When Angie Collins was a kid, she planned to become a nun. “I always wanted to be a mother, but the marriage part didn’t appeal to me,” she says. “I thought if I was a nun, I could live at an orphanage, and those could be my kids.” By the time she was in her late teens, she’d pinpointed the source of her aversion to marriage: She is gay. In 2002, she met a woman named Beth Hanson on LavaLife, and they fell in love. Collins is now 46, with elfin features and a folksy energy, while the blond, 56-year-old Hanson is quiet and sober-minded. Both are teachers: Collins works in the phys. ed. department at a private school in their hometown of Port Hope, Ont., and Hanson teaches music at a school in Toronto, about an hour away.
Ten years ago, they decided to have a baby. The couple spent months mulling over their reproductive options. Adoption would be too expensive and arduous, and they worried their same-sex status would work against them, a concern that seems almost antiquated a decade later. They considered using sperm from a friend or a family member, but their fertility doctor advised against it. Known donors aren’t legally compelled to relinquish their parental rights until after the baby is born, so there’s always the chance that a donor’s paternal instinct will kick in when he sees a kid that looks like him.
Instead, the doctor recommended that they use sperm from an anonymous donor. “It seemed simpler, more clear-cut, more black and white,” Collins says. “I realize now that there’s no such thing as black and white when you’re having a child. Even if it’s a heterosexual couple, one of them could have a medical history they don’t know about.”
The couple took their doctor’s advice and embarked on a search for sperm. First they looked at ReproMed, the only sperm bank that sells samples from Canadian donors to the public. At the time, it offered semen from only 40 men, and almost all of them were disqualified because Collins, who would be carrying the baby, had tested negative for cytomegalovirus, a harmless strain of the herpes virus that affects 50 percent of the population. But most of the donors were carriers, and doctors didn’t recommend matching with them. Next up was Can-Am Cryo-services, stocked with semen from Virginia, but it would cost them thousands of dollars just to pick a donor.
Finally, the couple landed on Xytex Corporation, a massive sperm bank based in Atlanta that’s licensed to peddle its product in Canada, Switzerland and the U.K. Despite its dystopian-sounding name, Xytex projected a wholesomeness that felt more like a cozy health care clinic than a multinational corporation to Collins and Hanson. Plus, it carried a diverse catalogue of sperm from more than 450 males. Before signing up, Collins called a Xytex rep and asked how the company screened its donors. She says the woman on the phone told her their procedures were so thorough, she’d know more about her donor than she ever could about a potential partner. Xytex tests for STIs and genetic conditions like cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy and sickle cell disease. Donors are also required to undergo a psychological examination, the rep stated, and fill out a thorough medical history. Collins and Hanson were sold. “People who are desperate for kids have blinders on,” Collins says.
The couple browsed donor profiles with the kind of gleeful anticipation and rigour other people reserve for Tinder. And in May 2006, they found the One. Donor 9623 was a 30-year-old from Georgia studying artificial intelligence. He had a sleepy grin and a lean frame; he was blond and blue-eyed, which meant the child might look a bit like Hanson. “The details on his profile suggested he had a pure, genuine interest in learning,” Collins says. He claimed his favourite book was Webster’s Dictionary, that he was fascinated by algorithms and crystallography, that he had an Einsteinian IQ of 160. Hanson, who’s an accomplished pianist, loved that he had training as a percussionist, and that his grandfather had worked as a musical conductor in Germany. Collins, meanwhile, got hearts in her eyes when she read that he liked swimming, lacrosse and hiking. “All the other donors vanished as soon as we saw his profile,” Hanson recalls. On his medical form, he recorded a family history of colour-blindness. Other than that, he said he had a clean bill of health.
Collins called Outreach Health Services, Xytex’s Canadian distributor, and paid $3,000 for six units of sperm from Donor 9623 — the bank was having a sale where you could get $20 off each unit if you bought them in bulk. Two weeks later, the frozen samples arrived, and Collins underwent intracervical insemination. She got pregnant immediately, and in July 2007 she and Hanson welcomed their son, whom I’ll call Jacob (they agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his name be withheld). “He was a bright little spark from the beginning. He lifted his head up and looked at the nurse the day he was born,” Collins recalls. “Babies don’t usually do that.”
Jacob grew up a happy, sociable kid. One day, when he was about seven, Collins received a notification from the Xytex donor sibling group, a message board that brings together parents who used the same donor. The company had accidentally included Donor 9623’s email address, which contained his last name, Aggeles. Curious, she Googled him and found his first name, Chris. Then she discovered he’d commented on a YouTube video about mental illness: “I have schizophrenia, and the ‘hearing voices’ is kind of hard to explain. . . . It’s like my thought gets interrupted by a voice that tells me something that usually has nothing to do with what I was just thinking. It’s usually mean, and will say things that are derogatory and demeaning to me.”
