It’s been so long since I’ve covered current events, but some days there are just stories that scream out for comment. Today’s is from the New York Times and is about sperm banks. Simply put, it’s a parade of horror stories in which sperm is lost, misused or passed over as something it is not.
On one level the problems here are obvious when you give even a little thought to how sperm banks generally operate. Men come in and give sperm. Some are paid to do so. (There’s a lot more complexity than this–you could discuss payment structures, etc. But I only need to do this in broad brush for now.) These men providing sperm that will be used by people they do not know (and sometimes will never know.) Other men are preserving their own sperm for subsequent use.
There are at least two different sorts of problems here. First, all the sample look alike–you cannot recognize your own–and so it’s easy to see how mix-ups could happen. It’s also easy to see that mix-ups are potentially disastrous. Sloppiness, carelessness, perhaps even greed, where a sperm bank short of samples appropriates samples it should not, lead to some of the difficulties discussed in the article.
And then there are the lying sperm providers. (I’ve said in the past–discussed at length–that I don’t like the terminology “donor.” Men providing sperm might lie, mislead or simply be uninformed for a number of reasons. If you’re set to provide sperm for money, for whatever reason–and it turns out you have some family history that could be problematic, why not just omit that little detail? And does the sperm bank really have that much interest in being diligent about following up? Clearly the answer here is “some do and some do not.”
All of this is to say that I am hardly surprised that the industry (and I do think it is an industry) has its share of abuses and abusers. The cases discussed in the article are, if true, indefensible. And not that surprising in a very lightly regulated industry.
And yet I support the use of third-party sperm. (Again, long story on terminology.) How can this be? I think it can be done well and safely and I think many many places do it well and safely. No doubt it my mind, in fact. There’s nothing inherent in the business that disturbs me–it’s the particular practices of unscrupulous individuals. And you get those everywhere–there are unscrupulous lawyers, unscrupulous doctors and so on.
What I am surprised about is that the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) doesn’t see that better regulation is needed. And yet surely it is. The industry overall suffers from the presence of the the few unscrupulous practitioners, not to mention the individuals who are victimized. An actual regulatory regime—with enforcement–could make a world of difference. Yes, it would probably make it more expensive (and that hs it’s own complications), but safety is often worth paying for.
What would the regulations look like? How would they be enforced? I’m not there yet. But I don’t know what to do when faced with stories like the ones in the paper except to take some sort of action to minimize the likelihood of future repetition.