Keeping Head Above Water: Why Is There So Much To Talk About Right Now?

There’s been an incredible amount to discuss here over the last few days and I can only regret not having had the time to even try to keep up.   Many of the pieces were follow-ups on things already touched on here.   At a quick scan there are at least two things from the NYT (one about parents of children adopted from China who may not have been orphans but were instead taken from their families and one a follow up on the fatherhood/testosterone study I blogged about).  Then NPR had a virtual buffet of stories over the weekend about use of third-party sperm as well as what children get told about ART conceptions.   And the Boston Globe had a piece about the guy has so many offspring who keeps track of the kids he is related to via a spread sheet–another one I’ve already written about a little.   

At this point all I can do is promise (myself and all of you) that I’ll get to these things this week.   But for the moment I thought I’d just take a step back and think about what the proliferation of stories related to various aspects of the larger “who is parent” discussion might mean.   (This is something I’ve been thinking about in part because after nearly three years of keeping up this blog, I’m going to try to do a bit of more sustained writing and produce a book.    A part of that project is thinking about how to say why anyone would want to read such a book, and this in turn leads me to consider the current interest in the topic.)

So here’s what I have been thinking.  It seems to me that just at this time there is a confluence of a number of different factors that are driving this interest.

First (not in the sense of “most important” but in the sense of “I’m talking about this one first because it is on the top of my brain”) there is the growing sense–shared by many readers here–that genetic linkages are important.   This is amplified by some of the recent science around genetics/DNA and also by evolutionary psychology and biology, I think.    And it is fueled, too, by the development of cheap, quick and reliable DNA testing as well as by the internet.    Taken altogether these may harken the practical end of anonymity of gamete providers.   At the very least, it becomes harder to assume that a gamete provider will remain anonymous.

Second, there is the wide-spread use of ART or at the very least, a widespread awareness of the use of ART.   In some ways ART users are coming out of the closet.  Celebrities use surrogates and IVF.    People are interested, and this no doubt drives some of the media coverage.   Often it serves the fertility industry to be in the news, though of course not all of the stories are ones the fertility industry would like to see.   There’s a reinforcing circle here–more interest means more news means more interest.

Now the ART users are not a monolithic group, nor is there position vis-a-vis the DNA folks fixed.  Some ART users are all about creating genetic linkages while others are all about the importance of the roles played in children’s lives.  This is already a complicated picture.

Then there is the decline of (or at least, the perception of the decline of) the classic nuclear family, and the corresponding rise of the less traditional models-single parent families–particularly those where the parent is single by choice–and same-sex families as well as more familiar blended families.

And then there is globalization.   Our world grows smaller.   Reproductive tourism is a subset of medical tourism and both have experienced explosive growth.  This brings all sorts of issues like cultural differences, economic exploitation and the like into the mix.

All of which is to say it is very lively stew these days–bubbling away with new things rising to the surface all the time.   Which is why it is indeed hard to keep head above water sometimes.   But it does make life interesting.


16 responses to “Keeping Head Above Water: Why Is There So Much To Talk About Right Now?

  1. I’ll camp over night on the sidewalk to get a first edition of your book. I was pretty sure the blog was your lab. Its a popular topic sure to get more popular with every new person who joins the revolution in family building.

    I posted a comment on the NPR series you reference above. Its interesting food for thought on just how many new people will be created with ART in the near future. Your prospects at selling a few hundred books are realistic to put it mildly. Here is the comment from NPR:

    marilynn huff (marilynndawn) wrote:

    Kathleen is from Harris County Texas. Following the Association of Reproductive Medicine ASRM guidelines of 25 children per donor per population of 800,000 ((population/800,000) x 25 children, how many siblings might she have within her county? How about her state? The US, North America or the Planet?

    Harris County Texas
    3,984,349 pop / 800,000 = 5 x 25 = 125 children per donor

    24,782,302 pop / 800,000 = 31 x 25 = 775 children per donor

    307,006,550 pop/ 800,000 = 384 x 25 = 9,600 children per donor

    North America
    528,720,588 pop/ 800,000 = 661* 25 = 16,523 children per donor

    6,775,235,700 pop / 800,000 = 8469 * 25 = 211,725 children per donor

    One more time. The ASRM is really saying that each donor should have no more than 211,725 children world wide. The members of that association turn a financial profit every time a donor agrees not to take care of his or her own offspring. A huge huge profit.

    They don’t make money when people take care of their own offspring. Get it yet?

    Sun Sep 18 2011 21:23:47 GMT-0700 (Pacific Daylight Time)
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  2. We cannot put a legal limit on the number of offspring a donor can have, because what is a donor but a man or woman excercising his or her reproductive freedom? I do not want to live in a country where I am forbidden to exceed a certain number of decendants. China has a bit of a public relations mess on their hands with that one, no?

