A Mother Searches for "Donor White"

Exploring the "Nobel Prize sperm bank."
Feb. 27 2001 3:00 AM

A Mother Searches for "Donor White"

Ten years ago, she used his sperm to have a daughter. Now she wants to find him, and he wants to find her. But they don't know each other's names.

Slate's"Seed" project has been chronicling the history of the Repository for Germinal Choice, the "Nobel Prize sperm bank." We have been searching for the 240-plus children born through the bank, their parents, and the men who donated the sperm that conceived them. The following story comes from one of those parents, a mother who called Slateafter reading the initial "Seed" story. (You can read that introductory story here.)

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In early 1991, a woman—she wants to call herself "Beth"—took her 7-month-old daughter—whom she wants to call "Joy"—on a trip to Southern California. Beth wanted to visit the Repository for Germinal Choice, better known as the "Nobel Prize sperm bank." The repository had given her the sperm that had fathered Joy, and she felt profoundly grateful to its employees, who had always been very kind to her. She felt even more grateful to "Donor White," the anonymous man who had supplied her sperm.

David Plotz David Plotz
David Plotz is Slate's deputy editor. If you are interested in sharing any information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, send it toplotzd@slate.com

Beth wanted Donor White to see his daughter, and she had heard he lived near the repository. Beth knew she wouldn't be allowed to meet Donor White, so she told Dora Vaux, the repository's office manager, that she would drop Joy off at a certain time, then return several hours later. The day came, and Beth left her infant at the repository. Dora Vaux called Donor White, and he rushed over to see Joy. When Beth came back to collect Joy, Vaux told her that Donor White had been ecstatic. He "said he would live on that moment for the rest of his life." Donor White left a gift for Joy, a Fisher-Price doll.

Beth had found the Repository for Germinal Choice in the 1980s after reading a newspaper article about the genius sperm bank. Her then-husband had had a vasectomy, and they decided the repository offered the best chance for ensuring a healthy baby. They read its catalog, and they liked the sound of Donor White No. 6. (See his catalog page here.) He was 6 feet tall, brown-haired, and blue-eyed. Repository staffers told Beth he looked a bit like her husband. He was in his 50s, and he'd enjoyed a distinguished career as a "scientist involved in sophisticated research." He read history and liked to garden. He came from a long-lived family.

But what sold Beth on Donor White was something else repository staffers told her: "They never told me I would have a genius baby. But they had seen some of his other babies [from the sperm bank], and they said he had happy babies. And I wanted a happy baby."

And that's what she got: a happy baby who has grown into a happy girl. "She is wonderful," Beth says, "Not a prodigy. Not an egghead, but a wonderful well-rounded person." In a letter to me, Beth wrote that Joy "is a good student … but first and foremost, a sweet little girl, pretty, athletic, and smart."

As her daughter grew up, Beth yearned to stay in touch with Donor White. "I was so grateful to him for this special girl." She frequently mailed photos of Joy to the repository and always enclosed an extra copy to be sent on to Donor White.

Donor White loved the pictures. In 1995, he sent Joy a fifth birthday card through the repository, thanking Beth for all the photos. He told her he and his wife had collected them in a photo montage. Donor White signed his name to the card, but the repository blanked it out.

Their correspondence grew brisk. Beth sent Donor White a Father's Day card. He mailed her some photographs of himself and his niece as babies, enclosing this note: "Maybe it is just because they are both so pretty and have such beautiful blond hair and blue eyes, but somehow whenever we see a picture of either our niece or Joy, it always makes us think of the other one at the same age."

Beth says, "When I showed the pictures to my mother, she said 'Oh my god! They look exactly like her.' " (Beth sent me the pictures: The resemblance is striking.)

Beth sent him a photo of Joy skiing and a videotape. Repository staffers passed on the photograph but kept the videotape: Joy was too identifiable in it, they said.

Donor White couldn't say much about himself in his letters—the repository wouldn't permit it—but he told Beth he was semi-retired from science and that he sometimes hoped that Joy would follow him into the field, since his niece wasn't interested. Still, he added, "The main thing that we hope for Joy is that she will be healthy and happy in whatever she decides to do. … We won't make her choose a career before she finishes first grade. Nevertheless, I just feel that she is going to do something special."

