The Age of Biotech

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Sperm Donor Siblings: Family Trees, Invisible Roots

Your 149 half siblings that you were never supposed to know about.

Tuesday's New York Times piece "One Sperm Donor, 150 Offspring" was an eye-opener about the transformation of family relationships and responsibilities in the age of reproductive biotech. It describes how some fertility clinics use sperm from "popular" donors over and over again to conceive, in one case, as many as 150 related offspring. While donors are guaranteed anonymity, the scores of individuals that result are barred access to at least half their genetic lineage.

Previously, donor offspring had no way of knowing about the existence, much less the whereabouts or identities, of their extended biological family - that is, other individuals (half-siblings) born from the same donor. Many feel that systematically denying individuals medical and ancestral knowledge about themselves, as well as information about biological relatives, is fundamentally unjust. One response was the creation in 2000 of the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), an online database through which donors can "make mutually desired contact with others with whom they share genetic ties."

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The registry reveals how the practices of a profit-driven fertility industry are undermining the best interests of the families it creates. DSR founder Wendy Kramer notes:

These sperm banks are keeping donors anonymous, making women babies and making a lot of money. But nowhere in that formula is doing what's right for the donor families.

What are the social and medical implications of one man fathering hundreds of children? One concern raised by the NYT article is the potential for accidental incest between half-siblings, which is compounded by the fact that these individuals are often geographically proximal to one another. Another is that donor offspring will remain ignorant of a potential genetic risk factor passed on to them. And if a donor carries a seriously detrimental genetic trait, it could be passed on to hundreds of offspring and become amplified in the overall population.

Donor offspring are raising additional concerns. Some want information about their biological heritage for health-related reasons; others for reasons of identity.

The sperm market has been largely shaped by supply and demand. Donors are enticed with monetary rewards and reassurance that their responsibilities end when they walk out the collection room door. Hopeful parents are afforded access to sperm for artificial insemination and a chance to be genetically related to their child.

The people born as a result - presumably important factors in this equation - in fact have little or no agency. Knowledge of a huge part of their biological identity, which may have implications for their health and that of their future children, is denied to them by a contractual agreement made before they were born. While the fertility industry encourages parents to go to great lengths, including using third-party gametes and/or surrogates, to have a genetic tie to their future child, the importance of that relationship for the children is systematically ignored.

Many see the 150-sibling phenomenon as another indication that the fertility industry needs public oversight. In Great Britain, the 1984 Warnock Report closely considered these ethical questions and advised that a maximum of 10 offspring should be conceived from a single donor. This has become a model for many other countries.

While the Donor Sibling Registry has done vital work to address the needs of donor offspring and their families, ongoing advocacy for systematic regulation and oversight of the fertility industry in the U.S. remains sorely needed.

Douglas Pet is a former researcher for the Center for Society and Genetics.

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