Family Secrets: A Review of the Documentary Offspring

PDF Version: 


Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the Volume 9, Number 4, Winter 2003 issue of Dignity, the Center’s quarterly publication. Subscriptions to Dignitas are available to CBHD Members. To learn more about the benefits of becoming a member click here.


Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, 1884. Dr. William Pancoast and his students gather for class and Dr. Pancoast discusses a case with them. “One of my patients has a great desire to have children, but I have recently learned that her husband is sterile. What, class, do you think I should do?” There is a quiet pause as the students ponder their teacher’s predicament. One student jokingly offers, “Well, why don’t we just collect semen from the best looking student here?” The class erupts in laughter but when it dies down, it is Dr. Pancoast who is pondering how to proceed. After a moment he says seriously, “I think it is a fine plan.”[1]

Though artistic license has been taken here, the story is essentially true. The woman was asked to return to Dr. Pancoast’s office under the pretense that she was to have another exam. After being sedated, she was artificially inseminated with the student’s sperm, became pregnant, and gave birth to the first child ever conceived via donor insemination. She was never to learn the truth. It seems (for obvious reasons) that secrecy and anonymity have surrounded the donor insemination (DI) process from the beginning.

Barry Stevens begins his 2001 documentary Offspring with the following statement: “About a year ago, I found out that I might have one or even two hundred half brothers and sisters. I don’t know who they are, nor do I know the man from whose body we were all made.” The documentary chronicles the efforts of filmmaker Stevens—who was among the first to be conceived via DI in the early 1950s—to locate his family with the ultimate goal of finding out who his father was. Stevens poignantly describes his predicament by saying, “It’s like looking in a mirror and part of you is not reflected.” While there is likely a general consensus among our readers that DI is ethically problematic, we should seek to communicate reasoned responses to this issue rather than offer knee-jerk negative reactions.

There are several important questions that ought to be addressed in context of this documentary. First, What is the proper response to infertility? CBS News suggests that between 30,000 and 75,000 children are born each year in the United States via artificial insemination, and reproductive technologies in general boast big business. (One is hard pressed to find any statistics on DI because of the continued secrecy surrounding the practice.) Second, Does DI perpetuate the commodification of reproduction? A recent story in the Chicago Tribune contained the following quote: “You can find them while surfing the Net. Select one you like, purchase it with a credit card and have it shipped overnight....You can shop this way for clothes, books, computers...and human sperm.”[2] Third, What does it mean to be a family? It was clear while watching the documentary that Stevens had a deep desire to know who his family was and wondered from where this almost seemingly irrational desire came. Fourth, Does DI undermine the relationship between sexuality and reproduction? DI is one of the oldest of a growing list of reproductive technologies that are redefining the meaning of sexuality and reproduction.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to engage our culture and open people’s eyes to the dangers inherent in some of the reproductive interventions that have become increasingly available and accepted. We must strive to communicate clearly a robust and updated vision of the meaning of sexuality, reproduction, and the family.



[1] Gena Corea, The Mother Machine, New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1995, p. 12.

[2] Gail Schmoller Philbin, “Couples turning to Internet sites to secure donated sperm,” Chicago Tribune, August 20, 2003, Sec. 8, p.1.


Cite as: Paul van der Bijl, “Family Secrets: A Review of the Documentary Offspring,” Dignity 9, no. 4 (2003): 4.