Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wanted: A Few Good Sperm -- The Facts Egan Couldn't Find (Or Didn't Want to Share)

From Ash:

I thought more about “Wanted: A Few Good Sperm,” the cover story by Jennifer Egan in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine -- an article about single women who are choosing to have children via sperm donors rather than within marriage or, even committed relationships. I even started doing a little research of my own.

Egan may be even-handed in showing the good and the bad of these specific women, but she is so selective in the facts that she presents about the larger issue that I feel manipulated, rather than free to make up my own mind about what really matters. I don’t feel any more educated about whether or not sperm bank mothering is really on the rise. I don’t feel like I have any handle on who is doing this.

Here are a few additional examples of some of the points which I think Egan should have addressed:

1. There is more data available on the "single mothers by choice" than Egan claimed -- and had she included that data, the piece would have read quite differently.

2. Egan profiled only wealthy women, but she didn’t sufficiently acknowledge that -- or even the costs of their procedures.

3. Egan minimally reports on some women and children’s efforts to find the donors -- but doesn’t report on the efforts by donors to preclude that from happening.

4. What if the donors are lying?

Taking them one at a time ....

1. There is more data available on the "single mothers by choice" than Egan claimed -- and had she included that data, the piece would have read quite differently.

First, Egan begins the article by saying that no one has any firm numbers on “single mothers” by choice, because the recordkeepers don’t distinguish between “single mothers by choice” and unwed teenagers. But she then offers that the National Center for Human Statistics (NCHS) has observed an increase in older unmarried women giving birth. Actually, that information is available from the very agency Egan cited. First, the NCHS’s Fertility, Family Planning, and Reproductive Health of U.S. Women: Data From the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth has tables on women giving birth, by the “wantedness” of the child, as well as whether or not the pregnancy was unintended. And they break the data down by age, marital status, religious affiliation, ethnicity, economics, education. They even include scales on how hard the women were trying to get pregnant or avoid pregnancy at the time. Now, I haven’t analyzed every line of those reports, but I think somewhere in there, they’d have gotten pretty close to giving Egan the numbers she wanted. And if not, a phone call to NCHS would probably take care of the rest.

Since Egan’s article is really exclusively on artificial insemination, she could have reported on the numbers of women who seek medical help to become pregnant. Or Egan might have cited the actual number of single, unmarried, childless women who had artificial insemination as of 2002. But she didn't report on any of it -- and it's all available in that same report.

Instead, Egan artfully reports the number of sperm vials a single company sells to single women -- 9,600. She doesn’t want to tell you how many actual women that represents. She more likely hoped that you think to yourself, “That’s just one company, and that there are many more out there,” so that you’ll multiple that number by "x" -- instead of divide it by the 7-to-15 vials it takes to get pregnant for the average woman.

Here's the numbers Egan couldn't find. By the year 2002 - the year of the report Egan cited - approximately 677,000 women (under age 44) had tried artificial insemination procedures at some time in their life. Only about 55,000 were single, not cohabitating, and childless (i.e. the single mother by choice scenario). So less than 1 in 12 of the women trying artificial insemination are Egan's trendsetters. How many of them give birth? In a quick search, I can’t find a hard number of births for just single women by artificial insemination, but we can triangulate our way to a good guess. In a January 2006, A-1, Times article, "Are You My Sperm Donor," Amy Harmon reported that there were about 40,000 annual births from sperm and egg donation, for both married and unmarrieds. We don't have just the sperm number. (That's a funny sentence to write.) 1/12th of 40,000, minus the egg donors ... we're talking in the range of two or three thousand.

Under three thousand births to single mothers by choice through artificial insemination .... That’s compared to 2.3 million single women that same year who had become pregnant by accident.

2. Most of the women profiled were educated and wealthy, but Egan didn’t sufficiently acknowledge that -- or even the costs of the procedures.

Egan failed to report that of the women who had artificial insemination, the vast majority were white. By "majority," I don't mean 51%, either. Oh no. Look at these numbers: For every one black woman undergoing artificial insemination, there are about two Hispanic women doing so, and a whopping 37 white women trying it. In other words, white women make up over 90% of the women trying AI.

Those numbers are easily available, too - but I'm sure Egan didn't want to quote them.

Not only that -- the reason that Egan’s interviewees seemed to come from privileged or at least well-off economic backgrounds is because those are the only women doing this. Per that same report on fertility, the women trying AI report far higher levels of education, and far higher incomes. They're twice as likely to have a college degree (than an average woman), and twice as likely to have an income "greater than 300 percent of the poverty level," which is the highest bracket the Census records.

