[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.