In February 2001, Slate launched "Seed," a three-month series about the Repository for Germinal Choice, the "Nobel Prize" sperm bank that was started by California industrialist Robert Graham in 1980 and closed in 1999. Slate searched for the 200-odd children conceived through the "genius sperm bank," their parents, and the men who donated the sperm for them. (At the bottom of the page, you'll find links to the 13 other articles in the Seed series, including the introduction explaining the project.)
The article that generated by far the most reader response chronicled the hunt for Donor White. The piece, which you can read here, recounted the story of "Beth" and her now 11-year-old daughter, "Joy." Beth, whose husband had had a vasectomy, conceived Joy using sperm from the repository donor identified as "White # 6." According to the description in the repository catalog, Donor White was an accomplished scientist born in the 1930s who liked running and gardening. Employees at the repository told Beth that other mothers who used Donor White had "happy babies." That's what Beth got: a happy, blond infant, who has grown up into a happy, blond, ballet-dancing, Harry Potter-loving, horseback-riding little girl.
Beth wanted to thank the man who gave her this gift, so when Joy was 7 months old, Beth arranged to leave the baby at the repository's Escondido, Calif., office for a few hours. Beth, who then lived nearby, dropped Joy off with the office manager, Dora Vaux. Vaux immediately called Donor White, who also lived in Southern California. The donor and his wife rushed over to meet his baby daughter. They brought Joy a Fisher-Price doll. When the visit ended, he told Vaux he "would live on that moment for the rest of his life."
As Joy grew up, Beth sent photographs of her to the repository, always enclosing an extra copy for Donor White. In 1995, Donor White responded by writing Joy a birthday card, in care of the repository. The repository covered up his signature but forwarded the card to Beth. Soon Beth and Donor White were corresponding regularly through the repository. (Beth, understandably, didn't tell 5-year-old Joy about it.) Beth sent the donor a Father's Day card. He mailed back a poem he wrote about Joy, "A Figure of Red on a Field of White." He said that he hoped Joy would follow him into science since he and his wife had no children of their own. He and his wife signed their letters "your adoptive grandparents." In one Christmastime note, he told Beth that he hoped he might someday, somehow meet his daughter.
Then, in early 1997, the letters stopped. Dora Vaux had left the sperm bank. A new manager and the board of directors worried that the correspondence violated the repository's confidentiality rules. The repository wrote a note to Beth: "We simply cannot continue to share Joy with the donor."
Beth was devastated. She and Joy were alone in the world. She had divorced from Joy's "social" father, and she had no other children. In 2000, when Joy was 9, Beth finally told her about her genetic father. She read Joy one of Donor White's letters and gave her the Fisher-Price doll she had kept for all those years. Joy told Beth that she thought of Donor White "as being like Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books." Joy said she wanted to meet him.
When Beth saw Seed, she called Slate. She knew that Donor White wanted to find her as much as she wanted to find him, and she thought Slate's articles—and our offer to be a conduit—were her only chance. "A Mother Searches for 'Donor White' " appeared on Feb. 27, 2001, inviting Donor White to contact me confidentially. Beth and I got our hopes up. Scores of readers wrote to sympathize with Beth and Joy. Dozens of offspring from other sperm banks e-mailed me to ask Slate to find their donor fathers. But not a word came from Donor White.
Three TV newsmagazines contacted Slate wanting to interview Beth and Joy. Beth, protective of her family's privacy and Joy's innocence, agonized about the offers and eventually refused. Beth and I kept corresponding. "I can't believe that he knows about us and is choosing not to contact Joy. You will see from the letter how warm and unguarded he was," she wrote. "I can imagine him, a 70-year-old man, with no children to call his own, looking at these pictures of Joy and just being overcome with all kinds of emotions. I wish he could see them."
Then, on June 12, 2002, a long e-mail appeared in my inbox. It began, "This is Donor White …"
Donor White, it seems, isn't much of an Internet user, and he had never heard of Slate. But on June 11, he had used a search engine for the first time. He typed "genius sperm bank" into alltheweb.com. It pulled up "A Mother Searches for 'Donor White.' " He was stunned.