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InsemiNation

Anonymous Sperm Donation
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WebMD Feature

Aug. 20, 2001 -- When architect Bill Cordray was 37, he found out something about himself: He was conceived using artificial insemination -- a little secret that not only changed his life but also explained his life.

Cordray, who is now 55, says that from the time he was about 5 or 6 he sensed that his father, a man he loved and respected, wasn't his "real" father -- but he did feel a biologic link to his mother. Over the years he worked this out by guessing that his mother had an affair, an idea that was troubling to him for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his reluctance to believe that his mother would betray his "father."

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Artificial insemination is not cutting-edge fertility technology -- the first recorded case dates back to 1884. At that time Dr. William Pancoast of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia used a rubber syringe to insert semen donated by a medical student into the uterus of an anonymous Quaker woman who was unable to conceive with her husband. Nine months later the woman gave birth to a son.

A Legacy of Secrecy

The woman was sedated during the process and Pancoast never told her what he did. So Pancoast's work is notable on two accounts: It introduced a technique that has since been used in the conception of hundreds of thousands of people, and he decided to cloak his actions in secrecy.

That secrecy is only recently being questioned. At the time that Cordray was conceived, the procedure was not only secret but also his mother had to sign a statement agreeing that she would never disclose the circumstances of his conception. Cordray was one of three brothers conceived with donor sperm, while a fourth and oldest brother was adopted.

The sperm donor in his case was one of the graduates of the University of Utah School of Medicine, class of 1945. He says that the 35 members of the class are still alive and he plans to write to each of them in an attempt to identify the donor. Although he's known about the circumstances of his birth for almost 20 years, he has put off attempting to contact the donor because of concerns about rejection.

But now Cordray says his oldest child, a 28-year-old daughter, is urging him to write the letter. She's eager to have a full genetic history as well as to "be able to trace our history," he says.

The circumstances surrounding Cordray's conception are fairly typical of artificial insemination for most of the last century. Donors were usually medical students, and the inseminations were handled in the private offices of obstetrician/gynecologists who often swore their patients to secrecy. At that time only fresh sperm could be used for insemination, but that changed when technology advances allowed it to be successfully frozen and stored. That opened the door for sperm banks.

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