How Many Offspring?

[I was away for the long weekend as a result of which I’ve fallen quite far behind on comments.  Sorry–I’ll do my best to catch up soon.]

The most e-mailed story in today’s New York Times is a story entitled “One Sperm Donor, 150 Offspring.”    The title tells you pretty much everything you need to know here.   It’s hard to come away from the article without the impression that a little regulation of ART (and in particular, the use of third-party sperm) would be a good thing.   (I doubt you’ll see any similar problem with egg providers for reasons that I trust are obvious.)

Even though I think it is pretty obvious that 150 offspring is a bad idea, it’s worthy taking a moment to think about exactly what the problem(s) are.    Accidental incest is one discussed in the article.  It seems to me it is difficult to calculate the likelihood of this actually happening, but I’ll let that slide for now.   I’ve written about the issue before and it seems pretty clear to me that it troubles many people.

In the same general vein, the article also mentions the possibility of relatively rare genetic defects becoming more widely spread.   Again, I’m not in a position to say how likely this really is–how big a concern it should be.

But there is something else beyond either of these points—and it’s something that I think Cynthia Daily (the woman who is the lead in the NYT story) alludes to:    There’s something unsettling about the idea of a single man having so many offspring (or a child having so many genetic half-siblings.)   The image of the many with so many offspring he tracks them on an Excel spread sheet may be somewhat comical, but it is also sobering.

The real question to me isn’t whether or not there is a problem–it seems pretty clear to me there is.  It’s what to do about the problem.

Presumably if you could effectively limit the number of offspring from each donor you’d solve most of what’s troubling here.     Now I’m not sure what the right number is–10?  15?  20?–but chances are that this can be worked out.   There are costs to setting the number too low.   Witness what seems to be happening in the UK with the much-discussed sperm shortage.   To be extreme just to make the point, if you set the limit at one child it would have dramatic impacts in many ways and that’s really lower than it needs to be–many  men have more than one offspring.

But that’s all if you could effectively limit the number of offspring.  At the moment the US has at best a very loose system of regulation and tracking.  Even if individual sperm banks limit the number of offspring for their providers, a man can move from sperm bank to sperm bank, providing sperm to each.  As far as I know there is no central system tracking sperm providers.   (This inability to track the men who provide sperm may be at the root of the sperm shortage in the UK–because fearing overuse of sperm providers, fertility clinics are more severely restricting the use of sperm than is actually warranted.)

I suspect that there would be resistance to any centralized system of record keeping.  The resistance might come from a variety of sources–it would be expensive and reasonably, the expense would be born by the users, which means it would drive up the cost of ART;   there’s a distrust of government–both its general competence and its ability to preserve the confidentiality of what is clearly sensitive information; and there’s a concern that once regulation begins it can spread.

But the alternatives may be worse.  If the problem isn’t addressed than the arguments for prohibiting use of third-party gametes or insisting that all sperm providers be identified gain strength.   It seems to me that we become more likely to decide to throw the baby (which I think of as relatively broad access to third-party gametes) out with the bath water.




One response to “How Many Offspring?

  1. “I suspect that there would be resistance to any centralized system of record keeping. The resistance might come from a variety of sources–it would be expensive and reasonably, the expense would be born by the users, which means it would drive up the cost of ART; there’s a distrust of government–both its general competence and its ability to preserve the confidentiality of what is clearly sensitive information; and there’s a concern that once regulation begins it can spread.”

    The resistance to regulation comes primarily from the ASRM and those DI parents that have bought their fear tactics about costs, violations of privacy, and potential hacking of the system that guards the identities of genetic fathers. The idea that it would be expensive to track these people is not particularly valid, given that The Sperm Bank of California tracks their men without spending a lot of money. They are a non-profit enterprise, unlike the highly profitable banks like California Cryobank. Maintaining a registry such as Wendy Kramer’s has proven to be doable for her, so why would it cost too much to set up a government agency to hold these records? State courts maintain a huge data base of adoption records and I haven’t heard that these are expensive. Neither do I hear of any governmental incompetence at maintaining the privacy protections of their records. My guess is that the ASRM feels threatened about the loss of their absolute control. Nobody gives up such an addiction to power easily.

    I also question the legitimacy of the claim from private medicine that their donors have a right of privacy. Although such rights exist after William O. Douglas “made up” the right in his decision in Griswold v. Connecticut, there is no precedent for assuming that the right of personal privacy torts, marital privacy or that of a woman to decide about abortion would extend to men selling their sperm to create children. Personal privacy torts address the exposure of personal matters to the general public. Giving identifying information about paternity to the child/adult concerned is certainly not public exposure. The ASRM has simply made up the “donors’ right of privacy” by fiat and not through the political process that ensures a broader scrutiny of the issues. This is fundamentally unfair to hundreds of thousands of donor-conceived people.

    I trust my government far more than I trust sperm banks. Without governmental regulation, people with a legitimate claim to information that is vital to their identity have no legal recourse. In adoption, you can legislate for access to your own records of your original parents and the information is at least recorded in some repository. The courts or agencies involved can exercise the safe release of this private information to the individuals concerned, without exposing the parents through publication to the general public. Unless conception records are similarly available through a government repository, donor conceived people have no remedy for making a claim to identity rights.

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