Does race matter when choosing a sperm donor?

Another question that could have been included in my recent post on Questions not to ask the mixed race daughter of two Jewish lesbians, but which I thought deserved a bit more space, is why my parents chose an Indian sperm donor? It’s not the question itself which bothers me, but some of the assumptions that can lie behind it: had my parents chosen a white sperm donor, I very much doubt that their decision would be subject to questioning – even though the broad category of ‘white’ can still encompass many differing cultural and ethnic backgrounds.

The act of choosing a sperm donor can be more or less complicated dependent on personal preferences. Primary decisions need to be made around the role and relation of the donor – whether he is someone known, and potentially involved with the child, such as a relative, friend, or friend-of-a-friend, or someone entirely anonymous. Basic non-identifying factors are typically considered, such as height, hair colour, medical background and blood group. And finally, some prospective parents are interested in more than mere appearance and health, considering the donor’s personality and achievements, such as education level, musical talent and sporting prowess; looking at childhood photos; and reading letters from the donor explaining his decision to donate.

For my own parents, the criteria were pretty simple. He had to be:

  •         A man, with functioning sperm
  •         Healthy, and free from any genetic diseases
  •         Willing to donate sperm for a second child in a couple of years’ time
  •         Happy to be contacted should my brother or I wish to later in life

Clearly my parents erred on the side of nurture in the great nature v nurture debate; picking a neuroscientist wouldn’t necessarily ensure that I’d grow up to be bright, and seeing as they’d be stuck with me regardless they might as well just let nature do its random thing and focus their efforts to mould me into a tolerable human being on the parenting side of things.

In actual fact, the sperm donor who finally ended up contributing to my existence, was the second man my parents tried to conceive with. We’ll call the first man Pietro.

Pietro was a man known to my parents, and he was half Indian and half Italian. The plan was for Pietro to play a role in my life. For a good two years, Leah tried to get pregnant with the aid of Pietro’s sperm, but to no avail. They had to pretend to be a heterosexual couple to seek treatment on the NHS (luckily, things have moved on since the 1980’s). Turns out that Pietro’s sperm weren’t quite up to the job, so Leah and Deborah had to find a new donor. Race didn’t really come into it – having two healthy babies was the primary concern.

Leah and Deborah could have used a sperm bank, but at the time these were uncommon and unregulated (until the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990). Men donating to sperm banks were also guaranteed anonymity, and my mums wanted to make sure my brother and I would have the choice to make contact with our donor when we were older. In a sense, their desire to give us choice therefore limited their own.

As a sperm bank was ruled out, my mums placed advert and half a dozen men responded. Of these, a couple weren’t willing to forego their right to anonymity, and others were unsuitable on health grounds. The man they chose was the best respondent by far, fitting all of their criteria. He also happened to be Indian. Race was never a dealbreaker. My mums certainly weren’t going to decline any suitable candidates on racial grounds. Heck, they were lesbian mothers who knew to expect a certain degree of ignorance and intolerance – they weren’t intimidated by adding more layers of diversity to the family.

Furthermore, my parents knew that they wanted my primary identity to be a Jewish one, and Jews of different colours and sub-cultures can be found all over the world, including India. Had my parents used a white donor, who’s to say that I would have been any culturally closer to my biological roots? There’s arguably as big a gap between a tall, athletic, light-haired Dane (Danish donors being particularly common) and my Ashkenazi, Mediterranean-looking birth mother, as between her and a small Indian man. And as my mums wanted to give birth to a child each, they couldn’t choose a sperm donor who looked like the other mother, as some couples choose to do so that their children can resemble both parents.

My parents chose to use the sperm available to them, and not to worry about the race of its donor. Like any good parents of biracial children, they believed that race wasn’t all-important, but acknowledged that it was meaningful. When they’d planned a child with Pietro, he had been expected to play a part in educating us about our heritage. Although this wouldn’t be possible with the eventual donor, who wouldn’t be involved in our lives, my parents had still spent two years thinking about the relevant implications of having mixed race children, so when the best potential donor turned out to be of Indian origin, my parents couldn’t see a reason not to use him.

