The Origins of Donor Insemination

7 Sep

Seen as sperm banks and donor sperm will be talked about so often in this blog , I thought it fitting to enlighten myself and my readers to its origins.

Sperm banks are commonly called cryobanks.

The prefix “cryo” comes from the Greek word “kryos,” meaning cold or frost. The science of cryogenics deals with the effects of extremely cold temperatures on matter.

The following is a very interesting history of donor insemination (DI). Of course IVF came much later.

It wasn’t until 1964 that Georgia in the US became the first state to pass a statute legitimising children conceived by DI, but only on the condition that both the husband and wife consented in writing.

Fortunately, most of the world has come to its senses and women no longer need the permission of men to conceive, should they wish to do it alone.

An excerpt from “Sperm Banking: A Reproductive Resource” by Sonia Fader.

Although we tend to think of artificial insemination as a modern technology, it has a history dating back to 1779. That was the year an Italian priest and physiologist named Lazaro Spallanzani performed a laboratory experiment that revolutionized scientific thinking.

Until that time, our understanding of reproduction was based on our understanding of how plants grow. It was believed that the embryo was the “product of male seed, nurtured in the soil of the female.” Spallanzani’s experiment established for the first time that for an embryo to develop there must be actual physical contact between the egg and the sperm.

Armed with this new understanding, Spallanzani successfully inseminated frogs, fish and dogs. But while the artificial insemination of animals was quickly propelled into an industry, the application of this technology to “growing” of human babies proceeded cautiously.

The first successful artificial insemination of a woman was recorded just eleven years after Spallanzani’s experiment. In 1790, the renowned Scottish anatomist and surgeon, Dr. John Hunter, reported that he had successfully inseminated the wife of a linen draper, using her husband’s sperm.

For over a century nothing more was heard on the subject. Then, in 1909, a letter appeared in the American journal, Medical World, spotlighting another aspect of the little known procedure. In the letter, the author, Addison Davis Hard, claimed that the first human donor insemination had been performed at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1884—twenty-five years earlier.

According to Hard’s letter, the mother, a patient of Dr. William Pancoast, was the Quaker wife of a local merchant, fifteen years her senior. The couple had come to the doctor seeking advice about her inability to have children. Extensive examinations of the woman revealed no abnormality. Finally, the husband was examined. It was discovered that he was azoospermic, or sterile.

According to Hard’s letter, when Dr. Pancoast discussed the case with his medical students, including Hard, someone in the group suggested that semen should be collected from the “best looking” member of the class, and used to inseminate the woman. Dr. Pancoast agreed to the experiment. Without informing either the woman or her husband of his intentions, he called the merchants wife back under the pretense of doing another examination.

The woman was anesthetized, and the procedure was carried out. It wasn’t until it became evident that the woman had actually conceived that her husband was informed. Fortunately, he was pleased. At his request, his wife was never told how she became pregnant. Hard’s letter went on to say that, as a result of this medical school experiment, the merchant’s wife gave birth to a son, who became the first known child by donor insemination (DI).

The idea of applying artificial insemination to human propagation was difficult enough for turn-of-the-century society to accept: to use the sperm of a man other than the woman’s husband was scandalous. Hard’s letter triggered heated debate among lawyers, moralists, theologians and medical practitioners.

However, after a year of debates, the controversy, as the practice itself, appears to have faded into oblivion. If any doctors were treating infertility through DI, they were doing it with the utmost discretion. DI remained virtually unknown to the public until 1954. That was the year the first comprehensive account of the process was published in The British Medical Journal.

As it had before, donor insemination provoked heated public debate. The Archbishop of Canterbury established the first in a long procession of commissions that, over the years, inquired into the development of the practice.

The first commission produced a report strongly critical of DI, and recommended that the practice be made a criminal offense. A Parliamentary Commission agreed. In Italy, the Pope declared DI a sin, and proposed that anyone using the procedure be sent to prison.

In that same year (1954), on this side of the ocean, the Supreme Court of Cook County ruled that regardless of a husband’s consent, DI was “contrary to public policy and good morals, and considered adultery on the mother’s part.” The ruling went on to say that, “A child so conceived, was born out of wedlock and therefore illegitimate. As such, it is the child of the mother, and the father has no rights or interest in said child.”

This perspective was maintained as late as 1963, when a court in the United States held that a DI child was illegitimate because the sperm donor was not married to the child’s mother. Regardless of her husband’s consent, the court stated, the woman’s insemination constituted adultery.

But a year later, there were signs that attitudes were changing. In 1964 Georgia became the first state to pass a statute legitimizing children conceived by DI, on the condition that both the husband and wife consented in writing.

In 1973 the Commissioners on Uniform State Laws, and a year later, the American Bar Association, approved the Uniform Parentage Act. This act provides that if a wife is artificially inseminated with donor semen under a physician’s supervision, and with her husband’s consent, the law treats the husband as if he were the natural father of the DI child. The laws most states have enacted pertaining to DI have been based on this act. In every case, the statute makes it clear that the donor who provides the doctor or sperm bank with sperm is not the legal father of any child conceived by that sperm.

One court ruling in particular is relevant: the 1968 People V. Sorensen. While an earlier (1945) oral opinion in an Illinois case held that donor insemination was neither adultery nor grounds for divorce; it was not until the Sorensen case that a court ruled the DI child was legitimate.

In the Sorensen case, the California Supreme Court upheld the criminal conviction of a man for not supporting a DI child conceived with his consent during marriage. Sorensen claimed the child was not his; therefore he had no obligation to support it. The court ruled that the sperm donor had no more responsibility for the use of his sperm than a blood donor had for his blood. The court noted, “Since there is no ‘natural father’, we can only look for a lawful father.” And that was Sorensen.



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