A Family Portrait: Brothers, Sisters, Strangers

A 20-Year-Old with 32 Half-Siblings Tells His Story

(photo: Register Files)

Feminist icon Gloria Steinem recently derailed a bill that would have legalized commercial surrogacy in New York state and had strong support from Gov. Andrew Cuomo and LGBT activists.

In a letter to state lawmakers, Steinem attacked the practice of paying a woman to carry a child as “exploitative,” especially for poor women. But she didn’t talk about whether so-called “gestational surrogacy” or other reproductive technologies that often involve donated eggs or sperm, and may feature plans to purposely separate the intended child from their biological mother or father, were good for the boys and girls who came into the world as a result of such practices.

Now, in a photo essay for the New York Times, Eli Baden-Lasar, the 20-year old son of an anonymous sperm donor, offers a moving and disturbing portrait of such children that may encourage a much-needed reassessment of reproductive technologies.

Raised by a lesbian couple, Baden-Lasar discovers in late adolescence that he has a number of half-siblings — 32 at last count.

His parents’ failure to consider this possibility is inexplicable, he admits. One of his parents is an ObGyn, and they purposefully chose a donor from the registry of California Cryobank, the largest sperm bank in the nation, whose sperm had already produced a successful birth.

He does not offer his own explanation for this oversight. But readers will likely conclude that his parents were in denial about the practice of selecting a sperm donor form a large sperm bank, and wanted to believe that the circumstances of their son’s birth were entirely normal.

 A budding photographer, Baden-Lasar decided to visit his half-siblings who live across the country, and take their photographs.

“A Family Portrait: Brothers, Sisters, Strangers” is how the Times describes the 32 images he produced over 10 months, with travel to 16 states.

It is worth taking a few moments to examine the photographs.

The young faces reveal striking similarities, and many subjects look like they could be related.

Also, no one cracks a smile. Is that a result of the photographer’s artistic license, or a natural response to an encounter that stirs disturbing emotions about the circumstances of one’s birth?

Eli Baden-Lasar doesn’t say. But he admits that his visit with each sibling is like navigating a minefield, and he can’t rush the process.

“The emotional labor of the project was intended to be almost reparative — a response to the transactional nature of the sperm bank and the financial exchange our parents made in order to create us,” he says.

During a visit to a half-sibling’s home in Honolulu, he wakes up the morning feeling disoriented. “And I remember thinking: Why am I here? Whom can I hold accountable for this feeling? The bank? My parents? The donor? Myself? What am I doing exactly? And what am I trying to accomplish?”

The meetings of stranger-siblings also stir up feelings of guilt: What does he owe to blood relations he only just met and might not see again “for a very long time, if ever?”

After driving for 12 hours with a half-sister, they say goodbye and she tells him, “I don’t know if it’s too early to say this, but I heart you.”

He understands that it took courage for her to say this, and responds warmly, if not with full sincerity: “I heart you, too.”

In the background — out of sight, but not out of mind — lurks the anonymous sperm donor who binds all these young people together. Some of the half-siblings have tried and failed to meet him.

“He represented this absence we all had in common, almost a spectral figure hovering above our lives. Some siblings, once they turned 18, had written to the donor and received long letters back. A different sibling told me that although he wasn’t interested in actually contacting the donor, he wished he had the ability to be invisible, to watch over him for one day as he went about his life, a sort of inversion of the dynamic.”

During the most disturbing scene depicted in this essay, a group of half-siblings obtains “an audio interview of the donor that the bank made.” They listen to the recording, “huddled in a circle in a sort of séance.”

At one point, the “donor” is asked whether he would like to say anything to the children who will be conceived with his sperm, and he responds: “I wish them all the luck.”

The statement provokes a variety of responses from his offspring.

“One sibling scribbled that on his bedroom wall during high school in colorful chalk as if it were an inspirational quote.”

But the photographer interprets it as “an irreverent provocation: My job here is done. May the odds be ever in your favor.”

“Trying to understand what the donor means to me has been complicated. I never planned on trying to contact him, but I ultimately did to let him know about this project. He declined to be a part of it at this stage. To me, it is more interesting for him to remain the missing and invisible figure he has always been.”

“Interesting” is a strange word for this young man to use, when attempting to convey his feelings about an absent biological father. Didn’t Baden-Lasar just devote 10 months to a series of “reparative” visits with half-siblings?

Further, Baden-Lasar notes that the images of his half-siblings “capture a transitional stage in most of our lives ... The basketball hoop has fallen in the front yard; the prom dress has been tucked away in the back of the closet; the bicycle with training wheels will soon be thrown out or given away.”

But while such transitions are an expected part of every human life, there is something unhealthy here that the photographer hints at, but never precisely clarifies. The creepy feeling reminds me of the mood and characters depicted in Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel.

The lead characters are human clones who have been sequestered in a strange boarding school. They have been educated to accept their second-class status and the dark mission that lies ahead. Accordingly, they lack the social confidence and moral language to defy the appointed guardians who call the shots.

“Thinking back now,” says Kathy H., the 31-year-old narrator of Never Let Me Go, “I can see we were just at that age when we knew a few things about ourselves — about who we were, how we were different from our guardians, from the people outside — but hadn’t yet understood what any of it meant.”

Kathy H. turns out to be an unreliable narrator. Still, her loving commitment to her school friends allows her to transcend the dehumanizing circumstances of her own origins. She also marshals the strength of purpose she needs to confront the school guardians and demand a kind of reckoning.

“I can see,” one of the guardians admits to Kathy and her school friends, "that it might look as though you were simply pawns in a game. It can certainly be looked at like that." 

Eli Baden-Lasar’s photo essay mirrors Kathy H’s haunting search for meaning and dignity. And just as Ishiguro allows his readers to make their own moral judgments about the events depicted in the novel, so this young photographer stops short of taking a definitive position on such matters, despite the disturbing portraits he has produced.

Maybe a strong statement of condemnation would also be too painful for Baden-Lasar’s family.

And maybe he has concluded that our culture has come too far to turn back now. The adults who desperately want children, and the fertility experts who help them fulfill their dreams, are fully invested in this man-made enterprise. Meanwhile, the rest of us have mostly remained silent in the face of an ever more disturbing array of choices on offer.

In contrast, the Catholic Church has offered clear and prophetic teaching on reproductive technologies. 

“A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged ‘right to a child’ would lead,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2378).

“In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: the right ‘to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents,’ and ‘the right to be respected as a person from the moment of his conception.’”

Still, Eli’s photo essay is a shot across the bow of the fertility industry. As he makes clear, the “transactional nature of the sperm bank and the financial exchange our parents made in order to create us” have damaged the souls of these 33 half-siblings.