Third Party Gametes and Unintentional Incest

In the course of the public debates about use of third-party gametes (particularly what are commonly called “sperm donors”) those opposed often raise the specter of “accidental incest.”   (One of the more well-known instances is here, and it’s particularly notable for three reasons:  It got a ton of press, it really has nothing to do with use of third-party gametes as it’s about adopted-out siblings, and it is quite possible that it never happened.)

In any event, the idea is that if people do not know they are genetically related then siblings (like the possibly mythical twins who were adopted out into different families) might unwittingly meet, fall in love and have children.   I’ve read, in fact, that the affinity arising from the genetic similarity might even make it more likely that siblings would feel attracted to each other, though I have no idea if this is the case.

I don’t mean to dismiss this risk out of hand. It’s obviously possible.  The twins story may not be true, but it could be true.   And the problem is clearly exacerbated when you have men providing sperm to create scores of offspring.   Indeed, concerns about unintentional incest are most often raised precisely in this context.    And for what it is worth, I am fine with limiting the number of children who can be conceived with any particular providers sperm (or eggs, but that’s less an issue.)

Now what brings this all up right now is this report from the Hay Festival.   Professor Susan Golombok appeared there.  She’s a woman whose work I really admire.  And, according to press reports, she expressed some concern about the risks of accidental incest.   Of course, from that Telegraph article, you cannot tell quite what the concerns were.   Most striking to me was this quote:

“I don’t know what the actual chances are, but it’s probably higher than people think.”

Not exactly what you’d think of as a concrete estimate, but something to something to consider, perhaps.   And not really the main focus of her work, which I think is better captured here.

Yet even so there is something to think about here.   For me the question is this:  what is the problem with accidental incest?  Why is this such an unsettling specter?   This is really a variant on a more general question I often raise in my family law class:  Why do we prohibit incest?  What is it that really worries us.

Of course there is the genetics problem.  Inbreeding. Think the hemophiliac royal families of Europe or the Pharoahs of Egqypt or whatever else you learned about in your youth.   But if recessive genes were the only problem then we wouldn’t worry about same-sex sibling couples (and I don’t actually know if we do worry about them) or about couples who don’t have any plans to have children–older couples, say?   And we might find technological solutions–routine screening for genetic compatibility?

I think there is something else going on at the same time.   Imagine an adopted brother and sister–raised in the same household by the same (social) parents–decide to couple up.   Any reaction?  I think it is kind of creepy myself.  And yet that’s nothing to do with genetics.  It’s something else entirely.

And I think about the young couple who learn–on the threshold of marriage, let’s say–that they share a common genetic ancestor.  I think the weirdness they would feel is not simply about the genetics.  There is something about the relationship of sister/brother (or sister/sister or brother/brother.)   Even if you never planned to have children I would imagine you would find it unsettling.  You have broken (or are about to break) a taboo–a social rule.   (See, if you have not, Lone Star.)

Before I finish here, though, I want to highlight the thoughts Professor Golombok offers on this:

But of course if children are to be told [they were born from a donor], with this move towards greater openness, then it’s going to be easier because it won’t happen inadvertently.

Which suggests to me that may this is one more reason we need to tack towards honesty.   If people know they can act accordingly.   Maybe all you need to know is that you were conceived with sperm from a third-party.   I’m not sure you need to know the name–because if the other person also was, then you’d best be on high alert.   But maybe this is an argument for why the child should have the ability to find the name if/when he/she wants to.




24 responses to “Third Party Gametes and Unintentional Incest

  1. As I’ve previously commented, the incest taboo functions at a visceral level. Once we start addressing it at the rational level, the taboo has already been broken with potentially dangerous effects.
    Sure a random case of incest here or there won’t affect society at large, but the elimination of disgust surely would.

    • I’m inclined to agree that the be effective the incest taboo needs to function on a visceral level. But understanding the reason for the taboo is still important. For example, seeing only a genetic justification for it might lead you to conclude that the stepfather/stepdaughter alliance is fine–no genetic risk. And that in turn might (indeed, I think it has) undermined the taboo–so that it no longer functions so well on a visceral level. And then it doesn’t work so well anymore and you get a lot of step-father/step-daughter sex, which I (for one) think is a bad thing.

