On Monday, the New York Times ran a story about sperm donors who end up siring huge numbers of children. One so-called “half sibling registry” has traced 150 kids to the same donor. You could almost hear the collective shudder convulsing the blogosphere.
The reporter, Jacqueline Mroz, paints this corner of the fertility marketplace as a chaotic, unregulated bazaar. E.J. Graff suggests in The Prospect that it’s a bad idea to allow each clinic to make up its own rules as it goes along, subject only to the whims of the market.
“We have more rules that go into place when you buy a used car than when you buy sperm,” said Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College and author of “The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception.” “It’s very clear that the dealer can’t sell you a lemon, and there’s information about the history of the car. There are no such rules in the fertility industry right now.” [NYT]
There are some commonsense regulations that would benefit both buyers and sellers. For example, it would be a good idea to adopt an industry-wide code that assigns each donor a unique ID so that offspring can exchange numbers to rule out unwitting half-sibling incest. Some programs give out donor ID numbers, but I get the sense that this isn’t universal.
Better record-keeping would help. Some clinics have no idea how many children each donor has produced. Women are encouraged to report the births of donor children but only a minority actually do.
No one even knows how many children conceived with donated sperm are born each year. Mroz says it could be 30,000 to 60,000, or more. Even so, that’s a tiny fraction of the nearly 4 million babies born in the U.S. annually.
As Amanda Marcotte points out at Pandagon, donors with 150 offspring are probably the exception rather than the norm. She hypothesizes that some men are superstar donors because their sperm is unusually potent. Putting an upper limit on donations, or offspring, might unfairly deny some women the chance to become pregnant.
The main worry about the super-impregnators is that their offspring will unwittingly commit incest. If one prolific donor is serving a relatively small community, that might be a problem. If far-flung clinics agreed to trade their AAA sperm, so that no one area got more than a certain number of units, that part of the problem would be solved. It seems like a more humane solution than cutting off donors after a certain number of kids.