A Bit More About Accidental Incest

The last post here was about the problem of accidental incest.   (Do note the word “accidental” because it is critical–I’m not talking about deliberate, knowing incest.)  There are some interesting comments so I thought I’d do another post on the subject, partly to sort out threads and perhaps also to move a bit further along the line here.

I’ll start with a recap of what I meant to be my main point from the last post:  Why is the specter of accidental incest troubling?   I suppose this is a  variation, albeit a significant one, on the question “what’s wrong with incest?”   (Understanding why accidental incest is troubling is important to me as I consider what to do about it.)

There are (at least) two non-exclusive answers.  One has to do with the risk of recessive genes finding expression in a child conceived using genetic material from closely related individuals–half-siblings, let’s say.   This problem would only apply to a couple capable of  and perhaps contemplating this action.  So for example, half-sisters who engaged in a lesbian relationship would have no risk here.

The other has to do with the psychological consequences of finding yourself in a relationship with a half-sibling.   I think of this as relating to the “ick” factor.   You might be well and truly horrified by this discovery.   (And here, yet again, I want to invoke the John Sayles movie Lone Star, which considers this very question.)

As I said, I think understanding the problem is important as one turns to thinking about what one can do about it.   I think there are a range of options.   In this post I want to think about at least some of them.

So the first option is to do nothing, which is always a choice.   I won’t say much about this one except to note that (as I think about things) this is where the discussion about what the current odds are fits.  What I mean is that there’s been discussion about how likely accidental incest is.   I’m not sure anyone can really answer it, but there’s lots to think about.   If you wanted to argue that we should do nothing, I think you’d have to say that whatever those current odds are, they are an acceptable level of risk. If you think the current odds are too high, then one ought to do something.

A second option would be to bar the use of third-party gametes entirely.   In more common parlance this means no sperm donors/no egg donors.    That would certainly reduce the risks, although it would not reduce them to zero.   There will still be children adopted out into different families and men who have children with different women who are not aware of each other, for instance.

Additional options might require greater regulation of the use of third-party gametes.   Two in particular come to mind, and they could be used separately or in tandem.   So a third option would be to construct regulations that require that a child be apprised that she/he was conceived with third-party gametes.   Granted these regulations would be complicated and they will probably never be 100% effective.   But there are a variety of ways this might work.   Everything from counseling those using third-party gametes about why it’s important to tell a child to guaranteeing a child access to information about the provider when the child turns 18 falls into this category.

The fourth option–which as I said could work in tandem with option 3–would be to regulate the use of third-party gametes.   One could restrict the  number of offspring who could be conceived with any particular person’s genetic material.   This is complicated–many clinics all over the place and so on.   It would never be foolproof.  But if you had a tracking system that was reasonably effective I’m prepared to believe you could significantly reduce risk this way.

While I think options 3 and 4 this would reduce the risk of accidental incest, I cannot imagine there is a way of calculating what the remaining risk would be.   And of course there isn’t any way of quantifying the benefit of having third-party gametes available for use.   Obviously people vary widely in how they assess this benefit–for some there is no benefit–or no legitimate benefits–there are only costs.   But others see significant benefit.   This is a topic that frequently arises here and we all know that opinions vary.

But in the end, where you come down and what you advocate must depend, at least in part, on how you weigh the risk of accidental incest against the benefits of having access to third-party gametes.    Which is the only conclusion I’ll offer for now.


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