Sperm Donation, Then and Now

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?

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28 responses to “Sperm Donation, Then and Now

    • I found this film, but since it is 2009 I didn’t think it could be the trigger for the current news story. Do you think this is where the estimate of number of offspring comes from? (I’m also curious about whether the methodology of the estimate is sound and I noticed that the estimates by the two authors are pretty far apart–I think one says 300-600 and the other over a thousand?)

      • My parent's donor is my father

        I think the trigger for the current news story is that although this is no longer an acceptable practice (in the UK) there is NO regulations or restrictions on the practice or numbers in the wild west US. And Barry and his brother are still actively advocating for regulations world wide.
        The numbers are a crap shoot – anyone’s guess…

        • My parent's donor is my father

          And I agree with Barry/David, global regulation is desperately needed but it’s deeper than that. I think this practice is ethically, culturally and socially detrimental as a whole. I do NOT think it is a good thing to normalize even with regulation.

          • 90 thumbs up. I’m troubled by regulations that would give donor offspring the right to know their donors identities because what it means is that we continue to allow a segment of society to abandon their offspring without going through the adoptive process for their children’s protection. And also so that accurate medical records can be created for the child and for the community at large. Unfortunately the immediate need to get people identifying information carries a lot of weight and so its better than nothing

          • I appreciate your clarity in stating this. I think it is important to distinguish between the position that the system isn’t working well and needs to be fixed (perhaps through regulation) and the position that there can be no good system for this.

            • My parent's donor is my father

              Really? I thought you would tear me apart for being so honest. Thanks Julie.

              • I try never to tear anyone apart for being honest. I get that we disagree–and that’s okay. Makes life interesting and all that. But it’s important to me to understand where the points of disagreement lie–not just with you but in general. After all, if you object to the entire premise of third-party gametes (which is that children will be raised by people they are not genetically related to) then there’s no point in tinkering with the details. Fine-tuning it won’t help. But at the same time, I think there are people for whom the issue is how the system works.

                • My parent's donor is my father

                  There are a lot of reasons why I don’t agree with the practice but it is not because I think non genetically related people can’t be good parents. Rather it is the intention, pre-conception, to create people who will be intentionally severed from one or both of their biological parents, half siblings and extended family that is supported by society and an industry that transfers a loss (want/desire) of adults with an intentional loss for the products of these interventions and the (necessary?) disenfranchisement of that loss for the offspring (using words like “donor” and sound bites like “loved and wanted” and shaming like “would you rather not have been born” or “you should be grateful”. And then there are all the other social-psycho and non-regulation problems. Regulation, legally enforcing identity disclosure at the magical age of 18 and putting a limit on “donations” is fine tuning and I support those system changes but those regulations would not make me feel that this practice is ethical because at it’s core, for me, it comes down to the intentional transferal of loss. And I think that is unjust.

                  • I sometimes imagine that in time we’ll progress to a point where ART does operate largely like adoption–where there will be varying degrees of contact, tailored to the needs and wants of specific children, between gamete providers and offspring. Certainly this is the way lots of people manage it these days. It would seem to me that this practice mitigates the harms you outline.

                    The challenge, if this is so, would be to figure out how to move from here to there. (I recognize you may not think “there” is an adequate place any more than here is.)

                  • Oh I just love you. Talk more!

                • My parent's donor is my father

                  It also sends out a message that biological mothers/fathers are disposable, easily replaced, not valued (when all the social science evidence shows that that is not the case – also see Cinderella effect). It disenfranchises the losses felt by adoptees and birth parents. It commodifies human life. It dehumanizes fathers/mothers as “donors” nothing more than dna contributors…oh I could go on but I’ll cut myself off here (for now).

                  • I take it the “it” here is the use of third-party gametes? I will reply on that assumption, and if I’ve misunderstood I’ll just be totally off target.

                    I think people who use or support the use of third-party gametes do downplay the importance of genetic connection. It is not the case that all of them say that it is of no value. But surely they say (and I say) that the biological link is not all that important in creating a parent/child relationship. Some people who are genetic forebears do not function as parents and some people who are not biologically connected do function as parents. The key (for people like me) is protecting the people who function like parents. This does mean elevating the lived reality of a child’s life over the outcome of DNA analysis.

                    I don’t know which studies of the Cinderella effect you mean to refer to, but they may show all sorts of things that are actually consistent with this view. Suppose a biological parent has served as a social parent and is then displaced by a new partner. Is the loss to the child from loss of the biological parent or the social parent? How can we know when it’s one and the same person?

                    I wonder if we can agree that experiences vary–that for some finding the genetic connections are are important and for some they are not? Then I wonder if you can say the same thing for the pscyholocial/social parent–can we really say that for some people the loss of this person (or this relationship) is important and for others it is not?

        • My parent's donor is my father

          “International Donor Offspring Alliance” http://www.idoalliance.org/

      • My parent's donor is my father

        Barry’s POV was highlighted in the recent “Anonymous Father’s Day” film: http://www.anonymousfathersday.com/

  1. When you return to your “where’s the real harm” position, its like saying that owning a person is perfectly alright so long as you give them a comfortable existence.

