Some dangers of added regulations to sperm banks

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, September 6, 2011 21:23 EDT
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I'm seeing this story linked all over the place, and I want to hop in and offer some skepticism about the NY Times reporting on this.  There's two things that go completely unmentioned in the original piece, and these are two details that I think are critical to understanding the situation.  One, the story implies, I believe falsely, that the average sperm donor has dozens of children created using his sperm.  I doubt that's true, for reasons that will become obvious in a moment.  I suspect when sperm banks tell donors that it's a handful of children on average, they're telling the truth.  For most donors, it will just be a few.

That said, there are a handful of donors who do end up having their sperm used to create dozens of children.  The story implies that this is strictly for profit, and that no other motivations could be in play.  But I've read a lot of literature from women who've gone the sperm bank route for child-bearing, and the story I get from these narratives is that the problem is way more complex than that.  A lot of women—especially if they're a little older—struggle to conceive with donor sperm.  They'll pick a guy out of the book, go a couple rounds, find they can't conceive, pick another guy out of the book, same story, rinse and repeat, and eventually the sperm bank will take pity on them and say, "Why don't you use this donor?  He gets everyone pregnant."  

See, not all sperm is created equal, especially when you put it through the storage process that sperm banks use on donor sperm.  Some of it just works better—the sperm is stronger and the sperm count is higher—and it's more effective at impregnating women.  Once banks realize this, they're going to make note of the donors with the most efficient pregnancy rates. Which inclines me to think that the accusations that this is all about profit are missing the point.  A lot of banks could wring more profit out of women by letting them keep picking donors out of the book without giving them any information about the efficacy of the sperm, and that they don't do that suggests that problem is, at bare minimum, more complex than that. No one likes the idea of one guy making 200 kids with his sperm donations, but I suspect the desire to make the customers happy and actually get them pregnant is in play here. 

Setting limits on how many babies can be conceived with one donor would probably go a long way towards preventing these "oh my god, he's got 150 biological offspring!" situations, but what the NY Times story fails to note is that it would do so by dramatically reducing the number of women who successfully get pregnant from sperm banks.  This isn't a cost-free situation, in other words.  It's easy for women whose kids are already born to focus on the only real concern to them, which is the number of kids that are biological half-siblings of theirs, but if they were in the shoes of the women who have failed to conceive with various donors and are being told, "Why not use this guy?  He gets everyone pregnant."  I think their calculations would be very different.  

I don't really have a dog in this fight.  On one hand, the pro-choice side of me wants to make a full-throated argument for women being able to use every tool possible to conceive, if that's what's important to them.  On the flip side, I also tend to think our society puts too much emphasis on the idea that you're an incomplete woman if you don't have children, creating a cultural space where it's basically unacceptable to say that this particular thing isn't going to happen for some people, and it creates situations like this. Of course, we're not going to fix the "baby at any cost" mentality simply by restricting sperm banks, so that's a factor, as well.  I just want to point out that there's a lot of ideologues putting their thumb on the scale of this one—people who object to single mothers and lesbians having children come to mind—and we should be incredibly cautious about calling for regulations without looking at the full picture.  If you determine that substantially reducing the number of single women, women partnered with infertile men, and lesbiansn who are able to fulfill their goal of motherhood is an acceptable price to pay in order to limit the number of biological offspring a man has through a sperm bank, okay. But know that's the price that will likely be paid. 

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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