In first grade, when John drew a picture of his family, there was no dad because he knew his biological father was a sperm donor. His two mothers had always been open about that. In the drawing, his birth mother, Wendy Norman, bounces on a trampoline. Janet Norman, his other mom, grades papers inside. His older brother, Kevin, plays video games. John stands alone at the top of the stairs. About a year later, he would threaten to throw himself down them.
One day, John* slashed at a bedroom door with a kitchen knife, leaving scars in the white paint. With a hammer, he bashed holes in another door. At school, he balled up under his desk to shut out a world too noisy and chaotic and bright to bear. After his parents divorced, he ran away from school. He was in third grade.
Mild depression runs in her own family, so Wendy—who takes Zoloft every day—was watchful of John’s moods. Wendy took John to see a psychiatrist, who put him on Abilify and Lexapro for what the doctor diagnosed as ADHD and depression. But the boy did not get better. Wendy’s new partner moved in with her son, Peter, who was younger and kept his room clean and did his homework on time. John thought about killing him, then himself, and went to an inpatient psychiatric program at Ridgeview Institute in Smyrna. The doctors weaned him off of his medications, and he felt a bit better, but not for long.
In sixth grade, he threatened to attack Peter and Peter’s father, and John went back to Ridgeview. When he returned home, he teetered at the edge of the roof ledge outside his second-floor bedroom and said he’d jump. He ended up falling and breaking both wrists. The injury scared him into never threatening anyone again. He bought into therapy and worked to quiet his mind. And somehow, almost miraculously, he stabilized.
I first met John on a chilly afternoon in December. He sat close to Wendy on a couch in the living room of their Peachtree City home. He was explaining how, in March 2017 at the age of 14, he told his mother he was ready to see the file she kept on his biological father, a sperm donor from Xytex Corp., a tissue bank based in Augusta. With his older brother getting ready to go to college, John felt adrift. He wanted to know more about who he was. He told Wendy he was ready to take a look. She left the file on his bed.
The report contained so much information—the donor’s blood type (A-positive), his ethnicity (English/German), his celebrity lookalikes (“Tom Cruise, Brandon Lee, Jim Carrey, etc.”), his favorite book (the New World Dictionary), his IQ (160, genius level), his musical prowess (“I have been recognized by an international drum and bugle corps as one of the most proficient drummers alive”), his ability to speak four languages, and his sparkling-clean health history. But lacking was that most essential of identifiers: a name. John searched the internet, trying to match the photo in the file to anything he could find online. Just when he was about to give up, he saw the donor’s number—9623—and googled it and Xytex together.
John learned much more than just his father’s name. What he found out on that early spring morning a year ago terrified him. He shut down, like he was in a freeze frame. And then, he did the thing a boy does when he’s afraid: He went to his mother.
In October 2000, Chris Aggeles drove from Athens to Atlanta and walked through the doors of Xytex, the country’s oldest commercial sperm banking company, for the first time. He was 23 years old and had heard about Xytex from a friend. It’s likely he had also seen ads for the company around Athens. For years, Xytex had focused its advertising there, eager to tap into the willing cohort found on college campuses. Even today, Xytex ads target students, promising sperm donors up to $1,800 a month and a chance to “say goodbye to ramen and hello to steak.”
At Xytex’s Atlanta office on Peachtree Street, Aggeles filled out a lengthy application that included questions about his height (6’4”), his eye color (blue), his dominant hand (ambidextrous), his eyesight (excellent), and his personality (extroverted, athletic, optimistic). He was also asked to go through a list of 143 conditions and mark whether they were part of his or his blood relatives’ medical histories. He checked “no” on all of them—including anemia, melanoma, heart disease, hepatitis, schizophrenia, thyroid disorders, and allergies—except for colorblindness, which he said was on his father’s side of the family.
Aggeles was led to a room and left alone while he masturbated into a cup. He also had his blood drawn and tested for communicable diseases, such as HIV, a requirement of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which provides the closest thing there is to oversight of the sperm bank business. On its website, Xytex says it also screens a potential donor’s blood for more than three dozen common genetic conditions, including cystic fibrosis, Gaucher disease, Tay-Sachs disease, and sickle cell disease.
Aggeles seemed like the perfect sperm donor. He was tall, handsome, chatty, charming, mature. He played basketball and loved reading, playing drums, and traveling. He said that he had earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and was pursuing his PhD.
The company didn’t ask for his medical records, perform a drug test, or conduct a criminal background check; the law required none of that.
