I’ve written before–even post-sojourn (which is how I now think of my long break from blogging) about the problems with unregulated and for-profit sperm banking. It does not seem to me that this is a case that still needs to be proved. Surely it is clear that some sort of intervention is needed? (This doesn’t, of course, say what form of intervention and there are many devils waiting in those details.)
But need it or not, here’s yet another story that offers a glimpse of some of the complex issues that lie beneath current practices and any changes. It appears there is a sperm bank–Xytex–that (wittingly or not–and we’ll come back to this momentarily) provided sperm to a number of women that was not as advertised. It came from James Christian Aggeles. Aggeles lied to Xytex about his educational background and, to my mind far more importantly, his mental health history. While Aggeles had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and narcisissitic personality disorder, he omitted this information. His sperm was used to create over 30 children, including 7 in Canada.
Now clearly Aggeles did plenty that was wrong. But did Xytex? And if so, what? If you read carefully, you can see that the allegation is that Xytex essentially encouraged Aggeles to falsify educational credentials, telling him that sperm from those highly educated sells better. (While at this point I have no idea if this actually happened, I cannot think of any legitimate reason for a sperm bank to tell a prospective provider this. It can only encourage resume padding (or worse).) More concretely, it’s alleged that Xytex “created” his IQ. Again, at this stage there’s no way to know if this happened, but if it did, it’s surely indefensible.
And then there is this: What I take from the story is that Xytex (quite carelessly) disclosed Aggeles’ identity to some of the women who had received his sperm. Those women “went to work” (that’s taken from the news story) and unearthed information about Aggeles. Of course, if they could do it, so could Xytex. But one assumes that Xytex didn’t. (If Xytex did and then went with information it knew was false, that’s even worse.) Should they have?
I don’t find this a hard question, personally. If you are going to allow anonymous sperm donation, then people must rely on the sperm banks themselves to do screening. (If providers are known then you might ask the recipients to do their own Google searches.) Screening should be more than just asking questions and writing down whatever the provider says. While some information would be difficult to check, some is pretty easy. I think, for instance, if a person says “I have a degree from this institution” you can check and see if the institution has a record of it. It’s not something the institution keeps confidential. And if some information doesn’t check out, surely there is some reason to worry–and maybe the bank doesn’t take that provider? Or maybe they put a warning on it that the bank knows the information is unreliable. (I have to say, I cannot imagine who would use sperm from such a provider, so I think most likely the provider is rejected.)
If you don’t impose some sort of obligation to at least make best efforts to confirm information, then at least some sperm banks will tend to be overly trusting. After all, it isn’t in the bank’s interest to reject a potential donor who has impressive credentials, because they can sell that sperm most easily. Which leads us back to the for-profit thing. A sperm bank that is in it for the profit–and purely for the profit–may have an incentive to overlook inconsistencies on order to have more product available.
Now I’m not saying this is true of all sperm banks–clearly it is not. And I’m not even saying it is true of most. But it is, I’m afraid, true of some. And those–even if they are few–can do a lot of harm. So it seems to me realigning incentives is sensible. Imposing liability here–for not checking what they could have checked, say–would change the equation. It would make it worth your while to screen, even as it is the right thing to do.
It’s only fair to note that another consequence of this would be to raise the cost of sperm–because checking will cost something and that cost will be passed along. But reforms often cost money. I think, in this instance, the trade-off is worth it. (There is something else to think about a little, though–would the higher cost drive more people to the Craig’s-list model, which is even less well-regulated? It might. And that’s more food for thought.)