Q&A: Nicholas Isel

Nicholas Isel was conceived using sperm from the The Repository for Germinal Choice, an Escondido, California-based clinic that purported to source gametes from highly intelligent donors. As a teenager, Isel’s search for more information about his background proved frustrating, eventually leading him to contact David Plotz, a journalist who was working on an article about the Repository for Slate magazine. Isel’s conversations with Plotz (and his experience meeting his biological father) were documented in Plotz’s book, The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank. Isel has also told his story on Snap Judgment, This Is Life, and in a forthcoming documentary.

Isel says each time he shares his experience, it “reopens a wound”. This time, he’s channeled the pain into productivity by launching a citizen’s petition that seeks to improve record keeping standards and make personal information about donors more readily accessible.

What was it like to read about yourself (and the Repository) in Plotz’s book?
I was honestly super impressed. He didn’t pull any punches. There’s a part in the book where he says I’m overweight, had long hair and was kind of messy looking, so I wasn’t sure if I should be offended. I was really impressed even though some of it was critical of me and other people. I know a couple people in the book were kind of off-put by how accurately David captured reality.

What was it like to find out you are donor conceived?
I started having inklings that my non-biological father was not my father and I had multiple conversations with my mom over the years about it. She hinted at things, like telling me ‘you have no reason to ever do bad in school. I made sure that I only got the best when I went to have you and you should be getting straight As.’

When I was a teenager, she told me I needed to go into computer science. I kind of tricked her because I knew what wanted me to do, so I’d say ‘I’m going to be a professional rapper, I’m going to be a professional wrestler’. I just kept coming up with the weirdest professions out there to get her to convince me to not do that. She ended up telling me what she knew. The problem is she didn’t know a whole lot. Years had passed and she wasn’t even 100 percent sure which donor she used and she didn’t know where her paperwork was.

How did knowing the truth about your conception change your life?
Once I learned about it, it was like everything made more sense. It had been staring me in the face my whole life and I just hadn’t seen it. Just looking at my non-biological dad and myself, I’d notice things, like he has ‘free’ earlobes while mine are attached. Statistical odds are I should have the same if we are biologically related (this was far from the only difference). I was trying to apply things I learned in biology class and they weren’t adding up. It was like an itch I never scratched. Once you finally know, you can begin searching for more truth and more knowledge. It’s like turning a corner.

Where did your search for more knowledge take you?
I spent a lot of time the first couple days doing research. I was under the impression that I could just contact the clinic for more information on my background. I thought it would be that simple but there was no one to call.

That’s how I ended up getting into contact with David (Plotz), who was writing an article for Slate magazine. I was at my wit’s end and I didn’t know who to talk to. He’d mainly been getting responses from parents at that point. That was just a surreal time in my life, and I didn’t even think about it for awhile after it passed.

Nick IselWhat was it like to meet your donor?
Even though he wasn’t what I expected, I didn’t deny him. I take the good with the bad. There were some things I learned about him that were pretty off-putting but the more I learned, the more I understood his life was upended just like mine because of the sperm bank and Robert Graham’s mission. He actually sat down with Robert Graham and had lunch. Robert told him ‘there should be so much more of you in the gene pool. You have a duty to be fruitful and multiply’. He made it like a religion, and my dad took it to heart and it ruined his life.

I feel really bad for people who are never told and people who never get any sort of closure. At least I have managed to get some closure. I have managed to find my father and I’ve been in contact with him. He’s on my Facebook friends list and I can send him a message when I want to. I’m not trying to be like ‘I’m your long-lost son, I want you to be my daddy,’ it’s more like I want to at least have some type of passing relationship with someone I’m biologically related to. I come from him.

Has being donor conceived created any challenges in your life?
The bad thing about it is my mom has schizophrenia on her side, and my biological father does too, and I firmly believe that’s why I have it. Having that in your background on both sides of the family greatly increases your chances of getting it. If he had been more upfront with the sperm bank, things would have been totally different.

Do you think sperm banks are doing enough to guarantee situations like yours won’t happen in the future?
No, they’re definitely not. I know that they’re not because there’s not accurate record keeping or open lines of communication. If one recipient contacts the bank and tells them a child they had with their help has a serious physical ailment, that doesn’t always get passed along. From what I’ve seen, it’s only gotten worse. Robert Graham was focused on genetics and the gene pool. He was a philanthropist with an altruistic goal. The rest of the sperm banks out there today are in it for the money. It’s only about money; it’s only about profit—profit above all else.

Have you connected with any donor siblings?
I’m still trying to find about 30 siblings that I have from the bank. I’ve met about four of them now and I’m trying to meet the others as soon as I can. One of my donor’s natural birth children has the same issues that I have and we were able to connect as brothers. As far as my personal mission, the siblings I want to talk to are the ones who are not doing so great. I want to talk with them and be able to share experiences. I hate the idea that I have blood out there that’s suffering. I could at least be an open ear and talk to them if I knew who they were. I could try to help.

How did you come up with the plan to launch a citizen’s petition?
I started looking into what would actually have to happen to change the current status quo. There’s not enough actually being done to confront the powers that be and push for change. No one else has ever submitted a petition about this. There’s this consensus that something needs to change but we are at a loss as to what steps to take to get there. A lot of people also get sidetracked on their personal mission. They’re trying to find their family and to an extent, they care about bigger issues that affect the community, but to another extent, they don’t.

How is the petition going?
It has been so hard. I thought I would put this out and everyone would rush to my aid and I’ve been struggling to get other DC people to look at this three-page document and leave a comment. I don’t want to make all these decisions for our community. I want other people to provide input. I’m definitely going to push this as hard as I can. If the FDA denies my petition, I have a right to take them to court and try to enforce the position in front of a judge, and I’ll do that.

What type of comments are you looking for?
If a DC person reads the petition and doesn’t agree with what I’ve said, they should leave a comment and rip me a new one. I want people to think for themselves and apply their critical reasoning skills. I want us to come up with the best policy that we can get. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Wherever people are at, I just want them to comment. It doesn’t matter if they agree with me or not because it’s not me they’re talking to; it’s their government and their elected representatives.

What feedback have you received from people outside of the US?
Other people are rooting for us. They want us to work this out and get to a better place. I tried to make the petition as inclusive as possible and the beautiful thing about it is even if it’s not going far enough, it sets a precedent and we can build from there. This is a game of inches and I’m just going to keep pushing. I think it’s doable, I really do. To me, it makes a lot of sense. If they don’t agree, I’m going to keep working until I can get it in front of someone with an open mind.

Nicholas Isel’s petition to the FDA is available here. The period for comments closes on March 27th, 2017.