There have been three recent stories (of quite different sorts) about sperm donors (which by extension also have something to say about egg donors) that I wanted to highlight and comment on. Before I get to that, though, I wanted offer a reminder about the terminology I choose to use.
The generally used terms (as you can see from the writings I’ll link to shortly) are “sperm donor,” “egg donor” or, more inclusively, “gamete donor.” I’ve highlighted the “donor” part of each term because this is the word I try not to use. In many (but not all) instances, the “donor” receives compensation though typically the compensation is (technically) for time/inconvenience, rather than for the actual gametes. I accept that motivations of the many people who provide gametes aren’t purely commercial–there are altruistic elements as well. But still, the term “donor” for most of us suggests someone who gives something without compensation. I would prefer to reserve it for those who are actually in that category–those who are purely altruistic–and hence, I try to use “sperm provider,” “egg provider” and “gamete provider.”
Now–to the articles. The New York Times printed this opinion essay by Rene Almeling. Her name could ring a bell for those long-term followers here because I wrote about her book (Sex Cells) and her work a while back. In general I think what she has to say is interesting and worth paying attention to. Her NYT essay is a call for greater regulation of the gamete collection/distribution industry. (And “industry” is surely the term to use here.)
The steps she actually proposes seem fairly minimal. One is to track and perhaps account for the number of samples on any given provider that are on the market. This would allow something other than anecdotal information about the multiple use provider problem. (More on this in a moment.) I’m not exactly sure what it is she would have the CDC track in its surveys—-simple use of gametes from an third-party gamete provider (by which I mean, a provider who wasn’t part of a couple planning to raise the child)? Or which provider was used? Still, keeping track is a first step to lots of potential regulation because you have to be able to fully understand a problem first.
Now working backwards, I assume that this essay is written in part in response to the movie that Almeling discusses in her lead–The Delivery Man. It’s about a man who has 533 genetic offspring thanks to his repeated service as a sperm provider. While it is fiction, the problem it addresses is not. There are a number of recent cases in which men who consistently provided sperm to sperm banks turn out to have many, many offspring. (These have been the subject of discussion here in the past.)
I have not seem the movie (and I probably won’t), but Almeling’s is not the only commentary on it. There’s this from some in the fertility industry. The thing that seems to me most important here is the report of an industry lead effort to have tracking of sperm providers. I mean, it is all well and good of each clinic only allows 25 “families” per provider, but if that provider goes to 10 clinics, that means 250 families. I have no doubt that the industry can act more quickly than the government. Also, given the dominance of a relatively small number of large sperm banks, industry tracking and restriction could actually be effective. The question, of course, is whether it really happens. And that we should be able to tell fairly quickly, since this article speaks of an announcement in early December.
Finally, I wanted to note the a new MTV series: Generation Cryo. I’m no culture maven, but in general my impression of MTV series is that they are gross forms of exploitation. They’re the people who brought us Jersey Shore, after all. And in that light I worry about that series. No doubt Breeanna’s search for her donor siblings (terminology alert–but I won’t discuss this right here because of length) is important to her and ought to make us think. But I hate the very idea of it becoming fodder for reality TV. I’m entirely in favor of taking the efforts of those who identify as donor conceived seriously, but I worry a lot that following those efforts on reality TV is not likely to be good for those involved. Whatever the issues of the use of third-party gametes–and I agree they are many–they ought not to be the subject of gross entertainment.