By Stephanie Wicker

Disclosure: I am a recipient parent through known sperm donation and was interviewed for “Inconceivable;” however, I have no financial interest in Bauman’s project, nor any other conflicts of interest to disclose. 

Valerie Bauman’s debut book “Inconceivable: A Memoir” is nothing short of eye-opening, even for those like myself who are quite familiar with the world of known gamete donation.  Bauman, who aspired to become a single mom by choice using donor sperm, set out to find a sperm donor willing to be known by her potential offspring and, through her search, discovered the gritty underbelly of unregulated sperm donation. Bauman describes “Inconceivable” as part memoir and part investigative journalism, leading readers through her own journey to motherhood while looping in interviews from donors, recipient parents, donor conceived individuals, and reproductive professionals.

Much of Bauman’s book highlights the pitfalls of the current donor gamete and fertility industry: discriminatory practices, high costs, abysmal lack of regulation, and the blatant disregard for donor conceived voices. For those who desire to use known donors, the large majority of fertility clinics require testing and quarantine periods that are not required for patients attempting to conceive with an intimate partner—if they will even work with a patient using a known donor. Bauman shares how her fertility provider’s attitude toward assisting her with a medically-monitored cycle changed drastically when she told him her donor was now her partner. While a change of this type can blur the lines between legal parenthood and donation (and should thus only be pursued with competent legal advice), the response of Bauman’s clinic further highlights the struggle facing LGBTQ+ and solo parents because of practices within the fertility industry.

As someone who used a known sperm donor and who maintains an active relationship with my donor conceived child’s paternal family, it was uncomfortable to read Bauman’s conversations with several prolific underground sperm donors. Having seen how wonderful known donation can be, I was frankly disgusted by the motives of these men, who indiscriminately donate to recipient parents without any regulation or oversight. While problematic donors are not limited to the underground sperm market (and I would argue that some of these men are likely donating to commercial banks as well), I understand why reading accounts such as “Inconceivable” would further reinforce the misinformation so many fertility professionals and recipient parents hold as true about known donation.

I lost track of how many times I found myself wanting to scream THAT’S NOT TRUE when I read Valerie’s experience with multiple fertility professionals and the misinformation that guided the decisions that very nearly kept Valerie from using a known donor. Valerie faced numerous barriers to fertility care, solely based on her use of a known sperm donor; several fertility providers recommended against the use of known donor sperm, citing confusion for the child and risk to recipient parents. As someone who sees the huge inadequacies in current American fertility law and within the American Society for Reproductive Medicine’s (ASRM) guidelines regarding donor conception, this only further demonstrates to me that the policies guiding donor conception are based on out-of-date, inaccurate information. Contrary to many assertions, known donation can very much mitigate the ethical pitfalls of our current model of anonymous donation that is so widely accepted by the fertility community.

As I processed along with Valerie, I kept seeing more examples of how our current legal and fertility practices should be brought up to date to match the changing donor conception practices utilized by so many different families.

Stephanie Wicker

Throughout the book, while there were some interviews with donor conceived individuals, I found that the majority of the narrative centered around recipient parents (which, as a memoir, was not overly surprising). However, I kept finding myself wishing that Bauman had used her debut book as a way of highlighting donor conceived voices, allowing readers to learn from the mistakes of previous fertility “generations” in order to move the industry forward in a more ethical direction. While this is not a critique of her writing, which by the way is quite engaging, it is simply a sobering reminder that throughout the donor conception space, donor conceived voices are less amplified than those of recipient parents and fertility professionals.

Ultimately, Valerie conceived and recently gave birth to a son using a sperm donor who was willing to be known by her child after the age of 18; however, she was able to negotiate contact in the form of several letters prior to age 18.  Valerie expressed some sadness that her child would not have earlier contact; however, it is important to note that the vague legal framework surrounding parentage in many US states often does not afford protection for recipient parents in the event their donor is involved in the life of their donor conceived offspring, even if they are not actively participating in daily social parenting. As I processed along with Valerie, I kept seeing more examples of how our current legal and fertility practices should be brought up to date to match the changing donor conception practices utilized by so many different families.

“Inconceivable: A Memoir” was an enjoyable combo of autobiography and scandalous exposé, highlighting the difficult experience so many families encounter when attempting to become parents through donor conception. Will Bauman’s story and candor in sharing her experience bring more visibility to the need for fertility reform? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Stephanie is a nurse practitioner and solo mother by choice. Listening to the voices of donor conceived individuals led her to use a known donor rather than an anonymous donor as planned. Stephanie welcomed her son in June 2021. They live in the Midwest and regularly visit with his paternal family. Outside of work and advocacy, Stephanie is an avid hiker and travel lover.

Top Image by Markus Winkler via Unsplash