The industry that has developed around assisted reproduction is a frequent topic here, often a controversial one. One particular arm of the industry–sperm banks and more generally the use of sperm from sperm banks–has been a frequent focus. There are undoubtedly many points of disagreement here. For instance, some suggest that no one should use third-party gametes. Others suggest that the gamete provider, by virtue of the genetic link that will always exist between provider and offspring, should always be a legal parent.
What this may hide is that there is also a fairly wide area of agreement. I’m going to write about one in particular today. There have been a number of instances–some fictional (books and movies) and some real–where men have produced dozens or scores of offspring. People who use the sperm are in general unaware of the risk that this might happen to them. This does not seem to me to be a good thing.
Now one way to address this problem would be to have some centralized regulation with a fixed upper limit on number of offspring or number of families using the particular provider. Some countries do this.
But the prospects for national regulation in the US are, frankly, slim. In general we have a pretty wild-west/free market system and there’s far more concern in the political sphere about over-regulation than about under regulation. I don’t mean one cannot try for this, I just mean to suggest that the prospect of actually getting change in a short time is not great.
As I think I’ve said in the past, seeking to move the sperm banks to self-regulate is probably a more fruitful course of action. After all, if people who support the general practice of using sperm banks (as I do) are supportive, then it’s a lot harder to shrug off.
So here is just such an effort. There is a wonderfully engaged scholar I’ve written about in the past–her name is Rene Almeling. She recently had an op-ed in the New York Times. That’s one form of advocacy. (I wrote about the op-ed as part of the most recent posting on sperm banks.)
But now Professor Almeling has taken things another step. This open letter to the sperm banks is from her website. She has some specific proposals for what she’d like them to do. I think they are well worth considering.
Basically there are three things she suggest the sperm banks do:
1) Post your bank’s policy on the maximum number of children allowed per donor.
2) Describe the methods your bank uses to track the number of children per donor.
3) For each donor listed on your website, post the number of children born from that donor’s sperm.
(The letter expands a bit on each of these.)
I think it is an intriguing and potentially powerful proposal. Notice that it doesn’t actually tell the sperm banks what the can/cannot do in terms of the use of the providers sperm. If a bank wants to set its at fifty children, the suggested policy doesn’t tell it not to do that.
Instead the proposal is aimed an informing consumers about whatever choices the bank has made. If there is a limit, the bank needs to say what it is. Then it needs to say how it actually enforces the limit–because we all know that a policy on a piece of paper can be pretty worthless without some sort of actual practice behind it. And then it has to provide specific information about how many offspring there are for each provider.
What’s the point of requiring the information to be posted? The point is to give the people who will be using the sperm the chance to make an intelligent choice. Do they want to go to a sperm bank with no particular limits on number of offspring? Or a sperm bank that has a fine limit on paper but no way of making the limit real? And what better way to test out effectiveness of policy and practice by looking at results.
I think there’s a real chance that if sperm banks posted information like this there would be substantial pressure on them to have real and moderate limits. But the pressure would arise not from the gaze of a regulatory agency, buy from the operation of market choices. Given the information, consumers will choose, and my guess is there will be a strong preference for real and modest limits.
One reason I think this approach is more likely to yield results is, as noted above, we have a general cultural preference for the free market here. Rather than fly in the face of that preference, this proposal builds upon it.
I don’t mean to suggest I’m a general fan of reliance on market forces. I think there are so many ways that can fail. And of course, the market doesn’t always function benignly. But in this particular instance, it seems like it might be worth trying to make them work towards a better end.
Then again, will any of the clinics respond to the open letter at all? Stay tuned.