There are a couple of recent (well, really not so recent now) articles I’ve been meaning to comment on. I didn’t just want to throw them out there because I’d like to consider them thoughtfully. With travel and all, that’s been hard. But here’s my attempt.
First article is from Newsweek. (I’m going to assume you will read it yourself.) It’s about a man who, in his youth, was many times over a sperm donor and the steps he is now taking to address concerns he has about the (potentially numerous) children created with his sperm.
Second story is a more technical one from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and is actually referenced in the Newsweek story. I’m only linking to the abstract–to get to the whole article you have to have a subscription, I think.) But the abstract is enough to get the idea–it’s about a man who was a sperm donor. Twenty-two children were created using his donor sperm. (He also had two children with his wife.) It turned out he has a genetic mutation that leaves a number of the children at risk for potentially severe heart troubles.
I’ve written about issues around donor sperm a number of times in the past and those posts have attracted a very large number of comments. I don’t want to revisit all the same issues here, but certainly many of the points made in those earlier posts and comments are pertinent. It’s easy to look at these two new stories and make blanket statements about barring use of anonymous donors and things like that. I want to try to approach them a bit more cautiously. I see several things to consider.
Kirk Maxey (the subject of the Newsweek article) estimates his sperm may have been used to create nearly 400 children. There’s something startling about that, and surely it points up a potential problem with a system in which sperm donation is largely unregulated. But what exactly is the problem? Why is it bad that there are 400 kids who would be genetically 1/2 siblings?
I think the first thing people would raise is the possiblity of accidental incest–that two of the kids might reproduce, not realizing that they are genetically related, and that the child those children produced would be genetically flawed.
I see two possible solutions to this problem, one of which is possible now, one of which might become possible in the future. First, if donors were identified, then the kids would know they were related. If they knew they were related, they could avoid the accidental incest problem in a number of ways. They might choose to terminate (or not enter into) a romantic/sexual relationship, they might enter into such a relationship but not have children, or they might have children, but use donor gametes.
The second solution would be to do some sort of genetic screening of the people involved before they conceived a child. Some of this happens today–people get screened for Tay-Sachs, I believe. I suspect that it will become more common and more extensive in the future. But this would only be a solution if it really did become a general practice.
Apart from the accidental incest problem, what’s wrong with the 400 offspring? Is it something we need to worry about? I’m not sure. It seems problematic, but I cannot articulate exactly why. Comments on that (specific, preferably) would be welcome.
The JAMA case suggests a second problem–that donors can unwittingly be providing flawed sperm. Of course, this is true for all people having children, no matter how. Notice that the donor had a couple of kids in the conventional way, and the same genetic defect was present for them. So what does this tell us specifically about sperm donors?
I can think of two points here, as well. First of all, if the donor with the unknown genetic defect had been the donor who produced 400 kids, there would be a far more serious problem. I suppose for a long time to come there will be unknown, undetectable genetic defects. And so perhaps this, as much as anything, argues for regulating the number of children a donor’s sperm can be used to create. That won’t eliminate the risk, but it can reduce the number of kids who face it. (I don’t imagine we’d be regulating the number of children the donor might contribute to via intercourse, would we?)
Second, you can do careful tracking and screening. Tracking so that when a donor later learns of a defect the right people can be alerted. Screening so that the risks are known in advance, to the extent that is possible.
The main thing I draw from these stories is that there are good reasons for having donors tracable and identifiable. But they don’t take me a whole lot further than that–at least for now.
Must run, so I stop there.