The couple soon learned that if one biological parent has schizophrenia, there’s a 10 percent chance that person’s child could develop the disorder in his or her late teens or 20s. Aggeles sold his sperm to Xytex several times between 2000 and 2014, likely earning $100 a shot, and he fathered at least 36 children. The statistics mean at least three of those offspring will inherit his mental illness. The women were suddenly faced with hard questions: How would they care for their son if he’s one of those three? And who’s responsible when the product that made him turns out to have been, for lack of a better term, falsely advertised?
The desire for a family is a near-universal impulse. But over the past few decades, a growing number of Canadian couples have needed help to make it happen — women are waiting longer to have kids and are seeking egg donors or surrogates, and more LGBT couples are becoming parents via artificial insemination. In 2011, Canadians had around 5,500 artificial inseminations; more than half of those were undergone by lesbian couples. To regulate the booming baby-making market, Parliament passed the Assisted Human Reproduction Act in 2004. It banned sex selection and human cloning and included a few other Frankenstein-y rules about creating chimeras and implanting them into non-human life forms. But the most significant change was a section that prohibited Canadians from paying sperm donors, egg donors or surrogates. At its core, the law was designed to curb the commercialization of human life and safeguard Canadians — especially the ones yet to be conceived.
To some degree, the law has had the opposite effect. Most donors, no longer lured by the promise of a $100 payout per contribution, stopped offering their services. The ones who remained were put through a rigorous screening process that involved multiple sperm and genetic tests, physical exams, quarantine periods and medical background checks. Over the next few years, more than 35 sperm banks across the country closed. These days, two Montreal fertility clinics — the Ovo Clinique de Fertilité and Procrea Fertilité — keep supplies of sperm from five or six donors each, but they’re for the clinic’s patients only. ReproMed in Etobicoke, Ont., is the last sperm bank that sells sperm from Canadian donors to the public. Between 750 and 1,000 men still apply to donate every year, but only five or so pass the required medical tests.
Currently, only 5 to 10 percent of artificial inseminations in this country use sperm from Canadian men. Most sperm seekers, including Collins and Hanson, are looking for a donor who shares physical attributes with one or both of the parents, so the child will resemble the parents. In a country as diverse as Canada, it’s hard to find a likeness in a small pool of 60-odd donors — an infertile Chinese-Canadian couple looking for a Chinese-Canadian donor may have only four or five options, while a single red-headed woman who wants a matching red-headed baby may not have any luck at all.
By inadvertently drying up the Canadian donor pool, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act has pushed many potential parents into the semi-regulated American market, which allows for all the boutiquey baby-making services Canadian law protects against. In the States, the for-profit fertility industry is worth about $3.5 billion, the same value as the massive U.S. online dating market. Donors, most of whom are college students or unemployed, get paid between $60 and $100 per contribution. Sperm banks are required to test for STIs, but all other medical background is self-reported. In 2012, Wendy Kramer, who runs a Colorado-based donor sibling registry for kids who want to find their biological family, surveyed 164 American sperm donors and found that 84 percent of them had never been contacted by the bank to update their health status after their initial visit.
Such loose requirements allowed Chris Aggeles’ fantasy profile to pass. Contrary to his claims, he was a college dropout and a drug user. In 2005, he was convicted of stealing music equipment from a home in Cobb County, Georgia, a crime that earned him eight months in prison. During a psych evaluation for the trial, he received a diagnosis of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder and drug-induced paranoia. By the time Collins and Hanson got hold of his sperm, he’d been institutionalized at least twice for psychiatric episodes and prescribed Zyprexa, an antipsychotic drug.
Collins and Hanson were floored by the revelation that their dream donor could have passed on debilitating genetic material to their son. “It was just a sick feeling to think, ‘Wow, we paid for this. We pored over profiles. We thought we were doing better than picking up a hitchhiker on the side of the road in his orange jumpsuit from jail,’ ” Collins says.
Upon discovering the truth about Aggeles, the couple called a lawyer and filed a lawsuit against Xytex and Outreach, the Canadian distributor, for failure to take reasonable measures and investigate Aggeles. They also alleged that Xytex had sold them a “defective product” — that Aggeles’ sperm was unsafe, had not gone through proper testing and could cause pain, suffering and potential serious injury should Jacob get sick. James Fireman, the lawyer representing Collins and Hanson, says, “No one is suggesting that they have to send the donor to the Mayo Clinic and have a $40,000 assessment. But there are simple measures that work — a criminal background check, a Google search. These things are not difficult.” The most novel allegation in their statement of claim is a charge of battery, because Collins would never have consented to being inseminated with Aggeles’ sperm if she had known the truth. “In this case, there is fluid that is being introduced to my client’s body. It fits very well into the legal definition of battery—it’s harmful or offensive contact,” Fireman says.
