Aug. 31, 2006 -- In discreet laboratories all over the United States, some of the most valuable material in the world is deposited. It arrives by an obscure series of arrangements -- is often unregulated and always unseen. And it is sold at a price to desperate people prepared to do almost anything to conceive a child.
Welcome to the secret world of the sperm donor -- featured on "Nightline" tonight at 11:30 p.m. ET.
Kirk Maxey was one of the most generous sperm donors on the planet. As a medical student during the 1980s he regularly donated sperm. It was originally suggested to him by his wife, a registered nurse at a local fertility clinic. At just $20 per deposit, it was hardly a lucrative business.
"It was around the time we had my first son and she thought, 'Oh gee, you are making healthy, nice-looking kids, you should be a sperm donor,'" said Maxey, who is now a doctor.
When he arrived at the clinic to make his first deposit, he was not given any counseling or subjected to detailed questioning. Instead, he simply completed a brief form, which asked some basic questions.
"I was given a little quarter-page legal thing to sign that just said it was my responsibility to let them know if I had a sexually transmitted disease," he said. "And then the one line that said 'and this will remain anonymous.' Very vague and very general."
Back in the 1980s, the medical screening of donors was fairly basic. Their sperm would be checked for sexually transmitted diseases, HIV and some chromosomal abnormalities, but little else.
"There's so little regulation in this area, sperm banks don't have to follow that many rules," says Debora Spar, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of a book about artificial reproduction called "The Baby Business." "The better sperm banks will, for sure, ask for your parents' medical history. Do they go back and trace the full medical records of a sperm donor's parents? Probably not."
Once cleared by the clinic, donors like Maxey could be called, often at inconvenient moments, because the technology for freezing sperm had not been developed back then.
He described one traumatic donation experience.
"There are emergencies where you are supposed to donate in a time frame and in a period where it's not convenient, and so that's sort of hilarious," Maxey said. "How are you actually going to do this in between this lecture and that talk? How are you going to get two mils [millimenters] of semen to the clinic? At least on one occasion I didn't really have time to do the donation except in the car. So I basically had to try to do it while I was driving. That's risky and fairly difficult to do."
Half-Siblings All Over Town?
Maxey's commitment to duty won the day, and he continued donating for a period of 16 years. Once he stopped donating sperm he decided to do the math to calculate how many children he may have spawned.
"I've done the calculator math, which is all I can do in my position with how secretively this was done," he said. "I really never will know but I can calculate it. It's in the hundreds. It's 200 to 400 and it all depends upon the assumptions you make. But that's statistically the most likely figure."
Given these statistics, there is now a concern that any of his offspring, including children conceived with his wife, may end up inadvertently committing incest.
"That is what I think is the problem with total anonymity," Maxey said. "It's that I have a son that lives in the area and most of the patients came from a 100- or 150-mile radius of the area. If you do math, again, there may be 100 young women that are basically my son's age that are his half-siblings. I have to tell him there is an awful lot of your brothers and sisters that you don't know and I don't know."
Unlike many other developed countries, such as the United Kingdom, there is currently no official government registry for either sperm or egg donors in the United States. Web sites like Siblingdonor.com are trying to fill the gap, allowing donors to post their details for any offspring who may wish to connect with their biological parents.
Maxey says this issue of secrecy should be addressed by the federal government. He wants sperm banks to have to disclose all relevant information to both donors and their offspring.
"It's access to the information. I think the kids should be told and I think the donors should be told," he said. "Not precisely, here's the name and address of your kid, but that they exist and whether they are healthy or not. And that there is a meeting point, an information exchange point where, if you want to know about each other, you can go there. Becoming connected with your genetic relatives should be facilitated and not blocked."
AUGUST 31st UPDATE
Since our report first aired on Nightline, Dr. Maxey has made contact with one of his donor inseminated children. He hopes for a reunion with this child - now a teenager. He is also working on creating an inventory for genetic material. On the Donor Sibling Registry he is now encouraging donor inseminated mothers simply to save their used donor vial. He says that as medical questions arise, as new tests for new conditions are developed, parents will be very glad that they have this archived specimen that documents exactly what genes were present in the sperm that gave life to their child.