More than likely the first thing that may come to mind among viewers of Donor Unknown, the documentary scheduled to premiere October 20th on the PBS series Independent Lens, will be last year’s Oscar nominated comic drama, The Kids Are All Right. The Hollywood film is in many respects a spiced up fictionalization of some of the very issues raised in the documentary. Children of sperm donors eager to know something about their paternity manage to discover the donor’s identity and arrange to meet him with interesting results. Certainly the film embroiders upon the basic theme moving into other issues as well, nonetheless the basic theme of sperm donors and their relation to the children they father is central to both.
Donor Unknown follows the 20 year old JoEllen Marsh the daughter of a lesbian couple from Erie, Pennsylvania as she learns about her ‘father,’ sperm donor 150, from the profile he submitted when he began donating sperm at a sperm bank in California and then discovers an organization, the Donor Sibling Registry, that helps children of donors locate half-siblings from the same donor. Soon when she discovers a half sister, their story hits the front page of the New York Times and a gaggle of other half siblings enter the scene. Donor 150, it seems was, something of a stud in the world of sperm donation—although it may well be that he is the norm. Records it seems are not very carefully kept.
Coincidently 150 who is living the life of a Beach Bum in Venice, California happens upon a copy of the Times front page in a coffee shop. He, it turns out, is something of a Bohemian. He lives in a broken down RV with four dogs and a pigeon, animals he treats like his children. Indeed, he calls them his family. He talks a lot about spirituality, and he is a believer in some very strange conspiracy theories. He seems a pleasant enough person as he is shown in the documentary, but not necessarily someone you would want as part of your life if you were planning to live more or less conventionally. After some thought, he decides to contact the Donor Sibling Registry and make himself available to the children. Some take the opportunity, some don’t. The meeting between JoEllen, who chooses to take the opportunity and her ‘father’ as well as some of the other children makes for some touching TV.
Perhaps most interesting are some of the moral questions raised by the film. Some of these will be available for discussion on the Independent Lens website for the show. What are the implications of reproductive services sold for profit? The sperm bank shown in the film for all its seeming professionalism seems just a mite sleazy with its “wink wink” masturbatoriums” larded with a range of audio¬-visual stimulants. Should sperm donors remain anonymous? What rights do the children of donors have? What, if any, are the obligations of the donor to the children? As far as secrecy is concerned, what are the obligations of the sperm bank to the donor, to the children? As Wendy Kramer, Executive Director of the Donor Sibling Registry, and the mother of a child fathered by a sperm donor, says in the film “secrecy implies shame.” Clearly these are questions that have no easy answers.
Directed by Jerry Rothwell, Donor Unknown is a sensitive exploration of some growing social issues as they plays out for one young woman as she searches for her ancestry and her family. When the director of the California sperm bank glibly announces that his organization has probably been responsible for at least 60,000 births since its inception and in ten years it will probably be responsible for 60,000 more, the size and importance of the issues are clear. While Rothwell’s film doesn’t provide answers, it does highlight the issues, and this it does very effectively.