About two weeks later, Aggeles’s profile was up on the website as Donor #9623. He was listed as “Identity Disclosure,” which meant he was willing to release his contact information to his donor children when they turned 18. His profile included a baby picture, an adult photo, and a statement from Aggeles: “Having children is a blessing, and being in a position to help, and having been recommended by a friend as a good choice for the honor, I chose to become a donor.”
Xytex was so eager to promote the sale of Aggeles’s sperm that it later recorded an interview between him and Mary H. Hartley, then the company’s donor counselor. “I could tell the genuineness from the very beginning,” Hartley says in the recording, which was made available for sale to curious customers. “This guy—he’s the type that you really strive to get.”
The relationship between Aggeles and Xytex would, according to court documents, span 14 years and prove fruitful for all involved. Aggeles would earn $16,000. Xytex would sell vial after vial of his sperm for, in at least one instance, $370. And the sperm would help produce at least 36 children, making motherhood a reality for women who’d feared it was out of reach.
Secrecy has been part of the conception business since at least the 15th century, when the wife of Henry IV—King of Castile, known as “the Impotent”—gave birth to a baby girl, leading courtiers to speculate that she’d been artificially inseminated, or that perhaps the child was not their own. In the 1800s, a couple approached a Philadelphia physician named Dr. William Pancoast for help in conceiving a child. The husband had no sperm in his semen. Without consulting the couple, Pancoast took a sample from one of his better-looking medical students, then invited the wife to his office for an “examination.” There, in front of a group of medical students, he chloroformed her and, using a rubber syringe, inseminated her. As the story goes, related in the book Sex Cells: The Medical Market for Eggs and Sperm by Yale University sociologist Rene Almeling, the woman later gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Eventually, Pancoast told the husband what had transpired. He was, reportedly, delighted—and they agreed they should not tell his wife the truth.
Over the years, the culture of secrecy continued, driven in part by legal, moral, and ethical concerns; there was cultural resistance to the idea of men in lab coats designing babies, butting into the reproductive process, playing God. Some called it “adultery by doctor.” As a result, the topic of artificial insemination was barely touched in medical journals, even as late as the 1940s, and even as more and more doctors were studying and performing the procedure. Fiction writers took aim, with artificial insemination playing a role in the dystopias imagined by both George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.
“People who want children are extremely vulnerable . . . They don’t want to believe this could happen” —Angie Collins
Then, in the 1950s, zoology graduate student Jerome Sherman and professor of urology Raymond Bunge—both researchers from the University of Iowa—pioneered a technique for slow freezing, then thawing, donated sperm, all while maintaining the tissue’s viability. Their clinic at the university became the country’s first sperm bank. Three women were inseminated the first year; all three became pregnant. Still, public acceptance of artificial insemination was slow. Shame played, and can still play, a role, particularly for heterosexual couples, despite the fact that the number of births in the United States via artificial insemination is estimated at up to 60,000 a year.
Dr. Armand Karow of Augusta’s Medical College of Georgia cofounded Xytex in 1975 with $20,000. Sales shot up fast, going from 750 units in 1976 to 2,800 in 1978. In 1985, they expanded to Atlanta, not far from Georgia Tech and Georgia State University.
In 1991, Xytex started offering “washed sperm” for use in intrauterine insemination (IUI). In conventional insemination, the sperm goes inside the vagina at the entrance to the uterus. In IUI, the sperm is placed inside the uterus. When semen is “washed,” the sperm is separated from the semen, and prostaglandins—which can cause painful contractions when used in IUI—are removed. Xytex became known for “washing” sperm before shipping to physicians, making it easier for doctors to use and, thus, more marketable.
From the beginning, all donors were tested for sexually transmitted infections, such as syphilis and gonorrhea, and for chromosomal abnormalities. “In fact, Xytex set the industry standard with its early testing of donors,” according to the company’s written history.
“I don’t think they can do much more than they do,” Dr. Albert Yuzpe, a pioneering obstetrician-gynecologist and reproductive endocrinologist in Vancouver, Canada, who serves on Xytex’s medical board, told me. “How much can you screen for?” Some conditions, after all, can’t be detected by any known blood test or urine analysis. And so, the banks go partly on gut.
“You kind of get to know them on a personal level, because they are there frequently,” said Dr. Grace M. Centola, who has been in the sperm-banking business for 30 years and is the past president of the Society for Male Reproduction and Urology. She serves as lab director and tissue bank director for the New England Cryogenic Center. “They would celebrate the donors’ birthdays. You get to know them really well. All of that goes into making a decision about whether that person is a good person, acceptable, and that what he’s telling you is the truth.”
