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Donor Unknown: Adventures in the Sperm Trade


Sperm donation is an ethical and emotional minefield. It’s one of those sensitive issues with equally passionate and valid views on both sides of the debate. Even bystanders not directly involved or affected will have a strong opinion on its morality. The consequences and motivations of such anonymous, industrial giving of life can be dissected and analysed again and again, for positives and negatives. Endless reams could be written on the subject without resolving the issue one way or another.

It’s also one of those topics that often only interests people when looked at from monstrous and extreme angles. For example a few years ago a documentary called “The Sperminator” about a man running a clinic who provided all the samples himself, when he told prospective parents that there was an extensive bank to meet their specific requests and requirements, caused a lot of controversy and generated a lot of interest. People enjoy being shocked by grotesque scandals such as this, simultaneously intrigued and repulsed by the potential for ignorant incest. The human side of this relatively new phenomenon is usually overlooked.

Donor Unknown is almost exclusively about the very human effects of sperm donation. It’s an extremely admirable and accomplished piece of filmmaking. Over the course of its engaging and economical 78 minute runtime, this film gradually and thoroughly explores the sperm trade by maintaining a tight human focus. Hollywood blockbusters lack both the heart and surprising plot twists of Donor Unknown and it deserves a grander home than TV screens. With its editing and pacing and diverse locations across America, this is a film that shows off the art of documentary storytelling at its best.

Much of the film is seen through the lens of JoEllen, a girl on the cusp of pretty womanhood, who has come to terms with her lack of a father throughout childhood. Her mother has always been honest about the way in which she was conceived, with a little help from “donor 150”. But although she’s grown up with the affection of a loving family and lived a privileged, seemingly happy existence, there is always something missing. A great big “what if” is constantly nagging at JoEllen’s wellbeing and sense of identity. 

Meanwhile on Venice Beach in LA, Jeffrey lives with his four dogs and the occasional pigeon. He’s quite clearly a hippy, living a simple life in a RV, loving his dogs and being kind to those he meets. With his long hair and tanned, excess wearied face, it’s difficult to imagine he was once a muscular model in Playgirl who once made a living from stripping. He explains that he was asked by a woman he met at the hairdresser’s during those years of his prime, whether or not he’d like to donate sperm so she could have a baby. Obviously he was taken aback but after speaking to a close friend who was a loving mother, he decided to give this relative stranger the opportunity of motherhood and hope that fate rewarded him for his good deed.

Donor Unknown also talks to the staff at the Californian Cryogenic Centre, that aims to have the largest collection of sperm donors in the world. We see the specimens stored in huge vats and we have numbers like 200 billion fired at us. We’re assured that this centre alone could repopulate the world in the event of some disaster making such measures necessary. We’re shown the “masturbatory emporiums” with walls colourfully adorned to aid the donation process, with the more sample provided the better. The chambers increase in eroticism along the corridor, we’re told.

And so we are eased gently into sperm donation, with a balance of real human effects and the technology involved. JoEllen’s hole in her existence is contrasted with the motivation of mothers to turn to donors like Jeffrey, along with his reasons for helping out.

Then we’re hit with the bombshell of JoEllen finding a sibling. Her half sister lives in New York and they meet after discovering each other via an online register, where you simply register your donor number. Her identity issues are even deeper than JoEllen’s because she has been lied to until the age of about 14. She resents her parents for the deception and feels immensely confused and hurt. As a teenager it’s a lot to take onboard and extremely destabilising. Desperate for a link to a missing 50% of her, she finds JoEllen and then gets a story onto the front of the New York Times, without her parents’ knowledge.

At this point Donor Unknown becomes extremely uplifting, as more and more siblings come forward who were fathered by “donor 150”. Via the internet an unconventional patchwork family forms across America’s very different states, bringing absent intimacy, connection and love into the lives of more than a dozen children. JoEllen methodically keeps track of all her lost brothers and sisters, meeting most of them and forming attachments, filling in the missing side of her family tree slightly. The genetic quirks and likenesses are touching and fascinating to behold, as the screen flits rapidly through the faces and mannerisms of all the “150” siblings.

