You've heard of "high concept" movies. Now there's a new genre that could be called "high conception."
The latest example is Delivery Man, in which Vince Vaughn plays an "affable underachiever" who finds out he has fathered 533 children through anonymous sperm donations he made 20 years earlier.
The flick is a remake of the 2011 French Canadian film Starbuck. It joins the seminal 2010 movie The Kids Are All Right, in which a lesbian couple's children bring their father into the family, and MTV's new reality series Generation Cryo.
High-conception stories explore the evolving nature of families, the meaning of parenthood, and privacy in the Internet age.
They also make you wince (as does Vince) and wonder: Could that really happen?
The answer, according to experts, is "Yes, but . . ."
The first report of "artificial impregnation" using donor sperm happened in Philadelphia, in 1884. However, it wasn't until 1909 that the aptly named A.D. Hard, one of the medical students who witnessed the procedure, dared publish a letter describing their ethically reckless achievement.
According to Hard, a childless Quaker couple sought help from William Pancoast, a physician at Jefferson Medical College.
The husband, who admitted to "a slight attack of gonorrhea in his youth," was found to be sterile. So Pancoast "chloroformed" the wife and, with a rubber syringe, inseminated her using "some fresh semen from the best-looking member of the class."
The doctor later told the husband, but not the wife, how their son was conceived.
"It may at first shock the delicate sensibilities," Hard wrote, "but when the scientific fact becomes known that the origin of the spermatozoa . . . is of no more importance than the personality of the finger which pulls the trigger of a gun, then objections will lose their forcefulness."
By the 1950s, sperm banking - storing frozen sperm - had become big business. But not for humans.
"Cryobanking took off because of cattle breeding," said Michelle Ottey, laboratory director of Fairfax Cryobank, one of the two largest human sperm-banking companies in the United States.
Human insemination remained mostly hush-hush - and mostly unregulated - through the 1970s.
"I remember being in medical school," said Michael Glassner, a founder of Main Line Fertility & Reproductive Medicine. "The ob-gyn walks down the hall and says: 'How tall are you? Are you healthy? How'd you like to make $100? Here's a cup.' I never said yes, but some of my friends made it through medical school donating sperm."
The 1980s were a transformative time for sperm banks. In addition to advances in assisted reproductive technology, the AIDS virus was discovered. It became not just convenient, but crucial, to freeze a donor's sperm so repeated blood tests over a period of months could confirm he was HIV-free.
Fairfax and other cryobanks now test donors for a lengthy list of infectious and genetic diseases, and government rules require a six-month quarantine of donated sperm.
That's not all. The big banks require men to be under 40; come from healthy stock (the Fairfax application asks about diseases going back three generations); a college student or alumnus (Fairfax's Philadelphia facility is on the University of Pennsylvania campus); and have Olympic-caliber seed. We're talking brawny, speedy, tenacious swimmers, and lots of them. (To prevent dilution, the man must abstain from seed-spilling activity for two to four days before making a donation.)
"Only about one percent of men who apply are accepted" by Fairfax, Ottey said. "It's easier to get into Harvard."
But it's worth the effort. Though men invariably say they have altruistic as well as financial motives, they are well-compensated for doing something they might do anyway. Fairfax donors make an average of $4,000 in six months, and most donate for a year to 18 months, Ottey said.
Which gets back to the burning question: Could a single avid supplier spawn 533 offspring?
Biologically, experts agree, it is conceivable.
Indeed, the British biologist Bertold Wiesner is believed to have fathered 600 children, maybe more, in the 1940s. He donated his sperm to one of the few clinics then offering the controversial infertility treatment - the facility he ran with his wife, physician Mary Barton.
In an article in the British Medical Journal, she lamented that there was only a "very small panel of donors" because "to most balanced men, the task of donation is unpleasant."
"Fortunately," she added, "the number required at any given time is not great . . . A fecund donor submitting two specimens weekly could, with ideal conditions, produce 400 children weekly (that is 20,000 annually)."
Modern experts say Barton's numbers are dubious, but in theory, a delivery man could spawn a very big brood.
According to Ottey, each donation yields about five vials, and an insemination takes one vial. If the chance of pregnancy with each insemination is less than 20 percent (maybe way less if the user has fertility problems), then a donor could father 533 offspring in three to five years.
"But in reality," Ottey added, "it is not possible."
That's because sperm banks and fertility clinics have safeguards to prevent the possibility that half-siblings would meet and procreate - consanguinity is the technical term.
The general guideline, set by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, says one donor should father no more than 25 births in a population of 80,000. Large cryobanks are stricter, retiring a donor's inventory after he has that many offspring in the entire United States.
"Now, that's assuming that the pregnant women are notifying the sperm bank," said Jane L. Frederick, a reproductive endocrinologist at HRC Fertility in Laguna Hills, Calif. "Surveys suggest only about 40 percent of births are actually reported. I always tell my patients: The first thing you do when you get pregnant is go back to the cryobank and let them know."
The guideline also assumes there is no market for cut-rate sperminators. Two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration sent a cease-and-desist warning to a California man who was giving away his sperm free through the Internet. He claimed to have fathered at least 14.
The Internet - and the growing number of single women and lesbian couples opting to procreate - has profoundly affected sperm banking. Not only can a wannabe mother see childhood photos of a potential baby daddy with the click of a mouse, but she can use the donor's unique identifying number to find and connect with his offspring through online forums such as donorsiblingregistry.com.
As Generation Cryo shows, the offspring themselves can also connect.
For better or worse, this is opening up what was once a private affair, not to mention providing story lines for screenwriters.
In Glassner's experience, many couples find this brave new world as upsetting as overcoming infertility. For them, high-conception dramedies are no laughing matter.
"One hundred percent of the time, I get asked: 'How can I make sure my child doesn't marry a half-sibling?' " Glassner said. "To see the pain and the tears, this is a very traumatic and dramatic time for these couples. These movies without a doubt trivialize it."
But there is no turning back.
"The field of sperm banking has evolved immensely in the last 30 years," Ottey said. "Prior to 2006, we only sold anonymous donor sperm. Then we introduced the ID option. Now people have a choice" of keeping the process anonymous and confidential, or sharing identities.
"We want to serve everyone," she said, "as best we can."