Eventually, Donor White wrote Beth that he hoped he could meet his daughter. "In the back of our mind there is the thought that some day, some way, we might get to make a future visit in person. In the meantime, please know you are thought of very often, Joy, and thank you for letting us believe that we really do have a small part in your life." That letter was signed, "With all our love, Your adoptive grandparents."

In early 1997, not long after this note, repository administrator Anita Neff sent a letter to Beth. Neff announced that the repository's directors had decided to end the correspondence between her and Donor White. "A unanimous decision was made to discontinue any further interaction between donor and offspring as it breaks the rule of confidentiality. While this has been the rule of the repository all along, we recognize that it has been bent for you in the past," Neff wrote. "We simply cannot continue to share Joy with the donor."

Beth and Joy lost Donor White, and Donor White lost them. Beth has been left with some cards, a couple of photos, and a few sketchy facts. She knows roughly when he was born and knows a bit about his scientific career. (Slate is not publishing these details in order to protect Donor White from being identified against his will.) She knows he had no children of his own but that he had at least 12 other children through the repository, four girls and eight boys. And she believes that Joy is his 13th. (How does she know this? Click here for an interesting digression.)

Last year, three years after she lost contact with Donor White, Beth finally decided to tell Joy about her genetic father. Beth had divorced and remarried and didn't want to keep the secret from her growing girl anymore. "I am a nurse and I treat people all the time who die suddenly and too young. I did not want to leave anything unsaid to Joy."

Beth read Joy one of the letters that Donor White had written to her and gave Joy the Fisher-Price doll that Donor White had left her in 1991. "She was very emotional about it. She was very touched."

Joy had believed that Beth's ex-husband was her father, but Beth says her daughter was not surprised to learn that she had another dad, too. "She loves [my ex-husband], but he is very different from her. I think it made sense to her that there could be this other father too."

They don't talk too much about Donor White, Beth says—though she now jokingly calls Joy "my little rocket scientist"—but Joy has told Beth she thinks of Donor White "as being like Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books"—the good wizard who's a benevolent authority figure. Joy has also "expressed curiosity about meeting him."

And that's why Beth called Slate. When she saw the first Seed story, she seized the chance to search for Donor White and for his dozen other kids. "I feel really connected to that man. He has no children of his own, and he gave me this wonderful gift."

She wants Donor White to find out about his daughter, to learn that she loves ballet. That she is "kind of competitive." That she plays soccer and "is all over the field." That she likes Harry Potter books. That she is very pretty. That she "does well in all of her subjects, but social science interests her most." That teachers like her but that she also has lots of friends. That she is taking horseback riding lessons. That "she has no fear." That "she puts her heart into life."

She wants to bring Donor White into her family and to bring Joy into his. "I don't know exactly what kind of relationship we would have, but there would be something—whatever he would be comfortable with."

Beth also hopes Joy can meet her half-sisters and half-brothers. "She loves family, and it would be an answer to prayer for her to have contact with siblings," Beth says.

To Donor White: If you would like to reconnect with your genetic daughter, please contact David Plotz by e-mail at plotzd@slate.com or by phone at (202) 862-4889. I will treat your correspondence as confidential.

To other parents who conceived children using Donor White's sperm: If you would like to be in touch with your child's half-sister Joy and Joy's mom, please e-mail me at plotzd@slate.com or call me at (202) 862-4889. All contacts will be considered confidential.

In weeks to come, I will write more about other repository mothers searching for their kids' genetic fathers and siblings. If you are a parent, child, or donor who wants to find lost repository relatives, Slate wants to hear from you and to help you find them. Please e-mail me at plotzd@slate.com or call me at (202) 862-4889. All contacts will be considered confidential.

The Seed Series

Part 10: The donors

Click here for Michael Kinsley's explanatory introduction to Seed.

Join the Discussion

5. Eugenics, Privatized


If you are interested in sharing any information about the Repository for Germinal Choice, send e-mail to plotzd@slate.com.

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