But then Donor Unknown changes gear to look at yet another aspect of the trade. After gently gaining your attention and emotional investment, we finally come to the really dark side of sperm donation. One of the siblings, Rachelle, expresses her constant doubts and worries about dating. She has specifically stuck to foreign guys or people that for other reasons definitely could not be related. An interview with the founder of the online register, a mother of a donor child herself, reveals that there are no limits on the number of children a donor can father, despite the claims of clinics.

The Californian Cryogenic Centre is also at pains to point out their range of choice and the extensive information they offer. But the answers of donor questions can be as misleading as they are informative. Jeffrey for example, said he was a dancer when he was a stripper and said he studied philosophy when he spent little time in college. His spiritual waffle won over scores of prospective parents but he is in reality something of a waster, an idealistic hippy and eccentric weirdo. He believes in worrying conspiracy theories and has an unnatural attachment to animals after a troubled childhood.

Beneath it all though he is a kind man and the ending to Donor Unknown is unquestionably back in the uplifting zone. Whatever the dangers and wrongs of the sperm industry, it has the power to create the amazing gift of life. Without the fakery of actors to bring it down, Donor Unknown soars to interesting and touching heights, telling the modern, interconnecting tales of real people.

Ed Miliband can learn from Obama the salesman


President Obama’s State of Union address was a politically shrewd and inspirational sales pitch. At times it felt like a return to the stirring rhetoric of his election campaign which so captured the hearts of not only Americans, but citizens across the globe. He was playing his back-up card, his own magnetic charisma and charm, in an attempt to recover the legacy of his first term. It was a bold speech but it wasn’t flawless; occasionally Obama uncharacteristically tripped over his words and the key policy goals won’t win over everyone. But often his tone and message seemed perfectly tailored to the mindset of his nation. Despite the patriotic focus on America however there are numerous lessons leaders of left-wing political parties around the world, especially Labour’s Ed Miliband, can learn from the tactics, execution and content of the President’s speech.

There was a somewhat forced emphasis on pluralism and cooperation across the political spectrum. Ed Miliband has already started to learn this lesson himself. He began his tenure as leader aggressively pursuing the Lib Dem vote and he has now softened his approach to encourage teamwork against the worst of the cuts, and leave the way clear for a Lib-Lab coalition. In particular he’s gone to considerable lengths to retract comments he made about Nick Clegg, in the heat of the moment swept up by the public venom for the man, to appease the Lib Dem leader in the event of a close parliament once again at the next election. President Obama repeatedly praised the new Republican leader of Congress and even incorporated the story of his humble background into the appealing sense of patriotism and history coursing through the blood of his words.

This search for common ground with Republicans was of course necessary. The Mid-Term results left Obama in a desperate legislative position and in dire need of supporters for his landmark policies on both sides of American politics. Health Care has bogged down Obama’s Presidency thus far and in this speech he sought to draw a line under it. In the spirit of national cooperation, which Obama highlighted so much during his election campaign and then unwisely forgot during his first years in power, he asked anyone with improvements to the Health Care Bill to come forward and work with him. He also quipped that he had heard some people still had problems with it, laughing off the gaping ideological divide. Instead he set his sights firmly on a new ambitious primary objective and set about selling it in a way that would appeal to both hesitant Republicans and indifferent voters.

At the core of this address was a striking commitment to green-tech and clean energy. You could see the firm imprint of the devastating Gulf of Mexico oil leak on the President’s words as he announced wave after wave of intention to develop green programmes. I urged David Cameron on this blog to utilise the platform presented by the oil leak for green growth and it seems Obama is finally seizing the opportunity to push through his Climate Change objectives under a different guise. And that’s the vital point about this speech; the way in which Obama sold the solutions to Climate Change and the environmental challenge.