Learning the name of your donor, and maybe even meeting him, can be a good thing for a child. That’s what Chris Aggeles believed, and it’s why he signed on to be identified to his donor children when they turned 18. But his name was revealed long before that, when the oldest child would have been no more than 13. In 2014—in what was evidently a mistake—Xytex shared Aggeles’s identity in emails to some of the mothers who had purchased his sperm. The mothers started googling, and what they found would spawn more than a dozen lawsuits, pitting mothers against the company that helped make them so, and, along the way, shedding light on how loosely the sperm bank business is regulated.
Aside from the FDA’s rules on such matters as licensing and screening for communicable diseases, as well as the Centers for Disease Control’s requirement that sperm be quarantined for six months, there is very little regulation, oversight, or follow-up. There is no federal law that caps the number of births from any one donor’s sperm, and there is no federal requirement that, in order to prevent incest, sperm banks keep track of births or that families report them. There is no federal requirement that a sperm bank notify customers if the company discovers something concerning—a new medical condition, a recently discovered mental disorder, a lie—about a donor. Such disclosures are recommended by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which functions as both industry watchdog and lobbyist, but banks aren’t required to follow the ASRM’s guidelines. The same goes for the suggestions made by the American Association of Tissue Banks. Some states have their own additional requirements, but Georgia doesn’t. It wasn’t until 2005—five years after Aggeles had first started donating—that the FDA required sperm banks to review a potential donor’s relevant medical records. Xytex, it appeared, had taken Aggeles mostly on his word.
Yes, he was born in 1976, and yes, he lived in Athens. He was a talented drummer, a bright mind, and a funny extrovert who was close to his half-brothers, as his application had said. But he wasn’t a PhD candidate; he didn’t even have a bachelor’s degree (though he’d earn one in 2015). He’d been arrested. And he was deeply troubled.
Though on his application to Xytex he had denied any history of mental illness, the truth—according to court records—was that Aggeles had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia with “significant grandiose illusions.” He had been hospitalized twice in 1999, the year before he began donating sperm. In 2002, he went on disability due to his mental illness. In 2004, he was suicidal. In 2005, he was convicted of burglarizing a home and served several months in jail.
Though Aggeles didn’t respond to requests for comment, a 2012 post on YouTube, reportedly by him under his own name, provided a vivid description of his symptoms. “The ‘hearing voices’ is kind of hard to explain, but here goes: so I will be thinking something like, what I am going to make for dinner, and it’s like my thought gets interrupted by a voice that tells me something that usually has nothing to do with what I was just thinking. Its [sic] usually mean, and will say things that are derogatory and demeaning to me. That, for me, is the toughest part about being schizophrenic.”
All the while, he kept returning to Xytex.
The revelations about Aggeles set off a panic among the mothers, including Angie Collins from Ontario, Canada. She and her then partner had a six-year-old boy, born from Aggeles’s sperm. “Everything in the world just stopped,” she told me.
Collins, a teacher, started doing her homework and learned that schizophrenia typically hits men in their late teens or early 20s. Although it’s treatable, there is no cure. Symptoms include hallucinations and delusions. Brain chemistry plays a role, and some studies show that smoking marijuana and using other drugs as a teen can increase the risk. The disease occurs in about 10 percent of people who have a parent or sibling with schizophrenia, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Collins took her son, who is now 10, to a psychiatrist to establish a baseline so she’ll be able to tell, as he grows into adolescence, if he begins to show any signs of schizophrenia. “It’s always like a little bit of a simmering pot on the back burner,” she said. “It’s something I always have to check. We want to be the best parents to him in this as we can.”
To do that, they knew they would need money for periodic psychological evaluations as well as for possible therapy and continued care. So, they hired a San Francisco–based attorney named Nancy Hersh, who has focused on women’s issues and medical malfeasance since the 1970s, and they sued.
Between May 2016 and October 2017, 13 lawsuits related to Donor #9623 were filed against Xytex in courts across the U.S. and Canada. The women alleged fraud, negligence, false advertising. Some claimed battery, arguing they had been inseminated with fraudulent sperm.
In its response to Collins’s suit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court, Xytex insisted it had done everything by the book. “We have conducted a careful review of our records, and the claims by [the Collinses] do not reflect the representation provided to Xytex,” the company said in a statement on its website. “We followed thorough procedures to review the health of the donor.” (A disclaimer on Xytex’s website states that the company does not verify medical history provided by donors.)
