The Trouble With Sperm Banks
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because mass sperm donation can lead to dozens of related offspring. Which can present a plethora of genetic pitfalls — and some surprise half-siblings.
For more than a century, sperm donors have been helping people create families.
But there’s a problem: Prospective parents who turn to sperm banks have no idea that their future child could end up with dozens of half-siblings.
The world of sperm donation has long been shrouded in a cloak of secrecy. Throughout the last century, doctors quietly offered anonymously donated sperm to couples that couldn’t have a baby. Then, those parents often chose to keep their conception history a secret – even from their own children. But as sperm donation evolved from small-scale, customized production to a reproductive version of mass manufacturing, one of the most striking revelations is the sheer number of children conceived with each donor’s sperm. The New York Times profiled one donor who learned he had 150 offspring.
Are sperm donors modern-day Genghis Khans? No one knows. In the United States, no federal agency keeps tabs on how many donors there are, how often they donate, or how many children are born from their donations.
Our collective ignorance concerns me.
Last fall, two freshmen at Tulane discovered that they are half-sisters. One was from San Francisco, the other San Diego. Their parents used the same donor. Their dorm rooms are one floor apart, and now they call each other “sister.”
This heartwarming tale could have turned out very differently: What if half-siblings encountered one another unknowingly — and ended up reproducing? The fertility industry downplays this very real concern. But without any sense of the average number of children per donor, there’s not much comfort in the industry’s assurances that such a prospect is theoretical.
Then there are the documented cases of sperm donors who unknowingly pass on genetic diseases to their progeny – sometimes with fatal results.
Take the Danish sperm donor who transmitted neurofibromatosis, a tumor-causing genetic disorder, to more than 10 of his 43 offspring, as reported in the British Medical Journal . Or the healthy, young man who unwittingly passed on a genetic heart condition to more than a third of the 22 children born from his donated sperm — including a toddler who died from heart failure, a story brought to light in the Journal of the American Medical Association .
Band-Aid Solutions to a Gaping Wound
Certainly, sperm banks are aware of these problems, and they’ve created policies limiting the number of offspring per donor. But those policies are, at best, limited – for two real reasons.
First, because the “limit” is a loose one. There are no laws regulating the number of children per donor. It is expensive to screen donors and store frozen sperm, so sperm banks have an incentive to collect as much sperm as possible from each individual donor.
In contrast, the people shopping at sperm banks are hoping for a baby, and they may not be thinking about what that baby’s life will be like in 20 years or 40 years with 50 or 100 half-siblings. Most banks say they limit donors to 25 or 30 “family units,” which means that each donor’s sperm could be used to conceive children in 25 or 30 different families. However, those families may have more than one child, which easily results in half-sibling groups of 25, 50 or even 75 children.
And second, because sperm banks get to choose whether and how to track the number of children per donor. Some banks rely on customers to report when they become pregnant or give birth.
Others proactively survey their clients about outcomes. Some banks do not use customer reports at all, instead employing algorithms and fertility rates to decide when to stop selling a donor’s sperm. Each method risks dramatically underestimating how many children have been born. Remember the donor with 150 children? He donated at a bank with one of those supposed limits – of 25 to 30 families – in place.
What needs to happen?
Sperm banks need to be more forthright about how this market works, openly tracking their own numbers and revealing how many children have been born to each donor. They’ve resisted this so far out of fear that customers might think the numbers are too large.
Customers at sperm banks — as in any market — should be able decide for themselves which numbers seem reasonable. And if banks have no idea how many children are out there, the donor’s profile should include a disclaimer to that effect.
The market for sex cells brings us into uncomfortable terrain, collapsing our long-held cultural distinction between the public marketplace and private family life. Men are paid to produce sperm, which becomes cuddly little babies in newly constituted families. The domesticity of it all can make it difficult to look squarely at this market as, well, a market. But it is one. And it needs rules.