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Mapping the God of Sperm
One of the Midwest's most prolific sperm donors may hold the key to understanding how genes affect our health.
It's a crisp fall day in Northville, Mich., a small suburb of Ann Arbor, and Kirk Maxey, a soft-spoken, graying baby boomer with a classic square jaw, is watching his 12-year-old son chase a soccer ball toward the goal. Maxey is doing what he does every Saturday, along with hundreds of other family men and women across the country, but he's not your average soccer dad. Maxey, 51, happens to be one of the most prolific sperm donors in the country. Between 1980 and 1994, he donated at a Michigan clinic twice a week. He's looked at the records of his donations, multiplied by the number of individual vials each donation produced, and estimated the success of each vial resulting in a pregnancy. By his own calculations, he concluded that he is the biological father of nearly 400 children, spread across the state and possibly the country.
When Maxey was a medical student at the University of Michigan, his first wife, a nurse at a fertility clinic, persuaded him to start donating sperm to infertile couples. Maxey became the go-to stud for the clinic because his sperm had a high success rate of making women pregnant, which brought in good money for the clinic. Maxey himself made about $20 a donation, but says he was motivated to donate more out of a strong paternal instinct and sense of altruism. "I loved having kids, and to have these women doomed to wandering around with no family didn't seem right, and it's easy to come up with a semen donation," he says. "You would get a personal phone call from a nurse saying, 'The situation is urgent! We have a woman ovulating this morning. Can you be here in a half hour?' "
Maxey, now the CEO of Cayman Chemical, a 300-person global pharmaceutical company, says back then he just "didn't think about it a lot." He didn't have to. When he began volunteering, he wasn't asked to take any genetic tests and received no psychological screening or counseling. He merely signed a waiver of anonymity, locked himself in a room with a cup and a sexy magazine, and didn't consider the emotional or genetic consequences for another 30 years. Both his cavalier attitude and the clinic's lax standards, Maxey says, explain why he may have so many offspring. But now a fierce conscience is catching with his robust procreative drive. When he's not running his company, Maxey has become a devoted advocate for better government regulation of the sperm-donor business. He is also making his genome public through Harvard's Personal Genome Project, and hopes that the information collected there might one day help his offspring and their mothers. "I think it was quite reckless that sperm banks created so many offspring without keeping track of their or my health status," he says. "Since there could be [many families] that could have to know information about my health, this is my effort to correct the wrong." Read more.