The Children of Donor X
Natural as that question is, too much focus on a donor's medical history can make a sick or disabled child seem like faulty merchandise. "There is no certainty in a baby. It does not come with a ten-year warranty," warns David Plotz, author of The Genius Factor, the history of a sperm bank established to propagate the genes of Nobel laureates and other prodigies. When parents have only their own genes to hold accountable, are they less likely to feel burdened or cheated by a child with health problems?
Gwenyth, Theresa, Elizabeth, and Victoria voice no such regrets. Donor X appealed to all the mothers (and the one father) who chose him for a variety of reasons. Theresa and Elizabeth were attracted to his part–Puerto Rican heritage, which he had in common with the women who were their partners when they became pregnant. Victoria is African-American, and the bank offered her few donors of color; Donor X was the one with a strong academic record who presumably looked the most like the men in her family. For other parents, the donor's IQ was his primary selling point: They mention his degree in economics and that he'd also studied astrophysics—although the form he filled out doesn't name the schools and the bank doesn't verify such information as courses taken.
A common perception about autism—especially Asperger's—is that it runs in the families of scientists. Astrophysics, then, could seem like a telling clue in retrospect. But the parents who chose Donor X don't think they missed any obvious warning signs. On paper and in the audiotaped interview he did with the sperm bank, they all say, he came across as socially adept and quintessentially well rounded. He made jokes, said he loved to travel, play basketball, listen to music, and was curious about moviemaking.
For Gwenyth, the deciding factor was the evidence of his imagination. "They asked him, 'Where do you like to travel?' and he wrote, 'To the farthest reaches of the universe.' Some people might think that's weird. But I'm also philosophical and I like to think big picture. For me, that was it." Rejecting the idea that she would have screened him out as a father if she'd actually met and dated him, she told me the first time we spoke, "I feel nothing but a huge, huge debt of gratitude to the donor who helped me create Dylan. This is the luck of the draw, and there are all kinds of happily married adults with autistic children. I hope someday I get to kneel at our donor's feet and thank him. He brought me the best gift of my life."
Still, even if Donor X were the type to have children on his own, he almost certainly would not have had a dozen of them. "It's true that if you marry someone and have a child, you never know the whole picture about genetic risk," says Everything Conceivable's Mundy. "But because sperm donation has become an industry, a greater number of people will be at risk from a single person's genetic makeup. It's like E. coli at a big hot dog plant as opposed to a small farm: The danger is dispersed over larger numbers of people."