Being admitted to California Cryobank as a sperm donor is a bit like getting into Harvard. The bank accepts fewer than 1 percent of its 26,000 annual applicants. (Harvard, in comparison, accepts about 6 percent of its approximately 35,000 undergraduate applicants.) Cryobank has even set up clinics in Cambridge, New York, Los Angeles, and Palo Alto specifically to be near the prestigious colleges from which it hopes to draw donors.
Raul Walters, whose name has been changed, represents the Cryobank’s ideal candidate. He is tall and good-looking, holds degrees from top schools, and enjoys a clean bill of health: no one in his immediate family has a history of cancer, early-onset heart disease, or mental illness.
Raul began donating sperm in 2004, to help finance a year off before law school. He was working on a novel while trolling for job opportunities on Craigs-list, and his wife was pregnant with their first child. “I had no real skills,” he said, “but I was six-three with a half-million-dollar education.” Like many of Cryobank’s target donors, Raul is goal-oriented, and he admitted that the selectivity was also part of the allure.
Raul made about $10,000 total by donating a couple of times a week for a year and a half, at $70 a sample. He didn’t dwell on the outcome—the possible children, the various mothers. He went on with his plans for a legal career, his artistic pursuits, and his own family life. Last year, he mentioned to colleagues that he’d been a sperm donor during his time off. “Have you ever Googled your donor number?” one of the other lawyers asked.
Raul had not. But that morning at work he typed his donor number into the search engine. The first hit was a blog called Django Djournal, a mother’s chronicle of the baby, Django, she had conceived with Raul’s sperm. At the top of the page was a photo of a chubby 2-year-old in striped shorts, smiling halfheartedly—Raul himself as a toddler. “It was out of context,” he explained. “So it took me a minute to realize why it was familiar.” During the period he was donating, he’d sold the photograph to the bank for an extra $200, to give a sense of what a baby of his might look like.
The next photo on the page was of 6-month-old Django, and the resemblance was indeed striking—the dark hair and eyes, the open face. Raul and his wife had two children of their own by this time, and Django resembled them, too. What made the blog entry even more transfixing, though, were the photographs of two other babies also conceived with Raul’s sperm. Their mothers had tracked down the blog, and the result was an impromptu online community of mothers who’d used Raul’s sperm. As Django’s mother, who goes by “Mama K” on the blog, wrote:
I didn’t give much thought to the idea of other children by the donor I chose … You can imagine my surprise then, when, in one whirlwind of a weekend, I received emails from the moms of two other [babies by the same donor].
Raul struggles to describe how he felt when he saw these children. “You know how it feels to come out of the trees on the coast and suddenly see the ocean?” he asked. “It’s so vast and incomprehensible. You have that moment of awe.”
Raul’s initial sperm donation had sold out quickly—so quickly, in fact, that in 2008 the bank asked Raul to come out of “retirement” to help a woman who had given birth to one child using his sperm conceive a full genetic sibling. (This time, because the donation required travel and time away from his job, he charged the bank his law firm’s daily rate. As he joked to me, “What part of people paying me for my sperm is ‘donation’?”)