The Collins suit was thrown out in October 2015 when a judge determined the legal action was actually a “wrongful birth claim,” which is not recognized in Georgia. Typically, a wrongful birth claim alleges that a medical professional’s negligence deprived a mother of the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether to carry a baby to term—or to get pregnant at all. In March 2017, Judge Thomas W. Thrash Jr. used the same reasoning for dismissing one suit filed by an Ohio woman and another by a couple in England who had purchased Donor #9623’s sperm.
A judge in the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California seemed more sympathetic when, last March, he considered a similar suit filed by a same-sex couple from San Francisco. “Maybe you didn’t know, but you also held out that you did excruciating vetting of these sperm donors,” Judge William H. Alsup said to Xytex’s lawyer in court. “Don’t you think Xytex is at fault here for not having checked out that this guy was schizophrenic and then goes on to have a big criminal record . . . He was held out to be a PhD when, in fact, he had almost no education, and now, you’re saying you get off the hook because you didn’t know? I don’t get it.”
Xytex’s then attorney Kathleen Humphrey replied: “The FDA regulates this industry, and the FDA says you have to do screening for health-related diseases, like—it’s very limited—HIV, certain genetic conditions, but that’s the extent of what’s required for sperm donation.”
Alsup: “To me, if you’re selling something like this, and you’re representing that your people are screened, you better do a good job on something as important as creating a human life . . . To me, it is not the way to run a railroad that something as important as sperm could be sold by taking the word of the donor. No.”
Xytex settled the case in June. In August, another case was dismissed. Other plaintiffs settled last October. Xytex says it now performs criminal background checks. The company is also now required to review relevant medical records, per a change in FDA rules.
Wendy Kramer became a vocal advocate for donor children’s rights in 2000 after her own toddler, born of donor sperm from California Cryobank, asked if his father had died. When she tried to learn more about the man, she was stymied by his anonymous status. So, she created the Donor Sibling Registry, a more than 56,000-member database designed to facilitate “mutually desired contact” between donors, families, and siblings.
In January 2017, she filed a letter with the FDA, asking the agency to “look into the state of affairs surrounding the sperm donation industry and then develop the appropriate and much needed regulation/oversight.” It was acknowledged but not addressed. Almeling, the Sex Cells author, said she was told by the FDA that it would “take an act of Congress” to expand the agency’s powers over sperm banks. “The FDA routinely evaluates its regulations and guidance documents, and updates them as necessary,” FDA press officer Andrea Fischer told me in an email.
Some activists believe that many of the industry’s problems would be avoided if all donors were identified. The prevalence of at-home DNA kits has made it easier for donor offspring to collect and share information that might lead them to a donor’s identity, Kramer said. But other experts say such a policy would narrow the field too much, deterring good donors and leading to a scarcity of sperm. And they say it’s a slippery slope when you invite the government to be more deeply involved in reproduction, worrying this could lead to state-led genetic engineering and artificial selection.
Sperm-banking rules in other countries vary widely. In New Zealand, some hopeful parents must wait two years for sperm because it can be donated only voluntarily, which has created a shortage. Paid sperm donation is also prohibited in Canada, so customers there must buy sperm from the United States. Austria and Italy forbid any egg and sperm donations. Germany and Norway allow sperm donation but not the donation of eggs.
In the United Kingdom, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority issues regulations on artificial reproduction. And France is able to keep close tabs on its donors and donor families because the country has a national, state-run sperm banking program. But that country also doesn’t allow single women and lesbian couples to buy sperm.
All of the sperm banks in the United States insist they do the most, the best, and the deepest due diligence on their donors. But ultimately, the companies are permitted to do business largely as they see fit, which leaves the industry vulnerable to deceptive donors.
“We’re so blind. The industry doesn’t do anything to protect you. It’s just luck,” Collins said. “People who want children are extremely vulnerable; they will do anything. Say the right things, and it’s like music to their ears. They aren’t looking at the fine print. They don’t want to believe this could happen because that closes a door on an opportunity for having a family.”
Collins watches her son as he sleeps. It’s not just to observe the rise and fall of his chest or to admire his soft cheeks and downy hair. “I sit there and wonder, how could I have allowed a situation like this to arise?”
Still, she’s grateful to at least know the truth. Other moms may not be as well informed; several families say Xytex has not contacted them with the truth about Aggeles. If they’re not part of the closed Facebook group for #9623 or haven’t read the news, they’re likely in the dark.
