Battles over reproductive territory are being fought all around us. Single women stand up for their rights to have IVF: the Roman Catholic Church, encouraged by our Prime Minister, tries to have the Sex Discrimination Act amended to prevent them from having access to assisted reproductive technology of any kind. Lesbian couples proudly show off their children while others warn against the destruction of the family if not the end of civilisation as we know it. A Victorian woman fights in court to conceive using her dead husband’s sperm, against state opposition. A politician making political capital out of the return of a lost son finds himself bewildered over sperm that failed to behave as expected and the son vanishes. Debates about the meaning of that episode have fuelled conversations for months.
It was to bring some of the opposing parties together and to demonstrate that it’s not a simple them-and-us, bipolar dispute that we edited Sperm Wars: The rights and wrongs of reproduction. Sperm Wars travels from wanting a baby to the reflections of those babies as adolescents and adults. On the way, it covers society’s attempts to police who can reproduce; the slippage between donating sperm, selling it, and parenting; the role of specialist clinics; how women who need sperm get it; and families that don’t fit the mould.
Sperm Wars includes chapters by men whose children were conceived in the traditional way and who are bringing them up in nuclear families, alongside chapters written by sperm donors and men who became fathers using sperm from donors. There’s a chapter about the historical significance of sperm and the changing ways in which they have been understood and used, from the shock of seeing little wriggly things under an early microscope to the even greater shock of using semen as hair gel in a movie or artistically splashed across photographs in galleries. A radical feminist asserts her long-standing opposition to all kinds of assisted reproduction.
Diverse families are well represented, as are different ways of being fathers including speculation on what, indeed, fatherhood might mean. Children conceived by donor sperm give very different accounts of what it has meant to them, and mothers who have garnered sperm in a variety of ways describe how they explain it all to themselves, their children, and inquisitive strangers. One riveting chapter reveals what happened when a lesbian couple contacted the man whose donated sperm gave them a baby. In the next chapter, his wife tells what it meant to her.
These are pivotal times for reproduction. Making babies is big business, and the business of making babies is no longer something that routinely happens in the privacy of one’s own home. The right to parent is hotly contested. Biology isn’t enough to determine who can reproduce, and the state is unsure how to respond to the challenges of the new reproductive technologies. Battles over access to and use of sperm are playing havoc with our ideas of what makes a family and who is or can be a parent. Laws, moral codes, and public understanding lag behind what’s desirable and technologically possible.
The debate is currently dominated by a new attention to children’s rights. This emphasis is reflected throughout this book as many of our contributors grapple with what’s best for their children, born and unborn, and for a just society. The move to children’s rights has been both good and bad. The good is obvious: children need to be protected, well-cared for, and loved. But there has been an often unidentified tendency to see rights as hierarchical rather than complementary and for the principle of children’s rights to be used as a weapon in the battle over the family.
We argue that the rights of adults, children, and the community need to be balanced. We are concerned about the divisiveness of current disputes over who may or may not reproduce, and the role of the federal government in limiting what may be understood as a family.
Sperm Wars contributes to the complex task of untangling the dilemmas posed by new reproductive possibilities in Australia and elsewhere. They are intimate as well as political, sexual as well as medical. The book grapples with raunchy urges and profound longings in a context where we all believe we have right on our side. It links abstract ideas with policy, personal stories with analysis of the broader debate.
We wanted to do this book because it’s easy to keep silent about reproductive choices; because it’s too easy to decide that these are private matters that don’t affect what is going on around us. Case after controversial case illustrates the complex responses evoked by sperm, paternity and fatherhood.
The Raelians, as well as some entirely reputable scientists, claim that sperm are not always necessary for reproduction. Peter Costello is urging us to breed for Australia while threatening to restrict Medicare funding for assisted reproduction. We’ve got US soldiers freezing their sperm to avoid becoming infertile victims of friendly fire from biological weapons. And sperm donors are paying maintenance for donor offspring despite agreements reached before conception.
Through all this confusion surrounding sperm and their proper uses, masculinity, fertility, and virility remain linked. Indeed, the decline in men’s fertility with increasing age is rarely publicly acknowledged, while the reproductive feats of men like Charlie Chaplin in their 80s and 90s are celebrated as a mark of virility, with no suggestion that a genetic test could reveal a little assistance from younger sperm. It’s still an insult to suggest that a man is infertile, just as it is a threat to his masculinity if he discovers that he has been fathering children who are not biologically his.
Of course, it’s more complicated than masculinity, although that’s complicated enough. For many people the biological connection between parent and child matters: we are no more than our genes, modified, perhaps, by our environment. Genes symbolise heritage and continuity. Within their spirals they carry the weight not only of biology but of family and culture. Before we knew about genes there were other markers of our place in the world, other definitions of us. Genes now represent a kind of barcode, inserted when egg and sperm meet.