I am digressing from my current topic for a moment because these two stories, both from The Telegraph (UK) happened across my desk (screen?) this morning. One is a story of sperm donation some time ago, the other is quite contemporary.
Then: Bertold Weisner and his wife, Mary Barton, ran a fertility clinic in London starting in the 1940s. Two men conceived at the clinic (Barry Stevens and David Gollancz) made a movie about the clinic. They discovered that Weisner used his own sperm at the clinic with alarming frequency. Indeed, they estimate that Weisner had between 300 and 600 offspring. All, I think, were born before the early to mid-1960s.
This means that the offspring would be between 50 and 70 years old now. Many of them are probably unaware of their genetic lineage. Indeed, given the time, some (maybe many) are unaware they were conceived with third-party sperm.
I suppose the question I wonder about is what to make of this. I don’t think anyone reasonable would defend the practice today. We can always marvel at how little people in the past understood and how foolishly they behaved, I guess. And in that sense, you might see this as a cautionary tale: how easily we humans are convinced we know what we are doing and how wrong we can be, perhaps?
But that’s a general lesson I’d draw about human endeavor. We must beware hubris–whether it is in denying climate change or regulating ART.
Is there a narrower lesson here–one that tells us something about regulating ART today? I expect that the story will be used as a clarion call for regulation (or enforcement of existing regulation), but I really do think there is widespread–nearly universal–agreement now that the practices of Weisner are unacceptable. To the extent there is a danger of repetition I would expect it is less likely to arise in the countries like the US, Canada or the UK and more likely to be found in some of the wilder markets in places like the Ukraine.
On a side note, many of the offspring have probably had children of their own, too, and some of the children will have had children, which means there are doubtless many hundreds and likely thousands of people in the subsequent generations who share the same genetic lineage. Is this something we need to worry about?
I’m not sure that it is. Probably someone reading this can fill me in, but I think as you move out to first cousins (which is what we call people with a common grandparent) concerns about genetic inbreeding diminish substantially. (I think my own paternal grandparents were actually double first cousins, but I don’t suppose that proves anything.)
I’m quite curious about the story Gollancz and Stevens will tell in their film. I cannot find mention of the name of it but will try to keep an eye out.
Now: In sharp contrast, this story tells us something about views on sperm donation today. Lisa Jardine, chair of the HFEA in the UK, spoke as part of an effort to encourage more gamete providers to step forward. (Here’s a recent discussion of the UK gamete supply.)
In the UK the collection and distribution of sperm is regulated and you won’t see the likes of Dr. Weisner there now. Donors are allowed to provide sperm for at most ten families. Identifying information is made available to children when they turn 18.
There is a determined effort afoot to increase the supply of gametes and as a part of that, as I noted in a post a little while back, compensation has been increased. In this article Jardine goes beyond that to discuss other ways to increase the number of those willing to provide gametes. Some of the comments in this news story also bring to mind an earlier discussion of the work of Rene Almeling about the role of gender in the gamete market.
The second article is interesting in and of itself for the window it offers into a modern system for collecting gametes. It’s also a striking contrast to the practices detailed in the first article. Food for thought, somehow?