Putting Pieces Together

I realized today that the last two posts actually fit together in a rather interesting way.  Perhaps this is not immediately obvious.  The first deals with an IVF mistake in the UK–the wrong sperm was used to fertilize an egg.   The second deals with a dispute between two men about who is the legal father of a child.

(Actually, before I take off on this I wanted to flag this subsequent story from the UK.   It’s from the Sun, always slightly hysterical in its approach to journalism.)

Both of the last posts illustrate the importance we place on the genetic link, on DNA.   For example, the problem in the case of the wrong sperm is that the couple nearly had a child that would not have been genetically linked to the male partner.   There’s no sign that a child, had a child resulted, would have been in any way unhealthy.

Indeed, the Sun article I just linked to seems to encourage people who have used IVF to have kids to eye their children just a tad more suspiciously–whose DNA is that in there, anyway?    Assuming here that all the sperm were relatively healthy, the only way you can see the horror of the “wrong sperm” problem is by focusing on the overriding importance of DNA. 

Similarly, in the case of the competing fathers, one’s claim rests nearly entirely on his genetic connection to the child.   If DNA were not important, we wouldn’t think of him as a possible father for a minute.

So both stories really depend on our understanding how much DNA matters.  There’s no real effort to explain why it matters so much in either of the stories.  It’s simply a given that it does.  This, I think, must be culturally determined.  I don’t know what sorts of studies have been done, but I wonder if there are cultures, either today or in history, where the genetic link is not so prized.

And here’s a hypothetical to think about.  Suppose a single woman purchases some sperm, either to fertilize an egg for IVF or to use in assisted insemination.   If there’s a mix-up at the sperm bank and they send donor 141 instead of 114, you’ve got a variation on the wrong sperm case from the UK.   Is this the same, or is it slightly different?

On the one hand, the sperm she got is not the sperm she wanted.  On the other hand, both the intended and the supplied samples are both from complete strangers–people unknown to her.   That might mean that the measure of the harm done by providing the wrong sperm is less?   Additionally, where in the UK story the intended donor (the male partner of each couple)  might well be aggrieved by the mistake, in my hypothetical, surely donor 114 has nothing to complain about.

I find this example interesting to think about.  Suppose 141 was a classical musician and that was part of why she chose him.   She’ll certainly be disappointed, but there’s no guarantee that the genetic offspring of a classical musician will herself or himself be musical.   What exactly is the  harm done and to whom?

Obviously if the mistake is detected in time, she could simply ask that the correct material be provided, as one might with Lands’ End.   But what if insemination, say, had already occurred?   How would we relate to the harm done to her then?       Just something to think about.


5 responses to “Putting Pieces Together

  1. The question is if genetics are what links a child to his father or if it is love. I for one believe genetics is highly important and links father and son together.

    • Such a short comment can raise so many questions. For example, is the genetic link more important for a father than for a mother? And what exactly makes it important? Is a person more likely to care for a genetically linked child than for a non-genetically linked one? And how far does “more important” go towards answering the question? Is the genetically linked man necessarily the father? The only father?

  2. “Is a person more likely to care for a genetically linked child than for a non-genetically linked one?”

    There is some evidence for this from recent British studies which probe the correlation between paternity confidence and investment in children. There is plenty of evidence for the importance of paternity confidence itself ( videos from maternity wards show that people talk tens times as much about the resemblance of the child to the father as its resemblance to the mother)

    Monogamy is not as simple as most people think. Birds cheat on each other and male birds cope with it in a crude way. Their paternal investment is simply inversely proportional to the total time their mate is out of sight, while at the same time they hear the sound of other male birds. Humans are more complex (to quote Forresters novel: “human nature is what we were put in this world to rise above”), but there is no reason to believe that we are entirely immune to the forces of evolution. A man who doesn’t care about his paternity will live happily for ever afterwards, and maybe “his” children, but his happy genes won’t.

  3. The example you give with donor mix-up is of the woman choosing a musician, but what if she had chosen a 6’4″ well-built black guy as a donor and got the sperm of a 5’8″ 130lb white guy – can you see why the sperm of strangers might be extremely significant.

    A friend of mine spent over a year perusing sperm donor profiles before she felt confident enough about selecting one. She told me her greatest fear was of a mix up of sperm.

    In many ways I think that when people use a sperm donor they are fussier about the characteristics they are looking for than if they conceived naturally. After all, if they conceive naturally the father would have to help them raise the child and that might be worth a trade off in desirable attributes!

    • Good points all around. Many sperm donor mix-ups only come to light because of race. I’m not sure you’d know that you didn’t get the musician donor, or that you got the 5’8″ donor instead of the 6’4″ one. But you do know when you get a donor of a race different from the one chosen/expected. I’m also inclined to agree that race matters in this world, whether I like it or not. If you expected you’d be raising a child of your own race and ended up raising a mixed race child, I think that would make a difference. But I’m not exactly sure what follows from that. Surely sperm banks are obliged to be very careful. But when they make mistakes (which is almost inevitable, I think) then what?

      I also think you are probably right about the degree to which people shop for sperm donors. You’re really expected to, I think. Sperm banks basically give you a catalog and invite you to pick. If you are planning to have a child with a specific man, I suppose you’ve already made your selection in advance.

      Finally, just for completeness, there are people who concieve without assistance via intercourse but who do not plan to raise any resulting child with the man involved. (Some might be planned pregnancies, but some are not.) Those who are planning might also be fussy about choice.

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