In the days after John learned the identity of his biological father, thoughts cycled in his head like clothes in a dryer. Do I have schizophrenia? Is that why I was so depressed and anxious when I was younger? Will it get worse as I get older? His brother Kevin took him out for frozen yogurt and tried to reassure him. Kevin was the product of Xytex, too, but from a different donor. These men don’t have to be part of our lives, he told John. You’re my brother. Wendy and Janet are our parents.
“He got through to me,” John told me. “He made me realize that I’m not a different person now that I have more information. I just know what to look for in the future and to avoid drugs and all that. I’ve been in the system and have coping skills, so I think I’ll be okay.”
In the days and weeks after the disclosures, Wendy seethed. She understood that when you fall in love with someone, you often don’t know or consider that person’s medical history, and you don’t necessarily avoid having children if there’s something concerning in your past. But when you buy sperm, you expect more, something akin to picking out an almost-perfect biological father. Instead, the Normans say, they were sold sperm that stacked the decks against their son. They want Xytex to suffer—to say it made a mistake. They want better oversight of the industry and to maybe set money aside for kids who may eventually need psychiatric help. The Normans looked into filing a lawsuit. But it was complicated. They saw that the previous suits from other donor families had been dismissed or settled. And the Normans knew legal action could send a negative message to their son. So, they let him decide.
At first, John didn’t want to sue because “you sue over a product because it’s faulty,” John said. “If that product is a person, it feels like a terrible thing to do.” But his desire to spread the word about Donor #9623’s condition won out, and on November 30, the Normans sued Xytex with attorney Hersh, who also filed suit that same day on behalf of a Texas family with two children from Donor #9623. What makes these suits different: While the children in the previous suits had largely not shown any symptoms of mental illness, John and the children from Texas have. As of January 8, Xytex had filed motions to dismiss both complaints. (Note: On February 22, Judge Thrash dismissed the Texas complaint, labeling it another wrongful birth case. From his decision: “The legislature, and not this Court, is the proper forum for addressing the allegedly negligent or reckless failure of sperm banks to screen sperm donors.”)
“Who can you blame in this thing? Chris made a poor decision, or the disease made him make a poor decision . . . He’s not just a culprit. He’s a victim too.” —Clayton Aggeles
John hasn’t been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but a specialist monitors him. He tries not to think about the disease, focusing instead on video games, debate class, his friends. He loves Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show and wants to become a comedy writer. Sometimes, though, the worry creeps in. John has thought about calling his donor father—not for sentimental reasons, he’s quick to say—but just to get a better sense of what to watch out for.
Aggeles was 20 when he suffered his first psychotic break, court records say. The subsequent array of medicines left him exhausted and confused. He believed he could outsmart his illness and help the world.
Aggeles recently visited three of his half-brothers from his father’s side at their shared apartment in Charleston, South Carolina. He showed up and rearranged all of the furniture. They were afraid to leave him alone, Clayton Aggeles, his other half-brother, told me.
“He’s our brother, and we love him as much as we love each other,” said Clayton, a 24-year-old aspiring actor in Los Angeles who wasn’t there for the visit but heard about it from his brothers. “But there’s only so much that we can do for him with the disease.”
The last time Clayton spoke to his older brother, he said, Chris told him, “The world pretends it has it all figured out. People like to pretend they’ve figured it all out. But nobody has it all figured out.”
Clayton recognizes that his brother made a big mistake in donating his sperm not once but many, many times over 14 years.
“Who can you blame in this thing? Chris made a poor decision, or the disease made him make a poor decision. I just know that a lot of his decisions aren’t really his own,” Clayton said. “He’s not just a culprit. He’s a victim too.”
In the Normans’ living room, I told John, Kevin, and their parents more of what Clayton had told me about Chris—that the medications make him feel foggy and gain weight; that he has been prone to violent outbursts, once breaking a plate in half, another time slapping his father across the face; that his busy mind is sometimes an asset, allowing him to make sense of complicated drum cadences; that he can spend hours talking about everything from cancer to the cosmos; that he sometimes feels things so deeply he can hardly bear it.
A look of recognition passed between John and his mothers. “I’m at a loss,” Wendy said. “I’m not really good with anger, but I feel like Xytex is really hurting people.”
For a moment, John was quiet. Then, he said: “I don’t blame him. I understand.”
*The actual first names of the children in this story are being withheld to protect their identities.
Do you have a story to share about the sperm bank business, Xytex, or Donor #9623? Please contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appears in our March 2018 issue.