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Can Men Be Denied Their ‘Reproductive Rights’?

A new HIV+ sperm bank in New Zealand raises compelling questions.

A new HIV+ sperm bank has opened in New Zealand, with the purpose of raising awareness as to the viability of men’s reproductive issues. The anonymous donors are all HIV+, but after treatment, the amount of the virus in their blood is so imperceptible that it cannot be passed down to offspring. Whether or not infertile couples will make use of this bank is still uncertain, but the questions it raises about the social uses of reproductive rights are salient.

Historically, denying reproductive rights has been a brutal means of controlling portions of the population deemed unfit to breed. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, wrote in 1921 that “the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.” In the United States, the implementation of the Model Eugenic Sterilization Law resulted in the mandatory sterilization of the “socially inadequate” in 30 states and Puerto Rico. The forced sterilization of those with Downs Syndrome persisted through 1981.

New Zealand passed its Mental Defectives Act in 1911, allowing the state to imprison anyone classified as mentally ill or otherwise “defective” for an unlimited period of time. The nurses’ journal Kai Tiaki enthusiastically noted the passing of the bill: “By detention of many such, who out in the world would marry and perpetuate their kind, surely something will be done toward stemming the tide of race deterioration, which fills to overflowing our mental hospitals….”

Today, mandatory sterilization is not used for weeding out the population, but for genetic engineering purposes, the same way that gene editing procedures and selective abortions are. This allows parents and doctors the option of choosing not to pass on hereditary diseases or conditions by simply not having the child or changing its genetic composition. In Iceland, for example, use of selective abortion has resulted in the eradication of Downs Syndrome, while in 132 villages in India, there were no female babies born over a three-month period. 

The idea that those with specific characteristics should be encouraged to breed is the flip side of the same coin. Sperm banks tout the achievements and physical attributes of their donors, who typically are screened for diseases before their contributions are deposited. Prospective parents know what lies in donors’ genetic backgrounds. The idea behind Sperm Positive is to destigmatize HIV. But it does seem an odd way of going about it. Instead of selecting for desirable characteristics, this pre-birth genetic engineering is used for activism.

Many countries, as well as 19 states, require HIV+ individuals to disclose their status to partners prior to sexual intimacy. There’s been pushback against these laws over concerns that they further stigmatize those living with HIV+. Such individuals, when properly medicated, can end up with no trace of the virus in their blood, and at the point it is undetectable, they cannot pass it on. Additionally, there’s been a big campaign to get people on PrEP, which is a medication that prevents them from contracting HIV. Progress is being made in the research and management of this disease. 

The right to reproduce is acknowledged by the World Health Organization, many national health organizations such as the National Health Service in the UK, and insurance companies in the United States, which provide coverage for fertility treatments. Those rights should certainly extend to the right to not have one reproductive life interfered with by external sources, such as government mandates of forced sterility or the encouragement of pregnancy termination to eradicate disease. But if a person’s right to reproduction depends on making use of another person’s body to make it happen, does that mean the right entitles them to a gestational body?

There are many surrogacy companies that exist just for gay couples who do not otherwise have access to the womb. The idea is that men have the right to rent a womb in order to complete their families. Surrogacy programs are global, accessing rentable women in countries around the globe. It’s possible to create a truly international child with sperm from one nation, an egg from another, and a womb from still another. Once the child is born, national origin can become a matter for the courts

It’s reasonable to assume that people have the right to conceive and have children, but only under their own power. This seeming stunt to raise awareness about the safety of medicated blood with undetectable levels of HIV gives the impression that the right to reproduce supersedes all other considerations. The science on the inability of HIV+ prospective parents who have no trace of the virus in their blood to pass down the disease is sound. New Zealand moms who have conceived children after the HIV in their systems had diminished to nothing show that the illness has not been disseminated to their offspring. 

Then there’s this idea, taken from the FAQ for the Positive Women group in New Zealand: “You have the right to a full and active sex life. You have the right to have children.” These things are not rights that anyone else is responsible for. We’ve heard a lot of talk over the past few years about how incels think they have a right to women’s bodies, and how insane that is. Now organizations say that HIV+ individuals have a right to other people’s bodies, and are using conception as a means to destigmatize an illness.

These anonymous donors speak of their interest in helping infertile couples conceive, in order to start or continue families. But it comes across as a publicity campaign to challenge the stigma. Hopefully if these men truly want to start families, they will find love in their own lives and be able to sire the children they seem so capable of fathering. Despite the science, the medical advancements, and the breaking down of barriers, it seems unlikely that, given the plethora of other options, a couple would intentionally procure sperm from an HIV+ donor when there are so many other options available. The creation of new life should not be an activist undertaking.

Libby Emmons is a playwright living in Brooklyn, New York. She has written for The Federalist, Quillette, and Arc Digital, among other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @li88yinc.

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