Posted on October 15, 2014

The Ohio Sperm-Bank Controversy: A New Case for Reparations?

Matthew McKnight, New Yorker, October 14, 2014

A complaint recently filed with the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois, introduced us to the Cramblett family. Jennifer Cramblett, thirty-six, was reared in Scio, Ohio, “around stereoptypical attitudes about people other than those in her all-white community.” Cramblett recalls hearing members of her family speaking “openly and derisively about persons of color.” Cramblett herself, who now lives in Uniontown, Ohio, “did not know African Americans until her college days at the University of Akron.” Then, in 2012, the complaint says, she gave birth to one.

Last month, Cramblett filed a complaint for wrongful birth and breach of warranty against the Midwest Sperm Bank. The complaint reads, “On August 21, 2012, Jennifer gave birth to Payton, a beautiful, obviously mixed race, baby girl.” Cramblett is claiming fifty thousand dollars in damages because the company gave her sperm from a donor other than the one she’d requested. The complaint explains that, when Cramblett and her partner, Amanda Zinkon, decided to have a baby, “their desire was to find a donor with genetic traits similar to both of them.” Upon realizing that Cramblett might have been given the wrong sperm, a receptionist at the bank asked if she “had requested an African American donor.” Cramblett’s response: “No, why would I request that? My partner and I are Caucasian.”

Instead of taking aim at the clerical mistake, much of the complaint focuses on the injuries that Cramblett and Zinkon have incurred, and will continue to incur, because they have a “mixed race” child. They say they now have to travel to “a black neighborhood” to get the girl’s hair cut; they must now cope with the stress and worry from having a child who is stigmatized; they are concerned about enrolling their daughter in an “all-white school.” The complaint emphasizes that “all of Jennifer’s therapists and experts agree that for her psychological and parental well-being, she must relocate to a racially diverse community with good schools.” The central, and problematic, argument in Cramblett’s claim is based on the “fears, anxieties and uncertainty” that she and Zinkon must now navigate, as parents of a child with a skin color they did not ask for.

The case is entangled with a number of troubling ideas about science, identity, and class in this country. By equating race with “genetic traits,” Cramblett is claiming that race is a biological fact. By arguing that a child with darker skin and hair that is different from hers is an impediment to her chosen life style, Cramblett tacitly condones the hierarchy in this country that determines the relative worth of one life over another.


If the court awards Cramblett damages, it will essentially be paying her and her daughter reparations, something that our country has denied millions of others. Her claim hinges on the same rationale that led to a lineage of Americans who have been treated as second-class citizens–that it’s who her daughter is, and not the actions of others, that is the source of the disparate treatment she is likely to receive. Whatever stigma Payton may feel reflects our country’s history and society, not nature–a distinction that has always been true but has been elided, in part, by the perversion of science on which racism is based.