It’s true that, in terms of who she profiled, that is who the article is about. But Egan doesn't admit that’s the only group of women she could really profile. Conversely, she just says that “everyone agrees” that the number of women who do this is growing. (Now, if Egan had done an article about that -- “Educated White Woman With Trust Fund Seeks Father for Her Kids” now that’s an article I’d have found pretty fascinating. And I would want to know why that is -- as a matter of fact, I still wonder why these women haven’t found anyone. All I know is most of them seem to serially choose to be in relationships with men who don’t want kids, and, rather than lose the losers, the women head for sperm banks.)

Egan never reports what a single woman has actually spent on the total process to become pregnant -- not even what a single artificial insemination procedure costs. The closest she comes is telling us about the cost of sperm and the fact that one woman exceeds her insurance coverage. (I’m surprised any of it’s covered under insurance at all.) Egan never reports on the costs of preliminary tests, the doctor’s appointments or procedures.

The closest she really gets to saying just how much money this costs is saying that it’s “untold thousands of dollars.” An unfortunate choice of words on her part. Because it is no one’s fault but Egan’s herself that the fact remains untold.

3. Egan minimally reports on some women and children’s efforts to find the donors -- but doesn’t report on the efforts by donors to preclude that from happening.

While Egan mentions the efforts some mothers and kids are putting into finding their donors or their genetic half-siblings, she fails to even mention the efforts the donors and the sperm banks are using to prevent this from happening. Her Times colleague, Harmon, did a much better job at exploring this issue in her January piece. In that piece, Harmon addresses the public health, legal, ethical and psychological issues of identifying donors-- for not just the donors, but the birth parents and the children.

4. What if the donors are lying?

Egan mentions that donors’ sperm is held for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases -- but she fails to address the problems identified by Harmon, and a psychiatrist I discussed the issue with: donors may lie. Never once does Egan or any interviewee ever question the veracity of these purportedly amazing donors’ biographies. She says it’s as easy as buying shoes -- just compare the bios on the internet. But Egan herself has written about how much people lie in things like on-line dating -- when they know they are going to get caught. So for her to never even address this as an area of possible concern is fairly amazing. And the truth is that some donors do lie about their backgrounds: they are doing it for the money. So are the sperm banks: they have a financial incentive to make the men as attractive as possible, with absolutely no way to check up on any of this. And yes, there are the widely reported handful of horrible cases of doctors using their own sperm.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have the month and day date for the Jennifer Egan article?


1:11 PM  
Blogger Po Bronson said...

Sunday March 19th, 2006 was the cover story by Jennifer Egan.

3:34 PM  
Blogger Choice Mom said...

I'm glad someone recently introduced me to your blog, and this post in particular.

I am author of a book called "Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman's Guide." I know about 200 Choice Moms (my term) and Thinkers around the country (and many in other countries). The majority of single women who choose motherhood do opt for anonymous donor insemination, with the remainder choosing adoption and use of a known donor (as I did for my two kids). I currently am writing a book about the donor insemination industry. [Egan knew about me and my book but choose not to interview me for her story.]

The main objection to Egan's story that I had was that it made it seem that single women are the only ones 'scoping out' sperm donors in this way. When in reality, infertile married couples (who make up the majority of anonymous donor insemination cases, by last estimate) go through much the same process as single women do when they decide which donor to use. The husbands are uncomfortable about it, since after all they are choosing the man to help their wife get pregnant. Often couples don't spend as much time with the details (one husband I know had an audiotape of the man they used that his wife listened to, but he put off listening to it until several years after his children were born).

Focusing the story on three somewhat unusual single women who were choosing donors, without even mentioning married couples who do the same, made it obvious to me that the object was simply to be titillating.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Artificial insemination costs on average about $700-$1500. Any woman can afford it.

Add together what you're spending on bar-hopping, dating to find some OK man, and your appearance to attract him, and you can easily afford that.

It is E-A-S-Y.

6:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And I would want to know why that is -- as a matter of fact, I still wonder why these women haven’t found anyone. All I know is most of them seem to serially choose to be in relationships with men who don’t want kids, and, rather than lose the losers, the women head for sperm banks.)

I'd like to comment on the above portion of Ash's post. Of course it is so interesting to know why a woman hasn't "found anyone," and it's a typical sexist stance to posit that it must be the hopeful woman parent's fault that she hasn't "lost the losers." This is such a condescending and privileged point of view. If choosing to explore the option of artificial insemination is not "losing the losers," I don't know what is. There are lots of nice men in the world. Depending on your job and your interests, you may not happen across someone nice and available and appropriate for you, all at the same time. Clearly, you've been lucky. Not everyone has. Don't be so smug.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a single doctor planning to have a child but I am having a hard time feeling + about donors at any of the standard places; there appears to be no psych screening and very few donors have advanced degrees. Any advice on where to find donors who are well screened and educated?

9:58 PM  
Anonymous Egg Donors said...

Great Post.....

I found your site on stumbleupon and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!

Thanks for sharing....

12:53 AM  

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