I put up this post yesterday that I was perhaps a bit intemperate but ended up forming the basis for a relatively good discussion. Thanks to all who made it work out that way. There are many interesting points raised in the comments and they’re really worth reading.
I wanted to take a short step back from that to try to frame things in a better and less personalized perspective. What I’m afraid was wrong with yesterday’s post is that it ended up being directed much too much at a specific person/case where, truth be told, I didn’t have enough facts. I consistently criticize others for doing precisely this so it seems only right that I be called out on it.
There are important issues to discuss here. Trent Arsenault and Bill Johnson are two people who’ve managed to make news that raises some of those issues. But I don’t know either of them and I don’t know the whole story in either case. Arsenault has, I think, more control over his portrayal in the media as he’s got an extensive website. By contrast, Johnson has been dragged into a spotlight and we don’t really know his story. Thus, the judgment I rendered about him–personally–is really baseless. I’m sorry I wrote that the way I did.
So let me take a step back from the media tales and think about the underlying issues. Arsentault and Johnson are both providing sperm to women outside the generally organized system of (mostly for-profit) sperm banks. The larger sperm banks are, for the most part, tied into the general commercial system of ART. So a primary question for me is whether there are reasons to believe that the larger commercial sperm banks do a better job of providing sperm, providing greater safety or other benefits to their users? Should we therefore discourage people from going outside that system?
It’s worth nothing that outside the larger sperm bank “industry” there are at least a couple of paths. There’s the purely private actor–who might be exemplified by Arsenault. He’s a one man show attached to no larger structure or network. Then there are organized sites that like FSDW, which is run by Emma Hartnell-Baker (who offered comments on yesterday’s post.) FSDW promotes “safe, responsible, free sperm donations worldwide; prioritising the rights and needs of donor conceived children.” I don’t think I’ll get down to thinking about the differences between these options, but I wanted to note that they, too, are worthy of thought.
Some of the most important questions center around the honesty and reliability of the sperm providers. And here there is a subsidiary difference to note. The providers of the commercial sperm banks–even the not-for-profit ones–are compensated, whether we call the money payment or reimbursement for inconvenience. The providers of the alternative entities are not.
I’ve written (and thought) quite a bit about the role of money in ART and in the provision of gametes for ART. I’m not prepared to say that money always corrupts. Providing gametes, whether eggs or sperm, is a major commitment that requires a lot of the providers. I don’t think offering compensation for this necessarily ensures that you get exclusively money-grubbing folks doing it. But still, you can imagine that money might have some corrupting influence on some people, and if you’re thinking about overall reliability of a system, maybe this matters.
On the other hand, you also have to think about the unpaid/free system. What motivates people to provide gametes for free? Some, of course, are purely altruistic. (And perhaps this is a moment when I should state a general assumption I make that motives are quite often mixed–a little of this combined with a little of that.) But there’s at least one other motive–and this is part of what I was reacting to in the Johnson interview–that gives me pause just as the money motive does.
I’m thinking here about the desire to create biological offspring, which is part of the motive that is attributed to Johnson. As is noted in the comments on the last post, there’s nothing per se terrible about this motive. Indeed, many people who have and raise children share this motive. But it does give me pause. There’s a very gendered image of a man seeking to impregnate as many women as possible–it’s sort of a Darwinian trope–that comes to mind. And that’s not a good thing.
I’m wandering here and so I’ll stop for now. (Worse yet, I’m about to travel so I’m not sure when I’ll pick up.) I just wanted to offer some more temperate thoughts on the serious issues that lie beneath my ill-tempered post of yesterday.