Do "Superbabies" Have Super Parents?

Do "Superbabies" Have Super Parents?

Do "Superbabies" Have Super Parents?

Exploring the "Nobel Prize sperm bank."
April 13 2001 8:30 PM

Do "Superbabies" Have Super Parents?

Slate's"Seed" project is chronicling the history of the Repository for Germinal Choice, the "Nobel Prize sperm bank" founded by millionaire inventor Robert Graham in 1980. We have been searching for the 240-plus children conceived through the bank, their parents, and the men who donated the sperm for them. The left-hand column on this page displays links to the 10 articles in the Seed series, including the introductionexplaining the project.

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The last Seed installment examined how some of the Repository for Germinal Choice's donors turned out, and a forthcoming one will study how some of the kids grew. Today it's the parents' turn.

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

Here is what parents who used the repository told me about their progeny:

"My son is a genius. He's beyond a genius!"

"They test off the top of the charts."

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"This kid is unbelievable.…Now he's interested in quantum theory."

"4.0"

"4.0"

"4.0"

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"He's movie-star handsome.…He's a math-science genius.…His coach says he thinks he's Olympic caliber."

It is an iron law of parenting, whether the sperm that made your child came from the Nobel sperm bank across the country or from the no-good dropout across the street: You will swell with pride about your tots' achievements.

But besides their innate pride, are the repository parents just like other mothers and fathers? What kind of folks patronize a genius sperm bank? Are they extrasmart? Do they expect too much from their genetically enhanced kids? How does using such a bank alter the relationship between wives and husbands? Or between (nonbiological) fathers and kids? Would the parents do it again?

Slate reached nine families that used the repository. They have 14 children among them, ages 6 to 19. This represents about 6 percent of the total repository output. (Two women who tried and failed to get pregnant using repository semen also contacted me.) Four sets of parents are divorced, and four are still married (though one of those couples is estranged). One mother, Afton Blake, has never been married. (Click here to read about Afton and her son, Doron, the Nobel sperm bank's celebrities.) Click here for some more quick demographics about the Slate group.

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Pause for the usual caveat: This is not a representative sample. These parents are largely self-selected. I don't know how they compare to the vast majority of repository parents I haven't heard from. This is not science: It is anecdote.

Why did the parents choose the repository? They couldn't get pregnant because the husband was sterile, often because of an earlier vasectomy, sometimes because of general ill health, in one case because of Vietnam War wounds. Several heard about the bank from the Los Angeles Times, which wrote several stories about it in the early '80s. One saw it advertised in the Yellow Pages. Several were referred by their fertility doctors.

These parents were not eugenicists. Only one, Afton Blake, knew much about Robert Graham and his eugenic philosophy. None of the other Slate parents was even aware of the political controversy surrounding the repository. Today, none expresses much enthusiasm for Graham's grand goal to breed future leaders and scientists.

This does not mean they weren't hoping for intelligent children: They were. They don't believe in eugenic planning for society, but they certainly believe in genetics. They are certain that good genes help. And genes contribute to (though don't control) intelligence. "My mother told me that if you ever have children, choose a good specimen. So I chose a good specimen," says "Liza," a doctor. (She values intelligence enough that she markets an "IQ Maximizer" extract to her patients.) But most, including Liza, also insist that they weren't angling for a mini-Nobelist. "They never told me I was going to have some kind of supergenius baby, and I didn't expect one. That would be silly," Liza continues. She just hoped to "stack the deck"—as another mom puts it—in her kids' favor.

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Intelligence wasn't the only, or even the primary, reason many parents chose the repository. As the demographics link noted, most of the Slate parents work in health care. This occupational tilt is no accident. Many of the health-industry parents preferred the repository to other sperm banks because it screened candidates carefully for genetic and other illnesses. "Other places used med students' sperm, and I knew a lot of unstable and unhappy doctors, and I didn't want that," says "Carmen," a psychologist. "I see health problems all the time in 3-D. I didn't want to plague a kid with that," says Liza.

The Seed parents rave about their offspring. They seem to have elevated expectations for their kids, but not stratospheric ones. Most deny they pressure their children. (True? Who knows?) Several moms insist they actively de-emphasize the importance of smarts. "I am trying very hard not to let my son … see his own intelligence as a ticket to personal success. … Intelligence is a tool. It doesn't make someone better than anyone else," writes "Ruby." Carmen says she doesn't want to raise geniuses, but "Renaissance kids," who enjoy school, but also sports and music and friendship and anything else. One says she picked an Olympic athlete as her donor because she didn't want to fixate on IQ. Another says she chose the "happiest" donor she could find. Still, when pressed, the parents tend to admit that they expect a little bit more of their boosted baby than they would have otherwise.

Most of the parents believe in genes, but they are not rabid genetic determinists. Most say there's a 50-50 balance between nature and nurture, with only a few tipping 60 percent to nature. And now that they've got thriving kids, they don't worry about it. "I can't tell where genes stop and environment begins," wrote one mom, "and I don't care."