They’re seeking $4.7 million, an amount, they say, that will pay for medical and drug costs if their son gets sick and will cover punitive damages from Xytex. If the couple win, they hope to force sperm banks like Xytex to perform more thorough medical and criminal background checks. Four other Canadian families — two in B.C. and two in Ontario — who used Aggeles’ sperm have since joined them in the action.
The suit was originally heard in a Georgia courthouse, where the judge determined that it was essentially a wrongful-birth case, which means the medical professionals failed to warn parents about potential genetic risks. But wrongful birth isn’t recognized under Georgia law, so the judge threw out the suit. Since then, Collins and Hanson have refiled the case in a Newmarket, Ont., courthouse, and they’re awaiting a hearing. When the original case was dismissed, Xytex released a statement on its website denying the allegations: “We followed thorough procedures to review the health of the donor… He reported a good health history and stated in his application that he had no physical or medical impairments. This information was passed on to the couple, who were clearly informed the representations were reported by the donor and were not verified by Xytex.”
Legal experts familiar with the case agree that Xytex might have a moral imperative to dive deeper into its donors’ medical histories, but it is under no legal obligation to do so. Françoise Baylis, a bioethics professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, suggests the couple signed up for a risk by going to Xytex in the first place. “They could use an anonymous Canadian donor or ask someone they know to donate sperm. When you choose to go outside the country, sometimes there are consequences, and you have to accept personal responsibility,” she says. Collins bristles at the idea that she didn’t do her research and argues that Xytex breached the contract with its assertions that its staff took all reasonable measures to verify Aggeles’ credentials.
She doesn’t blame Aggeles — in fact, she suggests that Xytex exploited him, too. She believes he was probably as desperate for money as they were to have a child, and Xytex instituted a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy to cash in and avoid liability. (In September of this year, Aggeles turned himself in to Georgia police. He admitted to forging diplomas, which Xytex accepted, and lying about his mental illness.) Collins even concedes that the expectation of a perfect product is unrealistic when it comes to making a life: “In fairness to the company, I didn’t feel they were selling perfection. I felt that they were selling due diligence,” Collins says.
She and Hanson don’t seem to be railing against Aggeles or his schizophrenia, the fact that he spent time in prison or even Xytex’s supposed negligence. At the core of the problem is a lack of power over their own reproductive options and their child’s genetic history. Their issues with the American system serve to highlight the problems with the Canadian one. We’ve banned payment for sperm without providing an alternative.
Anthony Housefather, a Montreal member of Parliament, and chairman of the House of Commons Justice and Human Rights Committee, believes we need to accept the fact that Canadians are paying to conceive children. He’s pushing the federal health department to repeal the section of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act that bans payment for eggs, sperm and surrogacy. “It’s a ludicrous system,” he says. “We’ve destroyed the Canadian sperm market. We have educated, healthy people here, who would be just as willing to donate sperm as they would be in the U.S. if we paid them the same rates that American sperm donors get.” Housefather envisions a system where we pay donors for their time and their product but retain the stringent medical testing to ensure the contributions are safe — the best of both countries.
Still, other experts, like Baylis, are optimistic about the principles of altruistic sperm donation. She argues that we might be able to boost the number of local donors with educational campaigns, like we have for blood donors. One Danish sperm bank recently did just that, creating ads that stoke both the male ego and national pride by encouraging men to make “Viking babies.”
Jacob is nine now. According to his moms, he’s grown into a curious, quirky boy. His first passion was mapping — he learned all the street names in Port Hope and memorized the name and shape of each American state. Just like Hanson, he plays piano. Just like his donor, he plays the drums.
Collins and Hanson have always been open with Jacob about how he was born. When he was a baby, they joined Kramer’s Donor Sibling Registry, and he later memorized the names of all the other kids Aggeles helped conceive. And when they discovered the truth about Aggeles’ mental health, they told him a kid-friendly version of what was going on. “We said that the company didn’t do things they should have to make sure that the donors were healthy, and that his donor has something wrong with his brain.” He asked his moms if he was okay, and they told him he was fine. Then he said simply, “I hope I dream about handball tonight.”
So far, he’s shown no sign of mental illness, although schizophrenia doesn’t usually manifest until people are in their teens or early 20s. Jacob’s moms are planning to monitor him closely over the next few years, to discourage him from doing drugs (which can trigger or exacerbate schizophrenic episodes) and to discuss his genetic history with him in more depth. “I hope that when we talk to him about aspects of this case, he will be the understanding child that we’re trying to raise,” she says. “He’s the love of our lives.”