    • I’m afraid I don’t know what the “its” (and I think you mean “it’s”) refers to. What is like saying that owning a person is perfectly alright?

    • When you start in with saying where is the real harm in “using donated gametes” which is to say where is the real harm in a parent abandoning their offspring so long as they do it contractually in advance of conception so that when the child is born the people who contracted are the only parents ever recorded for that child? Where is the harm? Well that’s like saying what is the harm in owning a person so long as you give them a comfortable existence – how do they know they would have been happier being free than being bought by the IP’s? Their genetic parents might have been abusive alcoholics for all we know. There is just no way to know for sure so lets keep on buying people’s offspring because look at how it undoes the harm of childlessness. Look at how happy the IP’s are with their toys. How are the people who were purchased out of their families really harmed? What’s the harm in buying a person to serve as your child so long as you treat them well.

      “Its” like saying that.

  2. My parent's donor is my father

    A new interview (video) of Barry Stevens discussing his story and the number estimate: http://www.ctv.ca/CTVNews/CanadaAM/20120411/sperm-donor-dad-hundreds-of-children-bertold-weisner-120411/

  3. what’s wrong with creating 600 people who are likely close in intelligence to him? He was probably a smart guy, so he fathered a lot of smart children. Who knows what sorts of important contributions they’ve made to society

    • My parent's donor is my father

      Trevor according to your facebook link you are only 18 years old so I can understand why you would react this way. What’s the harm in making a lot of smart children? Where to begin, first you are assuming this man was smart. How do you define smart? Second you assume that his assumed smartness would be inherited by his offspring. Again, it depends on how you define smart but regardless this is not a given fact. We are a mix of many peoples dna not just our mother’s/father’s – they carry all of their ancestors dna as well, and out of all of those possibilities, dna will be expressed in different ways. But more often than not an offspring will share some characteristics with their immediate bio-parents. Third, whats wrong with intentionally creating 600 anonymous offspring from an anonymous father and extended family? A lot. Start with the psycho/social issues this brings up not the least of which is the psycho/social concern of unintended incest. There are too many other problems to list here. Read Confessions of a Cryo Kid blog to learn more about the problems involved with this practice: cryokidconfessions.blogspot.com/ And thank you for your interest Trevor. I hope this helped.

    • Trevor I bet they are all fantastic people and its wonderful that they exist. In fact they should exist. The problem is not that these brilliant people were conceived and born, not at all. The problem is that the man who fathered them was not made to support them the way all other men have to support their offspring. He was not married to their mothers just like many other men are not married to their offspring’s mothers and yet those other men have an obligation to physically and financially support their offspring while the donor being not quite human in the eyes of the law is not required to take care of his offspring. So all the other children of single mothers are entitled to have their biological fathers support but not the donor offspring. They are entitled to support from their mother who is a person, but not from their father he was not a person he was a donor. So those 600 offspring of his have half the rights of normal people because they are treated as half person, half donor. If their mothers were married what happens to the offspring gets worse, they now are no longer just allowed to be themselves, half person/half mysterious donor man…their mother gets to name her spouse as their father. Not as a step father or as an adoptive father but as their original biological father so that their birth record is not a health record like it is for the rest of us. They have to live a lie. Sometimes they are also lied to about it. Even when they are not lied to, the identity of their father and his family is withheld from them. Trevor under normal circumstances those 600 siblings would all know one another. The only way they would not know each other is if the man who reproduced to create them failed to care for one or all of them. And that is what happened.

      No problem with the man having 600 children the problem is that he took no responsibility for them and that destroyed them as a family and they don’t know each other. I’m sure they’d have great smart people barbecues and thanksgiving dinners – your right. Too bad they can’t.

    • Trevor if your considering donating in a couple of years, try this instead. Go through the entire screening process and then tell them that you want to donate your sperm but don’t want it used to fertilize any eggs but you’ll let them study it for research purposes all they want. Or tell them that you’ll let them use your sperm to get women pregnant but of course you expect to be named as father on your own offspring’s birth certificates. Say you’d be willing to go through the court procedure to give them up for adoption if you felt like the home they were going to would be one you would have like to have been raised in, if not you’ll retain 50 percent custody. Then when the clinic gives you your walking papers and says they won’t pay you, you can get all upset that they won’t pay you to donate your sperm and they are discriminating against you for not wanting to sell your offspring to strangers. Its just donating sperm? Hardly you can go get a lawyer and sue them for child selling because they don’t just want your sperm they want you to give up your children too! I’d love to get a bunch of law students all over the country to do that and sue every major university medical center with an andrology lab in a class action lawsuit for selling children and discriminating against gamete donors who met all the health qualifications but were not willing to sell their children to strangers.