      I suppose what this leads me to think about is that the technological fix for the unwittingly incestuous–screening embryos or whatever–is perhaps not satisfactory, because it leads us to understand the taboo too narrowly. thus to the extent one sees a problem here, the solution is to avoid the unintended part of it–just as open adoption would allow the genetic siblings to identify each other as related early on (and then allow the taboo to operate) so knowledge vis-à-vis donor conception might?

  2. “And for what it is worth, I am fine with limiting the number of children who can be conceived with any particular providers sperm (or eggs, but that’s less an issue.)”

    Are you really fine with passing some sort of law that would restrict the number of offspring a person can have? Like in China?

    Remember that nobody is ‘using’ anyone’s anything. A real human being signs a medical consent form and in many instances other contractual agreements wherein they provide their consent to allow others to handle their gametes for the purpose of helping them reproduce themselves. From the standpoint of medical professionals its the same as any other person

    • Since you put it this way, I have to say “yes and no.” I am fine with limiting the number of times a sperm provider can be used, or the number of families, or the number of children who are conceived, or anything along those lines. Many countries (like the UK) do and I have no problem with it. I am not fine with China’s one-child policy. But I don’t think the two are the same thing at all, so I don’t think my positions are inconsistent. The key is that providing sperm does not, in my mind, make the man anything more than a genetic parent. Thus,

      I know we disagree about this and we’ve been over a lot of this ground, but I think this is a new and interesting angle. I don’t really understand your last paragraph, though.

  3. “….the idea is that if people do not know they are genetically related..”(they) “..might unwittingly meet, fall in love and have children.”

    They might also simply have children without ever meeting or falling in love. Look at all the people having children with people they never met, who live in their general region, share the same race and religion, etc. They don’t test gamete donors and recipients for genetic relatedness.

    • gamete donor could be a cousin or neice or nephew or child even – it’s not like gamete donors tell their relatives first.

      • True enough and something to think about. I bet sperm banks do think about it, but I don’t know what they do. And obviously the more widely a person’s sperm is used, the more likely this would happen, so the number of uses is important, but it would be possible even with a single sample.

        • Well, from the info I got from the bank, there’s no way the donor I used could be a close relative because the family information and physical characteristics don’t match anyone. I don’t necessarily know all about my third and fourth and fifth and sixth cousins and so on but at that point you share such a miniscule amount of DNA from having a common ancestor at some point in the past.

    • Right–akin to your other comment and a good point to consider.

  4. I wonder if the gamete donation record is available to the gamete donors relatives the way a normal birth record would be? Obviously they are just at much exposed to risk as the children of the gamete donor. The only one more at risk are the gamete donor and the recipient because they are absolutely having a child with a person they cannot see and won’t recognize there are no potential “others” to lower the risk.

    Normally when people take care of their kids relatives meet them or are aware of them even in families with little contact or communication, news of a birth marriage or death generally reaches immediate family. The fall back for the curious family member on whether dad had a kid with someone other than his wife is to go get copies of birth records he’s named on. Nobody is obligated to inform their family members but the government makes relatives records available because they are relevant to who we are in terms of kin rolls and health. So those gamete donation records in the UK should be as accessible to all the gamete donor relatives from day one, not 18 years. Interestingly the gamete donors relatives include their children it does not really make sense to make them wait 18 years. What good does it do to withhold? What harm to release.

    • I’m fairly confident gamete donation records (whatever they might be) are not available to relatives. For better or worse, they’re not seen as being much like birth records at all.

      • But for the subject of the post which is to highlight the potential for people to unwittingly be dating their relatives right? The world does not revolve around donor offspring and they are not the only people in the situation who have a stake in the outcome here. Why would the ability to access information be granted to donor offspring but not to the relatives they are at risk of inadvertently hooking up with? Why wouldn’t all the family members have equal access to information about one another’s identities? I’m just not understanding why their relatives would not also need to have access to the identifying records on a relative who is donor offspring the way they would with any other relative. The topic of this post is that there are health risks for people who don’t know and certainly access to records is all the government can do since we can’t make people tell the truth to their family members. Access to the same information for everyone is the best the government can do and it’s fair and not invasive. Nobody has an identity private from the individuals they are related to except adopted people and donor offspring and their family is disadvantaged by that.