    I like America’s approach to population control much better: Go ahead and reproduce like rabbits if you want but you gotta take care of them, They are your responsibility and nobody else’s. And, when we follow that rule we quickly begin to separate the parents who are taking care of their kids from those who aren’t and we say – hey, now that is a crime either straighten up or loose your kid to someone willing to do the job right. Sometimes people straighten up other times people step in and take over. We also have a procedure where a person can abdicate that obligation to raise their offspring that is not perfect but it does do a pretty good job of identifying situations where a child was kidnapped or sold or where the people taking over care of the child coerced or threatened or prevented the parent from taking care of the child.

    I think most people who use ART want to believe their donor really donated and was not some husband of a clinic patient whose sperm was mixed up or stolen, but reciepients don’t know anything for sure about the mysterious bio parent of the child they are raising. They would know for sure if that bio parent had to give that child up for adoption like the rest of the bio parents in this country who dont want to raise their own offspring. And you can bet the donors themselves would limit the number of offspring they had if they had to give each one up for adoption.

    You keep thinking Im saying that DNA makes a person a better parent and I cannot say loudly enough that is not at all what I am saying, I think that leaving the people who reproduce off the original birth record opens the door for tremendous graft and corruption by all sorta of people to the childs detriment, including people using art to get the kid so they can be a legal parent, Those people are not real happy to know that they are raising a child with close to 200 reported siblings, They feel betrayed by the industry and they don’t realize that 200 is not even the tip of the sibling group iceberg.

  3. OK I read your article and was ready to write a quick comment about the many issues we are – as a society- talking about (thank goodness) although of course many have been happening for centuries- children taken and sold for adoption, men having lots of children with multiple women etc its only because of the interenet etc that we are now really talking about it in this way.

    Then I saw the comments…. and Im not going to address all the parts that made me raise my eyebrows:-) Just 2 or 3. And will leave it at that…

    “I do not want to live in a country where I am forbidden to exceed a certain number of decendants”

    Luckily you dont (I pressume you live in the States).
    I have major problems with putting ‘ethics’ first- rather than the practicalities of life.
    Yes, there needs to be a limit on the number of children that can be produced using donor sperm.

    “They don’t make money when people take care of their own offspring. Get it yet?”

    So can I get this straight- are you implying that men who donate sperm are doing so purely for money. They do it to make money and so they dont have to legally have any responsiblities. And therefore dont care about how many children are created as they dont have to take care of them. Am I right in what you are pressuming?
    I could discuss that point for hours- you’re way off the mark. Especially making sperm donors the target and NOT the people who facilitate these arrangements.

    “I like America’s approach to population control much better: Go ahead and reproduce like rabbits if you want but you gotta take care of them, They are your responsibility and nobody else’s”

    It doesnt actually work though does it. And never will.

    Marilynn WHY is it the biological parents responsibility FIRST in your ethical world- for all. Black and white. Why do you believe this?

    • No ASRM puts out the guideline of 25 children per gamete provier, per vaguely borderless population of 800,000. Its asrm members that don’t make any money if people take care of their own offspring. The money made by gamete providers themselves is chump change compared to all the money made by the ancillary medical, legal and technical facilitators.

      • Emma sorry I’ll be clearer about the comment I’m responding to:

        “So can I get this straight- are you implying that men who donate sperm are doing so purely for money. They do it to make money and so they dont have to legally have any responsiblities. And therefore dont care about how many children are created as they dont have to take care of them. Am I right in what you are pressuming?

        No that is not what I am implying at all. I’ll bet you are relieved. What I am implying is the same as what I said “The ASRM is really saying that each donor should have no more than 211,725 children world wide. The members of that association turn a financial profit every time a donor agrees not to take care of his or her own offspring. A huge huge profit.” The money an individual donor makes is a pittance compared to the money made by lawyers and doctors and lab techs, psychologists, cryobanks and technical facilitators. Its those vultures that profit only when a biological parent agrees not to raise his or her own child. Of course that organization and its members create guidelines that serve their membership’s goal of remaining solvent and employed.

        Hope thats clearer.

      • I really don’t think it is fair to pillory the ASRM. It’s an organization made up of many people. Not all of those people are motivated purely by profit. I’ve met many people who really do seek to help people deal with the pain of infertility or to otherwise achieve their goals of becoming parents. They’re not unscrupulous and it’s wrong to paint too broadly with the same brush.

        I won’t deny that there are people motivated primarily by greed, but I think it is widely understood that they make life for those who are not so motivated much more difficult, just as dishonest lawyers give the rest of us a bad name. It’s just not as simple as you make it seem.

        • True, I’ll concede to that. But industry leaders are artful dodgers in their reaction to public concern over the recent report of the one gentleman having fathered 150 children – the party line seems to be that we don’t know what the risks are ASRM Guidelines. I guess my point is they are not exactly a neutral third party watchdog non profit. Its a professional organization and the whole point of their profession is to make having a baby possible without adoption for people who are unable to conceive children for whatever reason.