Nowhere do the words “climate” or “global warming” appear in the text of the address. At no point does he bellow any frightening warnings about the excess of the American way of life, but the implications are there. He uses the guilt, anger and worry people feel about the oil leak to smuggle in leftist policies like the removal of subsidies for oil companies, who are “doing just fine on their own”, and tax breaks for millionaires. He cites the deficit, the Republican’s Holy Grail (much like the Conservatives here) as his main reason for such money saving measures, not punishing success, an obstacle so often to the removal of unfair, outdated tax relief for the wealthiest in the States. He reinforces his deficit argument still further by promising a prolonged spending freeze which he backs up with figures that claim to eat away at the debt at unprecedented levels. Could some Republicans be warming to the President’s policies?

You’d think not if he was emphasising investment for green energy and massive cuts to emissions. But Obama’s presentation of the measures was key. He talked about “winning the future” and set up the race for clean energy between America and China, drawing comparisons with the Communist struggle and the space race. He set about inspiring his countrymen, and patriotic Republican opponents, by fusing the need for a green revolution with a sense of historic nationalism and pride in America’s achievements.

“The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. …

We’ll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology — an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.

Already, we are seeing the promise of renewable energy. Robert and Gary Allen are brothers who run a small Michigan roofing company. After September 11th, they volunteered their best roofers to help repair the Pentagon. But half of their factory went unused, and the recession hit them hard.

Today, with the help of a government loan, that empty space is being used to manufacture solar shingles that are being sold all across the country. In Robert’s words, “We reinvented ourselves.”

That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves. And to spur on more success stories like the Allen Brothers, we’ve begun to reinvent our energy policy. We’re not just handing out money. We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams of the best minds in their fields, and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo Projects of our time.”

When Obama was elected, even I in rural England, felt a part of real history for the first time in many years. It’s easy in our modern world to feel like it’s all been done and there are no discoveries left, no bold new challenges to conquer or visions to forge and realize. But with Obama’s reference to the “Apollo projects of our time” he excites people and presents Climate Change and its problems as an opportunity to reinvent in fairer, bigger and better ways. He pledged to aim for 80% of American energy to be green by 2035 and for 80% of Americans to have access to the enormous potential of high-speed rail within 25 years.  When these figures are all about doom and gloom Climate Change, which some people still doubt, they leave voters cold. But simplify the message to security, better environment and more jobs and a stronger economy, and they’re interested. 

I’ve thought for a long time that Climate Change is the challenge of our generation, one we cannot afford to ignore, but that it is also an opportunity for a reinvention of society with the potential to banish unfairness and find sustainable solutions to poverty. Green politicians are constantly going at the issue in the wrong way, an alienating way. Ed Miliband and his new Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls need a plan for growth. This plan needs to not only be credible and obviously a better route to deficit reduction than Coalition cuts, but inspirational and worthy of votes. Miliband needs his own “Big Society” idea and sell green growth, like Obama in his State of Union address, and he has it; a popular economic policy with a vision that can define his new party. Britons too have a strong sense of history, when it’s properly stimulated, and Miliband could make the case for Britain becoming a world leader on green growth. In fact follow Obama’s example and major policy areas suddenly entwine and give much needed direction; the economy and the deficit, security and Britain’s foreign policy role, our partnership with America and Climate Change.

Of course Obama might not succeed and it certainly seems unlikely he’ll achieve everything he aimed for in his speech. But he has set out a direction for the end of his term. One that could potentially change his country and the world for the better. Ed Miliband can’t afford to dither much longer about the direction of his party. The longer he waits the harder it will be to achieve genuine policy goals he has long committed to, like a banking bonus tax, a solution to tuition fees and investment instead of cuts. Sell it all under the right sort of green banner and he has a refreshing, substantive alternative to Cameron’s bruising cuts and hollow “Big Society”.