When you have a child, there is a lot you can’t control, and some things that you won’t share with your child but which you have to learn to deal with quickly. Your child might have a physical disability or medical condition. They might be transgendered, have learning difficulties, or be a genius. Good parents will adjust to their child’s circumstances – raising them in recognition of their personal needs, even when they don’t share the exact same position.

Similarly, my parents knew my race would make me different and they parented me accordingly. As I grew up, they had age-appropriate conversations with me about racial identity. They filled the house with books and films which featured people with different skin tones and bodies, belonging to different races and cultures. They replaced words in fairy tales – turning Goldilocks into Shoshilocks. They bought me brown dolls (which was surprisingly hard to do at the time – I remember Leah being thrilled on finding one in a charity shop). The only Barbie I owned was a Pocahontas (though I’m sure that’s also in part due to their feminist sensibilities). They based themselves in a diverse city and made sure I mixed with other non-white children. They encouraged me to embrace my Indian heritage, but allowed me to self-define as I wished.

So I guess the point of this post had been to say that whilst my donor’s race was not at all important, mine and my brother’s is, and has been treated as such by our parents, but not to the exclusion of other aspects of our identity – race is just one feature of who we are. Racial identity is far more complex than somebody’s external appearance, and my brother and I differ in the ways we identify and perceive ourselves – to be half Indian was never a guarantee that we’d turn out a certain way. My parents did an excellent job of bringing us up to be proud of who we are and aware of what it means to be mixed-race and brown. I’m pretty sure though, that had my parents used a white sperm donor, the child I would have been would be fairly similar to who I am today. Certainly my life has been shaped by being half-Indian, and I have a high awareness of issues around race, but it’s only been one of many influences in my life. Mostly, I’m just glad that I’m happy and healthy – which was always my parents’ number one priority.




4 thoughts on “Does race matter when choosing a sperm donor?

  1. Shay

    I appreciated this view point, however, I do think that how important the donor’s race is depends greatly on what race you’re talking about, and what area one lives in. I am mixed black/white, and My partner is white. We have had so many conversations about this because we would like for each of us to get pregnant, and we would like them to have the same donor, so we want mixed race black/white sperm based on how pronounced race relations are in Philadelphia, where we live, and how many implications there are with being black or white in America as a whole. We have had to consider that for example, if my white partner takes out our child if they are more white, or even more black presenting, that they will be interpreted as being their mom. However, if I take out a more white presenting child (given that I am medium brown skinned) I in Philly would likely be read as being her nanny. These are not far fetched guesses, this is what Philadelphia is. Likewise, we have had to consider the implications of having a black presenting son, given that unjustified stop and frisks are somewhat of an epidemic here and we have many people in our lives that have been the unfortunate subject of that practice. So we can say that this does not matter too much, but that would be a gross overgeneralization, and it would assume that every parent is ready to appropriately manage having a differently raced child. Because while I appreciate that your parents did a good job of that, the overwhelming majority would not. Ignorance is real.

    1. shoshana1989 Post author

      Hi, and thanks so much for your comment. I absolutely recognise and agree with everything you say. I very much blog from, and about, my own experience and naturally my family’s circumstances are very different to other families, all across the world. I’m lucky to have grown up in London, which is a diverse and reasonably tolerant city. I think my parents planned to raise us here, in recognition of the fact that we might experience more prejudice somewhere less multicultural. Like you say, in some cities and countries the factors surrounding a decision over the race of a donor are much more complex, which is a real shame in itself. The decision was still a very political one for my parents, but the implications of the decision were not as potentially significant as in other places.

  2. runawayeducationalist

    Thank you so much for such a well-written piece about the issues surrounding race. We are currently battling with making a selection as a white couple. We don’t think race is a central factor, but are concerned that we offer the very best experience to our child. We feel terribly torn, yours sounds like a wonderful accepting and thoughtful childhood with parents who have done a very good job of raising you 😊 we hope one day we can offer the same


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