Can Transparency Address The Number of Offspring Problem?

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.


13 responses to “Can Transparency Address The Number of Offspring Problem?

  1. Yes I think transparency can reduce the number of offspring per donor and we could use existing legal framework for the CDC to monitor who is reproducing, who is produced including the number of children and their relative health.

    I have commented several times on the number of children the ASRM guidelines allow per gamete donor and you’ve not yet responded to that number in a really direct way. And here again in this post you said you thought that these large numbers of children would be coming out of multiple banks and find it disconcerting that one clinic would allow 75 children to be fathered by one man. That clinic is well within the ASRM guidelines Julie. In fact he could produce 10,000 offspring for them and they still would not be even close to exceeding ASRM guidelines that all US sperm banks comply with.

    Look, I know my posts can be tedious to read but I took the time a while back to apply ASRM’S formula to your region of the country; its my 12:17 am comment here

    To further illustrate how 75 is well within limits set by ASRM here is text from the NorthWest Cryobanks website in your area. Please really read what it says, not what we all seem to want it to say and then you’ll realize that these clinics know what they are doing and don’t see it as anything but a public relations problem. Here is NWCryobanks limit statement

    Limitations on Donor Distribution: All surveyed sperm banks use some type of standard to limit the number of births attributable to any one donor. Some use the actual number of births, while others use the number of family units.

    One standard used is the guideline of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which is currently 25 births/donor per 800,000 (1 birth per 32,000) in a circumscribed population (the population surrounding the location where donor inseminated births occur. Another method to limit the number of donor inseminated births is to establish an absolute number of births per donor, (i.e. 10). Reports of a donor having many offspring should be viewed in the context of such births typically occurring throughout the nation and not in a limited area. Notwithstanding the standard used to limit the number of births per donor, sperm banks do not limit the number of births within a family unit, thereby permitting full siblings via donor insemination.

    • Sorry not to have responded more directly sooner.

      I haven’t done the math (like how many live births are there in the Seattle area? I think there were 24K in 2006. How would that work out with 1 per 32K? One child? Doesn’t seem right to me. Or perhaps DC, since the most recent guy was there) but I’ll assume for the moment that the ASRM has the limits set too high. That’s an important point. One thing it might suggest is that we cannot count on self-regulation alone. Maybe it needs to be coupled with transparency again–so that we don’t just look and see “oh–there’s a limit” and move on. I suspect that the spate of publicity we’ve seen recently will make a lot of people look more closely at the limits and perhaps make the ASRM revist the issue. If this is within their limits, they should revisit it.

      All of which is to say that i personally think 75 is too many. I haven’t seen a principled defense that 75 is just fine. And i won’t offer one.

      Maybe I should work out the math.

  2. 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 a child conceived this way have within the US, North America or the Planet?

    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.

    • I don’t think this is quite fair, but it is surely true that the ASRM has not been as clear as might be. I quoted some of the language above and put in the link to their publication. Perhaps most importantly, they are thinking in terms of geographically limited populations–perhaps at a time when donors were most likely to be used in a specific area. Thus, they’d never calculate the US or the world figures.

      I do not mean to defend the ASRM on this–I think they surely need to revisit this and work a bit harder on it. But I don’t think it is fiar to extrapolate as you do and then say that it is what they are saying.

      (They actually ought to say something like 25 out of 800,000 in an age cohort, if the concern is accidental incest, which works out to much less than 25 out of 800,000 in total population.)

  3. Ok fair enough. I can admit I am bias against them and that might be impacting the way I’m interpreting their formula.

    You said the ASRM is thinking in terms of a geographically limited population of 800,000. Do you think they mean the borders of the city where the donation was made? The population of Houston, Texas is 2,016,582. If I apply their formula to the geographically limited population of Houston, Texas, the answer is no more than 63 children per donor within the City of Houston.

    If they did not mean per city, but per geographically limited area, why did they limit the number of births within 800,000 square miles rather than 800,000 people?

    Whether the formula uses population or square miles, the obvious question is what happens when they cross that border? Do we start counting all over again? What is the bottom line? How many children is the max recommended world wide?

  4. First off, if we are looking at the same source, the wording is “it has been suggested” that 25 offfspring in a population of 800,000 might be okay. Now I have no idea who suggested it, but it isn’t the same as actually having a standard or a regulation.

    I think they do it in terms of population because they are thinking about the odds of unintentional incest. If you had 25 people randomly scattered among 800,000 the odds of two of those 25 people might seem pretty small. Geography won’t do it because in a very sparsely populated region you’d have a much greater density of offspring (if I can use the word “density” here.)

    But as I said somewhere, if this is the logic, then it is flawed. The total population of an area might be 800,000 but how many people are in an age cohort? Perhaps one-fifth? That would be 160,000, I think. And if all the 25 offspring are in the same age cohort, then the density is much higher. In fact, to get 25 per 800,000 in the age cohort you’d need a population of around 4 million, I think (I’m working off my assumption that 1/5 of the population is in that age cohort and that is a totally made up figure, but you get the idea.) Now if they said 25 offspring in a metropolitan area with a population of 4 million that might satisfy some.

    It would be good to know how much sperm is used locally as opposed to globally. I know it is possible to ship worldwide, but how common is it?

    All of these would be good questions to have answers to and I do think we agree that the ASRM really ought to think this through quite a bit more carefully.

    • I wonder what would happen if I just shot them an email and said “can you tell me how to use this formula to get the max # of offspring per donor per facility assuming world wide shipping?”

      Alana was conceived in Texas using sperm shipped from Los Angeles to her Mom’s doctor in El Paso….I’ve seen the shipping airbill from Xypex. If I apply the ASRM formula to El Paso’s population of 800,647 she could have a max recommendation of of 24 siblings in El Paso. Plus the clinic is in Los Angeles is 9,862,049 so she’d have a max of 307 siblings there….

      I found this fascinating little tidbit
      The title is “Disposition of sperm donors with resultant abnormal pregnancies”
      It says “the 1993 American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) guidelines suggested limiting the number of pregnancies to 10 per donor (The American Fertility Society, 1993).” It also says “deBoer et al. has suggested limiting donors to 25 per 800 000 population (deBoer et al., 1995), as did a 1997 American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) committee opinion (American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, 1995).

      So ASRM had a nice, solid, easily understood number like no more than ten pregnancies per donor. And now they have a vague, nebulous calculation as a guideline.

  5. The probability that two donor children meet and marry is a lot higher than for two randomly selected people. First, donor children are often from the same economic and social environments. Secondly, people more often have social relations/being attracted to people with whom they share life experiences. This applies both to the donor children themselves and to their parents. Single mothers of donor children, for example, often form social networks and their children meet.

    My guess is that for these reasons, the probability could easily be orders of magnitude higher than the ‘official’ one.

    • I don’t think there is an official probability, but you may be right that there are reasons why the rate would be higher than just any two people of the same age. It strikes me that this is an incredibly difficult calculation to make, though. And I’ve read directly conflicting statements about whether genetically similar people are more or less likely to be attracted to each other than genetically dissimlar people, which might also matter. Also, for those who know they were conceived with third-party gametes (which would include many/most children of single mothers) there may be lower risk because they’d be alert to it. All of this would somehow have to be figured in when figuring out some guideline.


    Apparently it all boils down to State borders, varying state to state. These math formulas are what I was looking for. Though way over my pointed little head, they address the age and social considerations both you and Nelly raise. The number in 1980 is really big see the last page of the study and it says more are ok if the donor serves a national or global population.

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