      Don’t do it if your thinking about it. You don’t know where your kid will end up. Would you choose an adoptive home for someone else’s baby based on the fact that they paid for a baby that means they’ll be great parents? Really? You’d probably put some effort into finding out who the people were before you handed them the keys to a brand new child. Factory stickers still in the window.

  4. My parent's donor is my father

    I can’t reply directly to your response Julie, so I’m starting a new “reply”:

    Julie wrote: “I take it the “it” here is the use of third-party gametes?”

    The ‘it’ is the whole package of issues involved with the practice involving third (sometimes only second) party gametes. Including the downing playing of the father (who you call the “donor”) and extended paternal (biological) family – and the unknown sibling issue in my opinion is even a bigger problem. It’s fraught with problems – all of it.

    Julie wrote: “Is the loss to the child from loss of the biological parent or the social parent? How can we know when it’s one and the same person? ”

    The Cinderella Effect has to do with evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology. The nurture investment in ones own dna offspring. I could provide all kinds of links on the subject. It’s not about loss of a non-bio (dna) social parent.

    Julie wrote: “…can we really say that for some people the loss of this person (or this relationship) is important and for others it is not?”

    Of course we can but that’s not the point. It’s more of a forest from the trees point I was trying to make. But it’s so complicated and I don’t have the energy or time to write it all out in a comment here.

    • My parent's donor is my father

      More about the Cinderella effect and how it relates to this discussion:

      http://www.lvrj.com/opinion/a-new-child-welfare-campaign-146576815.html

      and

      See “We have to change” at http://anonymousus.org/stories/index.php?cid=4

      “I am amazed at the number of clinics, physicians, and agencies that really do not give even one second of thought to the needs of the children that are being conceived via “third party reproduction.” As a nation, we need to get a conscience about what we are doing here. Yes, it’s nice when an infertile couple is able to build a family, but what about the children? Shouldn’t their needs be in the mix from the very beginning too? I think it is ridiculous that a donor-conceived child would need to “research” to find out their genetic origins. Give me a break. What if you had to do that? Is it fair? I would like to say that most of the mental health professionals who specialize in infertility really do understand the complexity of these issues and support openness around donor conception. I feel proud of that and feel that we are having an impact on couples that come through our offices. However, until all couples and donors are required to consult with us so we have a chance to open everyone’s eyes early in the process, it will be an uphill battle. I conduct my consultations with donors and couples using ASRM’s ethical guidelines for third party reproduction. The guidelines are solid, but not mandatory, so if a clinic or agency chooses not to adhere to them, there is nothing anyone can do. Consequently, many people go into arrangements with donors pretty clueless about parenting issues and implications for their donor-conceived offspring. We need to change this situation. It’s not fair to donors, intended parents, and especially to donor-conceived children.”

      Read in full here:
      http://anonymousus.org/stories/index.php?cid=4

      • I get the concern about cases like those raised in the article you’ve linked to. It does seem that there are instances when a step-parent (and most typically it seems to be a step-father, so why do we call it “Cinderalla?”) can be a bad parent. But is there any reputable study that ties that phenomena (whatever it is) to the coparent whose partner uses donor gametes? It seems to me there are many reasons why the situations might be quite different. The mere fact that you have a genetically unrelated person coparenting with a genetically related parent wouldn’t lead me to conclude that the situations will turn out the same.

        And this leads me to further thoughts about the Cinderella effect. I’m not an expert but I’d like to see more than anecdotal evidence. I’d like to see someone think through under what conditions you have to worry. Because let’s face it, I know many step parents who have vastly improved the lives of their partners and their kids and I don’t know that they aren’t the more typical case. Surely we aren’t about to say all step-parents are bad?

        It isn’t enough to invoke a fairy tale and a string of bad stories of quite dissimilar situations. What do donor conceived children really have in common with Cinderella? And what are the differences? And which things are really important?

  5. My parent's donor is my father

    Julie, of course I’m not saying that ALL ‘step parents’ or non-bio related ‘parents’ of ‘donor’ conceived are going to be bad ‘parents’. The “Cinderella Effect” is not an absolute by any means but there is existing evidence that suggests that a person raised by a bio-parent and a non-bio-parent (or significant other of the bio-parent) is more likely to experience “issues”. Yes, there are no hard “studies” on that particular experience in relation to the the “donor conceived” other than what was shown in the “My Daddy’s Name is Donor” report
    http://www.familyscholars.org/assets/Donor_FINAL.pdf

    And honestly, how on earth could a hard core (non-biased) factual study like that ever be implemented? There are all kinds of obstacles in the way of that ever happeing.
    The MDND report is about as close to that as it comes (just looking at the study results)

    What does that prove in a court of law?…absolutely nothing. I’m not a lawyer, I’m just dialoguing with you as a person (not as a lawyer). I wish you could take off your lawyer hat and take into consideration what I have to add. Just as a thoughtful addition to the conversation. Of course if you are focused on discounting all/any arguements/concerns about the practice (as a lawyer who advocates FOR the practice) we can’t ever do that. Which saddens me because I’d like to reach you beyond your lawyerly identity.

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