By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 1, 2006
Really good news on the sperm front: Donor 401 -- an unusually popular man who tans well and remains a mystery -- lives on.
When The Washington Post reported on 11 women who delivered (or are parents of) 14 of his children, the parents were just getting to know one another online. They had connected on a donor Web site a couple of years ago, and shared pictures and baby allergies from afar.
But after the Post story ("Multiple Single Moms, One Nameless Donor," Feb. 27), the women were instantly thrust into the national media spotlight and then met for the first time in New York when NBC's "Today" show brought them together. Eight more families with "401" babes came forward.
One married mother of three from New York was listening to "Today" -- something she rarely does -- when she heard talk of "401" and sperm donors. She bolted for the TV. "I knew nothing -- I never knew there was this Web site or that these people were out there," said the woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "I freaked out when I saw the kids [on the show]. I mean, they looked like my kids."
Caroline George of Oklahoma, mother of a son fathered by 401, called the attention "a whirlwind."
Comedian Stephen Colbert declared on his Comedy Central show that he was donor 401 and offered to sell his sperm online. The women made an appearance on "The View" and chatted with Meredith Vieira. CNN aired a segment on them. An enterprising Web site now sells "401" T-shirts.
When NBC flew the women to New York with children in tow for the "Today" appearance, they were able to check out family resemblances for the first time. They all gathered in one of the hotel rooms after the show to talk.
"It was really weird how easy it was just for us to accept -- 'Okay, this is like a whole family we have,' " said Carla Schouten of California, who came to New York with her son. "Now that we've met, we can share our experiences on a deeper level."
Probably the most significant development to come from the national attention was contact from a woman in California who had 17 previously unknown vials of 401 sperm, a hot commodity at the Fairfax Cryobank. She offered the samples to the families -- now 18 of them with 25 children -- to divvy up among those who still want children.
Poor guy must be stunned. And it's not over.
Donor 401, who sold his stuff to the Virginia sperm bank at least seven years ago, retired from the sperm business a couple of years ago. His oldest known offspring is 6 years old. Women seeking to have children selected his anonymous profile for a variety of reasons, including his German heritage and his professed warm relationship with his mother.
For quite a while not a drop of his DNA was available in Fairfax for those who wished to have a second child -- and there was a long waiting list. The woman who had the extra sperm told the mothers that she had purchased the vials from Fairfax, but then didn't need it. The vials sell for at least $175 each. "It's just incredibly generous," said Leann Mischel, the mother of two 401 babies, who is thinking about a third.
So proud is the Fairfax Cryobank of its famous clients that its Web site features links to the women's appearances on "Today" and CNN. The women say that though they are curious about 401, he's not a big part of their lives -- and they would never seek him out. They are just grateful they found one another. "We all have a very valuable database of medical history -- it's a benefit to the kids," George said.
"I have a terrific support network with my family, but no one really knows what you're going through -- that's why this connection is important," said Cheri Poulos of Illinois. "Obviously the kids will ask questions someday, and having this connection will help."
The families initially met through DonorSiblingRegistry.com, started by a woman who was trying to locate her donor for her son's benefit.
The women said that the publicity generated very little negative reaction, which they braced for, given some of their nontraditional lifestyles.
"At first I had mixed feelings when a big group started developing -- but everyone is turning out to be very like-minded," said Lisa Weix, a Californian with 401 twins. "Now we have dads in the group. It's neat to have a full spectrum of people who use this type of conception -- straight couples and gay couples, single moms."
The married New York woman was at first a little reticent about this unusual group that had children related to her children, but she has since come to appreciate the contact and has become fond of the women. She is now trying to become pregnant with her fourth child through 401. After two years on the wait list, a vial became available through Fairfax when some was returned; and now she has backup vials from the recent gift.
Meanwhile, no word from 401. Unless he's been out of the country or in a tunnel, he must know what he's created. Still, he's silent.
Recently, sperm banks have been offering historically anonymous donors an option of allowing their identity to be revealed to the children at age 18.
Drop a dime on us, 401. We'd love to hear from you.