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The Virgin Father

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Trent lurked at first, still unsure whether he was even fertile. But after a woman from his hometown posted repeatedly to say she couldn’t find a donor, Trent knew she was the one. “I thought, I’m probably not going to hurt anyone. The worst that can happen is someone will waste their time with me.” He met the woman, a 37-year-old lesbian schoolteacher, and her partner, in December 2006 at a nearby Barnes & Noble, where the couple’s 3-year-old adopted daughter played while they questioned Trent for two hours. They liked that he’d been raised Christian and worked in technology. The recipient provided a donor contract, drafted by a lesbian-run law firm, negating both his paternal rights and responsibilities. The couple gave him a box of Ziploc food containers from Wal-Mart and scheduled a first appointment. On that day, they texted Trent when they were twenty minutes from his house, and he set to work on the “recovery,” as it’s known. When they rang his bell, he handed over a Ziploc. Two weeks later, they sent Trent another text, with good news. After a year of fruitless trips to a sperm bank, the recipient had gotten pregnant on Trent’s first try. “I was grinning from ear to ear,” he says, but he stayed quiet: He was in a car with his parents on vacation when he got the text.

The next three couples were also same-sex: a pair of Wal-Mart employees from Kansas who were in their early twenties, an early-thirties couple from the North Bay Area, and a Silicon Valley professional ­couple in their mid-thirties. Trent’s first biological child was delivered to the Fremont couple in September 2007. The next year, two more Trent children were born, both to women who had posted in the Yahoo Group. In 2009, Trent recorded only one birth—he suspects because that was a year when he was donating almost exclusively to remote recipients via FedEx, which was probably less effective. But by then he had also created a website, trentdonor.org, where anyone could review his personal information. The e-mails poured in. Most spoke of fertility struggles and depleted savings. The recipients were from varied ethnic backgrounds, and mostly lesbian, including several couples in the military. Some had nose rings and tattoos. Many were from low-income neighborhoods in Oakland. One was a colleague at Hewlett-Packard. In 2010, six women gave birth to children fathered by Trent. Last year, four more arrived. He’s now making fifteen donations a month, spacing them out by at least 24 hours to improve sperm count. He has stopped taking personal vacations longer than a day trip, because “I feel a vacation could result in a baby not being born.”

Although sperm is neither a food nor a drug, the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research regulates those who traffic in it, enforcing frequent and comprehensive tests designed to curb the spread of communicable diseases and genetic disorders. Historically the agency has focused only on traditional sperm banks, not private donors, but Trent was unprecedentedly public about what he was doing. When the FDA first contacted him, he had naïvely signed a piece of paper confirming that he was “an establishment.” In August 2010, using that as a pretext, the FDA sent three agents to his house, where for several days they interviewed him and copied his records. Trent had by then made 340 donations to some 46 different recipients. The scrutiny was time-consuming and stressful; he didn’t have a lawyer and worried than he might land in prison.

By November, the FDA determined that Trent wasn’t screening for diseases nearly often enough, and it issued its cease-­manufacture order. Trent replied that he wished to contest it. He wasn’t charging money, as he explained, and he was helping people. He knew that he was celibate, that he was disease-free, and that he took extraordinary measures to safeguard his DNA. He considered his relationship with his recipients to be “intimate.” Why should the government regulate what he was doing, when anyone, with who knew what health issues, could walk into a bar and have a one-night stand? A government-accountability public-interest group, Cause of Action, agreed, seeing the FDA action as a ringing example of regulatory overreach, and filed a brief on Trent’s behalf. “We questioned him as to the parameters of his relationship with recipients,” Amber Taylor, the chief counsel for Cause of Action, says. “We took away that he’s a very generous, helpful person who sees people in need who could not have children without some form of assistance, who are often lower income or underserved by the fertility-medicine industry.” Trent is currently awaiting a decision by the FDA on whether to grant him a hearing, and in the meantime, the cease-manufacture order has been suspended.


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