In fact, you can't separate nature and nurture in studying these kids, because they all get so much excellent nurture. Their parents are extremely motivated. The parents chose the repository because they were dead serious about parenting, and they have followed through with extreme energy. Most of the Slate mothers didn't have kids till their late 30s, and they burn with the zeal typical of late mothers. Almost all are ultra-involved. They coach basketball teams. They practice music with their kids. They read child-care manuals by the boxload. They homeschool or send the tots to the best private schools they can find. When her first child was an infant, Liza organized a Better Baby salon with her friends—a group that studied how to raise "morally intelligent children." Are the kids successful because they have hot-wired genes or because they have jazzed-up parents? It's unanswerable.

The other defining quality of these repository families is that they are hugely matriarchal. All of the mothers I spoke to went to the repository because they wanted to. The husbands were reluctant or ambivalent. (Several had grown-up kids already and didn't want more.) "He had nothing to do with it," says "Joan," a California mother. The mothers seem ferociously close to their children but, with a couple of exceptions, the "social" fathers seem distant. In the divorced families, the mothers have assumed essentially all parenting responsibility. Three divorcees uttered almost exactly the same sentence to me: "My husband is not emotionally involved with the children." Even in most of the intact families, the mother dominates the relationship with the child. Ruby notes that her son has always called his father by his first name, never "Dad."

The mothers ignore—perhaps intentionally—a painful question: Is it the lack of genetic connection that chills the father-kid relationships? You can see why the mothers don't want to address this: If genetic distance causes the chill, then the mothers might feel responsible, because they chose the sperm bank. The moms tend to attribute the fathers' distance to temperament, to their inherent emotional unavailability.

But I suspect sociobiology matters enormously here. The mother has a genetic connection to her child. The father has none. The father also knows that his wife chose a man who is supposed to be smarter, healthier, and more physically gifted than him to father their child. It's easy to see how that could squash his paternal self-esteem and alienate him from his kids. And the artifice of pretending a child is your own flesh and blood must be wearing. (The alienation is surely magnified by the fact that the people who used the repository do believe genes matter. If the fathers were skeptics about genetic determinism, they might welcome any child with love. But if they believe in genes, they may feel no closer to their own sperm-bank children than to any random kid on the street.)

This is why I was not surprised that fathers did not call me. (The one father who did e-mail me is, fortunately, a very happy exception: A more loving and enthusiastic dad you couldn't find.)

The family dynamics can grow even more complex when kids learn their fathers are not their genetic fathers. Most of the Slate parents have informed their kids about their origins. Only two parents have not. This is a sure sign that the Slate group is not a representative sample, because according to studies, the vast majority of sperm-bank parents do not tell their kids.

The parents told for various reasons. Many believe it's wrong to keep a big secret, figuring that the secret will fester and emerge later in a more poisonous way. (Psychologists increasingly recommend telling sperm-bank kids for this reason. If the secret will come out some day anyway—and it usually does after a parent dies—then it's better to reveal it gently and carefully than let it break during a family fight.) One mother is planning to tell her kids because her husband has threatened to mention it in divorce proceedings. Several moms say they told because they wanted to encourage their kids not to be like their fathers. One mother, for example, revealed her son's origin to him two weeks ago, after he told her he wanted to attend professional wrestling school instead of college. "I told him so that he would know that he is better than that, that his genes are better than his father's," says "Sarah."

(This case is especially awkward for another reason. Sarah, like another mom I talked to, told her son he is Nobel sperm-bank offspring, but did not tell the father that the son knows. In other words, the son knows his father is not his genetic father, but the father doesn't know that his son knows.)

Still, all the parents who have spilled the beans say they're glad they did it. It lifted a weight off them. Their kids were generally not surprised, they report: Some kids told their moms that they always felt something was off. "It took [my son] about five seconds to say, 'I'm relieved,' " says Joan. The devoted father says telling hasn't affected his relationship with his 11-year-old at all: "He's still immensely in love with his daddy."

Several parents contacted me because they wanted to proselytize. They are delighted with their children. They believe the genius sperm bank was a wonderful idea that deserves a revival.

But other mothers have a more personal, and moving, reason for getting in touch. Mostly they are single mothers who have recently told their kids about their origins. They find themselves with children who no longer know exactly who they are and no longer have a complete family. The mothers don't have much to tell them. When the repository mailed them letters in 1999 announcing it was closing, the mothers felt alarmed: They were losing their last connection to their children's history. Now they seek to help their children learn their identities and maybe find new relatives. Several of these mothers have also lost their own parents recently. They find themselves more alone in the world than they expected to be. "I don't think I would have talked to you if my ex-husband was still around," says one.

These mothers, such as the one searching for Donor White, are eager to establish some kind of bond between their children and their donor fathers. Some mothers with a single child hope to find genetic siblings, perhaps to build a new kind of family. And one divorced mother says she dreams about meeting her donor, maybe falling in love, and having him become, at long last, the father to his own children: "Wouldn't that be a story and a half?"

If you have a connection to the Repository for Germinal Choice—whether as a child, parent, donor, or employee—and you would like to share your story anonymously, please contact me by e-mail at plotzd@slate.comor by phone at (202) 862-4889.

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.