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Podcast Review: Donor 9623

12 October 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1067

Xytex is a major sperm bank based in Atlanta, Georgia. Donor 9623 was one of their star offerings, a sperm donor with an irresistible description. Genius-level IQ, a movie star lookalike, outgoing, college degrees, ridiculously accomplished in sciences, languages and music. He was so in demand, Xytex repeatedly called him back to provide more paid donations.

But Donor 9623 had misled the sperm bank about his background and credentials, which meant that, in turn, Xytex had misled their customers. Or did they? This is one of the central questions in a scandal which has been spun into a fascinating narrative, ‘Donor 9623' by Professor Dov Fox, a law professor with a focus on bioethics, playing out over eight podcast episodes of around 30 minutes. This was the case Professor Fox 'couldn't stop thinking about' because it 'blew the cover on a billion-dollar industry.'

And it's a doozy, a gripping story that unfurls through a series of interviews and thoughtful narration. Professor Fox introduces us early-on to some of the astonishing facts regarding sperm donation in the US. One in every 50 US children today is conceived in a fertility clinic. And yet – 'Nail salons, potato chips – pretty much every other service you can think of is better regulated,' Professor Fox informs us. 

He then opens the story with Wendy, a mother who conceived a son using a sperm bank. At ten years old, her son begins displaying signs of mental illness. Wendy sets out to learn more about the person who contributed half of her son's genetic makeup. She eventually found him, because the national press had, too. Donor 9623 had been revealed to be Chris Aggeles, who had dropped out of college, been convicted of burglary and had a medical diagnosis of schizophrenia, a mental illness with a strong heritable component. Even knowing this, he had continued donating, and lying, to the sperm bank for nearly 14 years.

Professor Fox lets his interviewees carry us through each phase of the scandal, interspersed with his thoughtful narration. He occasionally drops in small descriptive details, such as what interviewees are wearing when he visits them. He takes us from Wendy's story to another mother who had conceived using Aggeles's sperm, who reveals how Aggeles's identity was discovered. 

She describes how a group of mothers formed, bonding over shared excitement and friendship over finding their donor, and then their feelings of disbelief, shock, and self-recrimination when they discovered Aggeles's medical history.  

Listening to the podcast, I felt I was right there with them, experiencing a small portion of their distress. In fact, given how episodes frequently ended on a profound or sad note, I wondered why every episode began with the clanking, off-key theme music of a peculiar but jaunty carnival. No doubt it was put in to create a sense of discord, but I don't think it suited the serious subject at all.

The early episodes are thick with small bombshells, delivered by experts in schizophrenia, the sociology of US sperm banks, fertility doctors, lawyers, and Professor Fox's own narration. Aggeles's sperm conceived at least 36 children over three countries. His history was found within a few hours of internet sleuthing by the mothers, and then a simple background check. Meanwhile, even as the story first breached in the press, Xytex continued to sell his sperm.

We hear from Dr Michael Tucker, who was CEO of Xytex during some of the years that Aggeles was donating. 'It wasn't complete lack of credence,' says Dr Tucker, when asked what his reaction was when the scandal first broke. 'It was like… yep, that could happen… but I'm not quite sure how it could have happened.' Yet as Professor Fox makes clear to us, US sperm banks are self-regulated, and under no requirement to limit how many children are born from a single donor. 'Sorry, and I hope everything is well,' is his suggested message to the mothers, all said in the slow, uneasy tone of a man carefully choosing his words. 

Fertility doctor Dr Albert Yuzpe was on Xytex's advisory board. He tells us that Xytex relied purely on donors to self-report their own personal, professional and medical history to two interviewers. Xytex included this fact as a largely overlooked disclaimer in the donor's profile pack. 'It's an issue that most of us who practise medicine never thought about,' says Dr Yuzpe, nonetheless affirming the lack of clear information 'a problem'. 'I've been doing this for a long time, I'm assuming everything has been done to verify the information.'

Professor Fox follows their cagey hand shrugging with descriptions of the glossy marketing of Xytex, promising a selection process which is 'intense and arduous', and 'sleep well, knowing you've chosen well'. In doing so he highlights the contradictions and misdirection of the US donor sperm industry. His tone stays measured and journalistic, largely letting their words impact us, rather than his own opinions. 

Even as Aggeles's prospective lawyer, James Johnson, forcefully proclaims: 'There seems to me to be something distasteful of "Í'm going to go on this website and choose the best-looking guy with the highest credentials, that's what I want,"' and Dr Tucker talked about making babies being 'a roll of the dice' and said Xytex's level of care was 'within the industry-standard', Professor Fox calmly points out to us that the reason prospective mothers go to sperm banks is usually to mitigate risk of children inheriting genetic diseases. He even applies his own personal experiences to sympathise with Aggeles, while remaining thoughtfully academic.

The series moves from the affected mothers and their children, to how US sperm banks came to be run as businesses, to the legal battles as the mothers pressed for compensation. Then, the focus shifts. Professor Fox even says he had just wrapped up recording when he was given an audio recording of one of Aggeles's interviews at Xytex. This leads onto the final three episodes that examine whether Aggeles himself was encouraged to inflate his profile by Xytex, and interviews with those who personally knew Aggeles. I admit my interest was waning a little by here. I was still preoccupied by Xytex's legal loopholes in episodes five and six, and it was difficult to listen to the flood of articulate lies and fawning that was a 2006 recorded interview between Aggeles and Xytex's director of donor recruitment. But these episodes were leading to the pièce de résistance - a present day interview with Aggeles himself. The episode gave the chance to analyse him myself. And after so much time spent listening to the emotional and legal turmoil he caused, I found his mixture of excuses, navel-gazing and apologies unsatisfying. But I realised the anti-climax was because Aggeles was just one of many characters who created this whole mess – a problem enabled by the lack of official oversight and the ambitions of the US fertility business. 

Whether you work in fertility medicine, law, bioethics, are considering using a sperm donor, or simply enjoy tales of true crime and science, I fully recommend this podcast. Professor Fox's podcast manages to be both immensely informative, a chilling warning of unregulated medicine, and an engaging tale of deception. You may have to keep reminding yourself to close your mouth.

Donor 9623
Audible |  22 October 2021
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