There has been a lot in the press recently about sperm providers who end up with scores of children. The current popular story is this one about a lawyer named Ben Seisler, a 33 year old who helped finance his law school education by selling sperm.
Seisler earned $150 per donation at the sperm bank and he visited often. (I don’t think it says what “often” means.) Years later Seisler registered at Donor Sibling Registry and he now knows of seventy-five children created using his sperm, but he thinks there are more. He keeps track of them all on an Excel spread-sheet. (I would guess that Seisler is the man referred to in the NYT article that set off this round of publicity–one I wrote about the beginning of last month.)
Before I get to my main point, one observation is in order. When I’ve written about this in the past, I think I’ve often assumed that a man who provides so much sperm does so via multiple sperm banks, but this is not the case. All Seisler’s sperm went to one Virginia sperm bank. Frankly, I think that’s unconscionable, but perhaps in fairness I should also note (indeed, hope) that perhaps standards have changed. Seisler was providing sperm some time ago (though it is perhaps still being used.)
Anyway, I think most people can agree that one man with seventy-five plus offspring is a bad idea. And this agreement has spurred a lot of discussion about regulating the number of offspring and, more generally, regulating ART. I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit recently and I find myself wondering what difference transparency might make. In other words, what would happen if everyone had accurate information about how many offspring there were and how many times a man had sold his sperm?
Here’s what I’m thinking. Let’s suppose any sperm bank a man went to had access to accurate information about how frequently that man had provided sperm to other banks and how many children had been conceived using that sperm. Would a sperm bank buy sperm from a man knowing there was a lot of his sperm already out there in the marketplace? You might think the very experience noted here answers that (because after all, this bank did keep taking his sperm even though it obviously knew how much he had already sold) but bear with me, keeping in mind that the majority of banks are for-profit operations.
Now suppose the same information was made available to potential purchasers/users of the sperm. How many people would buy sperm if they know the provider already had fifty or more offspring? Or that there was so much of his sperm out there on the market that this was likely to happen? I don’t actually think that is what most people want, so I suspect that if there was accurate information out there, most people would reject the provider. Anticipating this, most sperm banks probably wouldn’t think it worthwhile to pay for sperm from men with lots of offspring–they wouldn’t make a profit on the investment. If sperm banks stopped paying men for donating repeatedly, men would stop doing it.
I’m a little shocked to find myself sounding so much like a market-forces person, but I do wonder whether if everyone has the information, you’d need to regulate any further. Don’t get me wrong–you still need to set up some system to get the information and make it available and that’s no small feat. But you need to do that for any system of regulation, really. My point here is that maybe that is all you need to do. Which means you don’t have to have a whole complicated system for enforcement–just a good system for tracking and dissemination of information. (The main assumption here is that the users of the sperm would care about the likelihood of creating a child with so many genetic half-siblings. I think that’s a reasonable assumption, but I confess that I do not know.)
There’s more to say here, but I’m going to stop for now, with one last note: The Boston Globe article comes up on my screen complete with advertising, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that the sperm bank that Seisler visited is promoted in one of those ads. There’s something just a trifle ironic about that, at least to me.