    • If the dad had a kid with someone else, his name wouldn’t necessarily be on the record. I left the father space blank on my daughter’s birth certificate. No one asked why. I didn’t have to prove she had no legal father. It’s true there is no one that could be her legal father, but legally, I could have also left off the name if it had been a one night stand and the bio dad never knew about the pregnancy. If you aren’t married you don’t have to name a father and no one asks why you didn’t, at least not here.

  5. There are so many reasons honesty is important in these situations (then again I don’t know a reason not to be honest). But I’m not sure how you legislate and force people to be honest. Unless you genetically test each child after they are born to identify the genetic parents and document them in some type of legal document there is no way to force it.

    And this doesn’t just apply to third party reproduction or adoption the same situation exists when there is infidelity where a woman gets pregnant and never tells her husband and the man thinks the child is his and she never tells the child either.

    • true but thats not likelyto occyr more than once in the same family. so the likelihood of that happening is pretty darn tiny. especially since the man is not anonymousto the mother a sperm donor can have tens of kids if not hundreds

      • Right. I think this highlights that (for me anyway) what creates serious risk is the repeated use of a particular man’s sperm. Particular if this practice is widespread, you would get significantly larger numbers. So it seems to me the problem isn’t the use of third-party gametes per se, but rather the unregulated (or unrestrained) use of third-party gametes (and really third-party sperm).

        • Agreed Julie. It’s been my opinion all along that regulations are what is needed rather than an out right ban of these practices. But I think there are certain things you won’t be able to regulate the way you can’t regulate how parents parent their child.

    • Very true. They are not supposed to lie but often do. Horrid

  6. “But maybe this is an argument for why the child should have the ability to find the name if/when he/she wants to.”
    Better yet, an argument for: JUST. DON’T. DO. IT. (participate in this practice in the first place)

    • There are certainly people who choose not to use third-party gametes and adopt instead. Or who choose not to have children at all. And those who do use third-party gametes fall all along a spectrum–from those who have a known provider who is involved in the child’s life to those who never tell the child. In my view (and really–this is only my view) many of those are defensible choices. I wouldn’t criticize the people who pick these paths. But I do think concealing the whole enterprise from the child creates an awfully high risk of a bad outcome for the child involved–because this secret probably won’t stay secret and the uncovering of it will be damaging. It’s this that gives me pause–a high probability of a bad outcome for the particular child. Other than that I’m inclined to let people choose their own way. (I’m sure there are other exceptions, but I’m not thinking of them right now.)

    • I think it’s very easy for people who have no problem at all conceiving their children to tell others who aren’t what to do. Until our childfilled society treats its childless better I think the best we can do is regulate the practice so at the very least the children have access to their generic lineage.

  7. After looking into the UK’s laws I have to say they sure made it look as if they’d maintained a real limit. It is troubling.

  8. The optimal number of offspring per gamete donor
    Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica, 06/10/15
    “This study aim was to create a mathematical basis to calculate the risks for unintended matings of consanguineous half–siblings from a donor in a society with approximately 10 million inhabitants…When the number of offspring per donor is limited to 10, then the model gives a yearly risk for consanguineous matings below 1%. Thus 10 offspring gives a risk for consanguineous matings of 0.9% per year, or approximately once in every 100 years. The risk increases exponentially: with 15 offspring it exceeds 2% and with 25 it reaches up above 5%.”
    QUESTION: Does this ‘study’ take THIS into consideration?: (quote from: “…older research had not taken into account the fact that many donor-conceptions took place in similar areas, leaving offspring more likely to meet at school or in their home towns.” Certain pockets of society participate more often in the practice of “donor” conception (where it is more normalized/socially acceptable) than in others?

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