          As far as I can tell from my very unscientific googling, US clinics I checked all said they followed ASRM guidelines 1 birth per 32,000 also stated as 25 births / 850,000 population. You’d think clinics would simply apply the ASRM formula to their city’s population to come up with the maximum number of children per donor for that clinic. That approach is initially the most logical until you realize that these cryobanks ship semen all over the world.
          If the formulas were being applied to specific city county or state populations the number would be shocking enough

          Seattle’s population is 563,374 / 32,000 = 17.6 children in Seattle
          King County population is 1,875,519 = 58.6 children in King County
          Washington population is 6,664,195 = 208 children in Washington State

          New York City population is 8,175,133 / 32,000 = 255 children in NYC

          • looks like they changed from 850,000 to 800,000 or vise versa at some point.

          • I agree that the ASRM is hardly a neutral party. I think in general one should be suspicious of any industry running solely on self-regulation for just this reason. But in saying that, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on everyone who is in the group, nor to I mean to say that it is incapable of making useful suggestions or participating in the discussion. I think some sort of limit on number of offspring is necessary and even if individual clinics have them (and enforce them–and many do) it won’t solve the problem. Men can always go to multiple clinics (and I assume that the ones with 75-150 offspring have done just that). Thus, you somehow need to track people from clinic to clinic.

            For what it is worth, the advocate for ovum donation quoted here also advocates for a national registry to track number of offspring/donations (the latter being important wrt eggs than sperm) and I imagine some sort of national registry is really the only way to go.

            One other note–I’ve heard (and this makes sense) that one problem with tracking number of offspring is that the people using third-party gametes do not always return to the clinics to tell them it has worked. They move right along to the OB/GYN phase. So you’d have to tackle that problem, too.

    • Hi Emma,
      I feel your question “how do you know the sperm donor is doing it for money” is a bit naive. Check out the donor catalogues, most donors will freely admit they are doing it for money. Really, what other reason would their be to go jerking off at scheduled appointments in a doctor’s office? What other reason would someone want to impregnate a total stranger who they don’t know from Adam and don’t care?
      Perhaps you are thinking of your own program in which the “sperm donors” actually want to know their own kids- thats a whole different ballgame, those are full fledged dads and don’t even belong in the discussion.

      • Yes Emma do your guys go thru the process of giving the child up for adoption? That would be down right ethical (sort of). The kid will still be loosing out on something he should have but at least children would be afforded similar legal protections as children in the rest of the population.

  4. Emma with the exception of men who are themselves victimized by clinic fraud or mix ups, men that provide semen to clinics do so willingly. They agree to let other people decide how many offspring they will have knowing full well that the people making those decisions on his behalf profit each time he reproduces with one of their patients – why would they do anything other than try to maximize the number of offspring each provider produces? The forms he signs state clearly the ASRM guidelines about the maximum recommended number of children per provider, its not like they were not told that this would happen. I did the math above its pretty clear that if you donate sperm your consenting to produce anywhere from 1 to 200,000 children. He did not have to agree to such an absurd thing. Yes the industry reselling his semen plays a part in all of it but they are only getting away with it because the donors agree to it. If they had to give each child up for adoption people would still get the children they want but there would not be 150 kids per donor thats for sure and good records would be kept. Then no child would wind up raised by a social parent who had not gone through the legal checks and balances to make sure they obtained that roll ethically as poossible.

  5. why bio parents first? Because bio parents don’t buy their brand of parenthood from anyone else. We can be sure the child was not trafficked into those peoples families. Whenever a child is being raised by someone who is not their bio parent we need to ask if they obtained custody in a legal, ethical manner. You may think gamet selling offers the same level of consent to relinquish a bio child but it does not bexcause the people raising the child have no real proof of consent most of the time and worst of all its not documented or approved by the court so money can exchange hands and the process is ripe for corruption.

  6. Julie, you end your entry by saying: “but it does make life interesting”.

    Maybe for you, but what about the children? The last word I would use to describe my own experiences as a child with “non-traditional family building”, is the word “interesting”.

    “Family” is something that outlives the break up of social relationships. Children need it, not because it is good or bad, but because it endures.

    • Perhaps I was to flip. If so, I apologize. I do not mean to minimize the experiences of the people closest to these cases or practices. But I don’t think in general I am oblivious to the concerns of chlidren. Indeed, the strongest argument I can muster for my view is typically that I urge the law to take account of the reality of children’s lives. These days many children do rely on non-traditional families for all forms of support–physical, financial, emotional, social. The law ought to recognize and respect those families that the relationships that constitute those families, even if they do not fit within the traditional mold.

  7. Julie, thank you for your response. Maybe I was too harsh in my comment, but I feel that the perspective of the child is often missing from discussions about family.

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