HIV-Positive Man Has Sperm 'Washed,' Becomes a Dad

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Man meets woman. Baby comes next. It’s just that simple. Or is it? This week, Yahoo Parenting is running a series about the unique way families are formed. From a surprise adoption right before retirement, to a brother-in-law’s generous gift, to an HIV-positive father who had his sperm “washed,” read on for inspiring parenthood stories.

In 2007, when I first read that having HIV was no longer a barrier to biological fatherhood, I was shocked to the core. Many people feel the procreative urge as hard-wired, but I had pushed the idea out of my head decades earlier.

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My husband and I were already parents of twins, thanks to a wonderful egg donor and surrogate. My husband was their genetic father, a choice that had been a foregone conclusion. We then discovered that California had legalized reproductive services for HIV-positive men.

We learned about and met Dr. Ann Kiessling, a Harvard researcher who pioneered a sperm-washing method to help HIV-positive men father children without the risk of viral transmission. Sperm-washing entails spinning seminal fluid in a centrifuge to separate sperm from other cells. These isolated, virus-free sperm are then covered with a new solution, which the healthiest cells “swim up” into, in preparation for fertilization.

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We decided to work with Growing Generations, a surrogacy agency based in Los Angeles that developed one of the country’s first programs for intended fathers, gay or straight, who were HIV-positive. I imagined it might be difficult for Growing Generations to find a surrogate to work with us, with the amorphous threat of HIV trumping any proclaimed safety. I was quite wrong. The woman who became our second surrogate was a generation younger than us, and didn’t carry our historical trauma from the epidemic. She and her husband were calm, inquisitive, and determined. To them, the explanation of the procedure’s safety was straightforward. They welcomed the prospect of helping us.

Our original egg donor agreed to donate again for us, and six days after fertilization, one embryo remained. The morning of the scheduled transfer, a lab technician wheeled in a high-magnification microscope and stepped to the side. Through the aperture we saw, circular and pulsing like a miniature heart, our hoped-for child. Being Jewish, the word “grace” had never been in my spiritual lexicon, yet here I felt I encountered it.

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Our surrogate gave birth in September of 2011 to our third beautiful child. Life is now a Chex Mix of plastic toys, first readers, and, in between, work in finance in NYC. My husband and I share a strong bond with our kids, and it feels like something I’ve prepared for all my life.

We talk openly with them about their origins. In particular we make sure they know that any questions about their birth will encounter no secrets, nor closed doors. As they mature, I know that both their questions and our answers will deepen. We will eventually discuss HIV together as well, and they’ll find out that Dad’s “vitamins” are actually something else entirely. They will learn about the stigma that still surrounds HIV, and how it compelled me to use a pseudonym to write this.

I remember clearly the morning I found out I was positive. It was a beautiful morning in October, 1986. I sat on a rickety chair in a tiny room at Health Center #1 in San Francisco, as a counselor across the room read the news from a narrow folder with my ID pasted on it.

I walked outside afterwards, where the sunny day had become a hot desert. I sat down on the first empty stoop I could find and held my head in my hands. In an instant, my life split into before and after.

Over the next 10 years, AIDS claimed the majority of my dear friends. We had been part of a vast migration of gay men who had sought refuge in San Francisco, fleeing the world of parents and children. Most of my friends died without any of their family nearby.

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The headlines blared that HIV was inevitably a death sentence. I chose, however, to believe I could and would survive. As the years passed, pessimism about HIV slowly lifted, and my belief in survival came to seem less crazy than had once appeared.

I left San Francisco and its ghosts 16 years ago, and made a sharp career change from writing into financial market making in NYC. In 1999, open outcry markets on stock exchange floors were still a swashbuckling theater of ear-splitting volume, bravado, and fast arithmetic. Newcomers were not welcome on the floor, and an unofficial tradition of intimidation reigned. I’m short, quiet and hard to rile – not a typical trader personality – and quickly found myself an easy target.

One day early on, a broker rushed into the crowd demanding a market for a complex trade order. The prices I yelled out were way off, and the more experienced traders nearby pounced on my error. Under a torrent of criticism and abuse literally inches from my face, I stood silently, thinking, “Do you have any idea what I’ve already been through before this? Compared to that, this is nothing. Nothing.” My attackers, perhaps sensing their vitriol was wasted, turned away and moved on. I returned to studying the trade, having stood my ground. Perhaps I could succeed as well as survive.

Looking at my family today, I reflect on my good fortune, as well as the deaths of people I deeply loved all those years ago. I especially remember that for my friends during their illnesses, family represented the pain they had left behind rather than any comfort they might hope to receive. Inevitably, the responsibilities of fathering three young children can be draining, but my visceral memories of family estrangement teach me to stay as empathetic a parent as I can.

When a child in our house has tears from frustration or failure, I repeat sayings that I know are ancient but still come from my heart. To always look on the bright side no matter what. That no matter how bad something seems at first, never, ever give up. Often their wet eyes don’t believe me. But I smile. Because someday I’ll get to tell them how I know.

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