Hollywood Makes Light of Sperm Donors


I love how Hollywood raises important bioethical questions through movies. I’ve used The Sixth Day (2000) to discuss human cloning with students, John Q (2002) to discuss organ transplantation, and Gattaca (1997) to talk about IVF and genetic selection. These films are well-crafted dramas that raise important questions about exploitation and human nature.

But think about comedies for a moment. Rather than addressing serious issues, comedies can use the desensitizing power of laughter to suppress ethical uneasiness. Let’s talk about just one topic: sperm donors. For at least two decades, we’ve had plot lines that revolve around: a man who donates sperm while young; donor offspring seeking their biological father; or, a sperm donor who hunts for his children. In Made in America (1993), Whoopi Goldberg and Ted Danson portray two adults who discover that his sperm was used to create her daughter. Racial differences complicate the comedy, but eventually there is a heart-warming reconciliation of all parties.

Two decades later, stories featuring just one or two children and a sperm donor father continue. In The Back-up Plan (2010), Jennifer Lopez is a single woman who becomes pregnant using donor sperm just as she falls in love with another guy. The Switch (2010) makes light of a sperm mix-up among friends, as Jason Bateman discovers that he, not his best friend, is the father of Jennifer Aniston’s son. Toni Collette stars in an indie movie Jesus Henry Christ (2012) about a boy, Henry, who is a genius. Henry discovers that he is a test-tube baby. When the DNA tests come back, he identifies his true father and “the family he has longed for.”

Of course, Hollywood loves extremes, and the richness of serial sperm donor plotlines is irresistible. This fall, Delivery Man (2013) promises a comedic portrayal of an in-demand sperm donor who has fathered 533 children. 142 have discovered they are half-siblings, and sue to learn their father’s identity. Delivery Man is a remake of Starbuck (2011), a New Zealand production filmed in French and Spanish. Adding to the international cachet of sperm donation comedy is Vicky Donor (2012), a Bollywood production about a young man who is pursued as a sperm donor for a previously unsuccessful clinic. Everything falls apart after his marriage: he learns his wife is infertile, and she learns of his sperm donation. When she meets all the children he has fathered, she overcomes her disgust.  

These comedies have a rather shallow worldview. In most of these, the sperm donation is just a pretext for a romantic comedy. But underneath it is the premise that sperm donation itself isn’t wrong, or even all that unusual. Even the consequences, such as scores of donor offspring hunting for their father, are turned into a feel-good ending. In real life, the moral issues are deeper, and things often don’t work out well.

Summer is a great time for catching some movies and having a few laughs. Just don’t check your ethics at the door.

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