arrival. Your life-altering presence in my world is so eagerly and lovingly awaited.”

• • •

I left the clinic on August 29 with a list of donors from California Cryobank, a Los Angeles-based sperm bank, and a sense of tremendous anticipation.

California Cryobank was one of two choices open to me-the other was in Louisiana. I stuck with the Los Angeles sperm bank because it has an excellent reputation for screening donors, and because I liked the idea of my East Coast baby-to-be having some California blood in her or him. 

The donor book listed more than 100 donors. Each listing gave the basics—blood type, ethnic origin, hair color and texture, height and weight, educational background, general medical history, family history, and some essay answers. 

I combed the list, not sure what I was looking for. Finally, I decided that I wanted a donor who could give the child all the physical characteristics I could not—long legs, a tall, slender body, and good eyesight. I screened out anyone with a relative who had died of cancer or other possibly genetic diseases. I didn’t care about religion or hair color, although I admit that SAT scores were marginally significant.

My first two choices were unavailable. Over time, I would discover that many of the donors would be available one month but not the next, and sometimes not for months at a time. Fertility clinics nationwide were using the California Cryobank listings, I was told, and there is a finite amount of donations one donor could make.

Rationally, this made sense, but it seemed unfair when I was stuck with my third or fourth choice. Too many other women shared my taste in genes.

• • •

On September 30, at 2:40 PM, I was inseminated with the sperm of a 5-foot-11 blond with a degree in geophysics from Dartmouth. I was won over by his handwritten message to any recipient of his DNA: “Despite the business involved, there is still something sacred about this exchange. The child you may bear is, in a sense, a part of my very existence. I feel confident, though, that you will treasure this child as I treasure my life.”

It didn’t hurt that he had listed two major geophysics awards he had won at Dartmouth and what years he had won them. Even though I had signed very legal-looking documents agreeing that I would never try to locate the donor, I could at least find a yearbook and see what he looked like.

Unfortunately, his attributes didn’t include a high sperm count or motility. When a specimen is defrosted, it is analyzed and given a number between 1 and 4 based on many factors—with 4 the most desirable. The Dartmouth grad was a 2-plus. Two weeks later, despite a certainty that I was nauseated and slightly lightheaded, I got my period.

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Posted at 11:13 AM/ET, 08/12/2013 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles