Again I digress (and postpone engaging with comments for a little bit) to cover a story from the issue of Time Magazine on newsstands now. You must be a subscriber to read the article on-line, but you can read about it here and here. I read it in the print edition. The story is by Jay Newton-Small and it is worth trying to get a copy of it to read. The snippets you can get access to give you the main point of the story.
Here’s the bottom line: The US has become sperm exporter to the world. Newton-Small attributes US dominance in the field to ”quality control and wide product selection.” I want to think about both of these but I’ll take them in reverse order.
The product selection: Because the US population is diverse, the pool of sperm providers here is diverse. People seeking to match characteristics of one sort or another can find what they want here. These same people may have at best limited access to sperm in their home countries. Many countries limit or even bar use of donor sperm or prohibit certain types of people (single women, say) from obtaining sperm. So the US market becomes the best (and sometimes the only) option.
Quality control: This one seems to me somewhat ironic. The US industry often seems to be the most wide-open free-market in gametes. This is the result of lack of regulation, which has often been discussed on the blog. But perhaps in focusing on the regulations that are lacking (retention of donor records, number of offspring, access to information and that sort of thing) I have given short shrift to the regulations that are in place. And these are actually quite important.
The FDA requires testing for most sexually transmitted diseases and as far as I know all the major sperm banks are fairly rigorous about this. This means US sperm is (relatively speaking) safe. That’s a huge selling point.
Newton-Small identifies another critical market advantage enjoyed by US sperm banks–they can still offer anonymous providers. As we’ve talked about other countries (UK, Australia) have ended use of anonymous donors. To the extent people still want to use anonymous donors, they cannot find what they want in those countries. But they can still find it in sperm shipped from the US. Whether you think anonymity is a good thing or not, you can see how the patchwork of laws is giving an advantage to US sperm banks at the moment.
There are a few other interesting bits of the article I wanted to highlight. Newton-Small repeats my least favorite media myth:
“In 2004, after the U.K. passed a law forbidding anonymity, the number of sperm donors plummeted.”
This simply isn’t true, as I feel I have said a dozen times. One has only to go look at the official HFEA statistics to see this. (Sigh.)
The problem is that when there’s an error like that it makes me wonder if I can rely on the other tidbits I found interesting. So take the rest with a grain of salt, I guess.
The advent of ICSI has meant that most men can provide sperm that can be used to fertilize an egg and hence, heterosexual couples have less need of donor sperm. Thus it makes sense that those who need sperm are less likely to be heterosexual couples, which means more likely to be single women or lesbian couples. This shift is accelerated as single mothers and lesbian parents become more socially accepted. Newton-Small says that by some estimates single women and lesbian mothers comprise 60% of the market for sperm in the US.
I think this is quite important to consider as we continue to have conversations about use of third-party gametes and anonymity and all the rest. (I’m thinking of the on-going conversation I’ve interrupted here.) When a heterosexual couple uses third-party sperm secrecy is an option. In addition, as many have commented, the social father must come to terms with the role another man has played. All of this looks quite different when third-party sperm is used by a single mother or a lesbian couple. I’m not saying there are no issues, but they are different issues.
Finally, Newton-Small notes that for sperm to be used in Israel it must be from a non-Jew. She says this is because Judiasm is transmitted via the mother (which is true–and that means that the source of the sperm is irrelevant in terms of producing a Jewish child.) Further, some heritable diseases (Tay-Sachs) are prevalent in the Jewish population (at least among eastern European Jews) and so broadening genetic diversity is a good thing. Hence, only non-Jewish sperm can be imported. Can anyone confirm this? I’ve not read it before.