Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sperm Donations Need Better Tracking (Detroit Free Press 5/23/06)

Detroit Free Press
Local Columnists

May 23, 2006
By Paul Dilascia

With more and more women using sperm donors to have children, and donors in short supply, some donors have "fathered" large numbers of offspring. Exactly how many is hard to know, but combining public statistics and my own data, I estimate the average donor could have 25 kids, and some donors many more. America needs to have a better understanding of its gene pool, and that can only happen if donors -- and the babies they produce -- are tracked.

Across the country, about 2,800 unique men have donated sperm over the past three years; I know, because I've collected the names and information from clinics for my Web site, SpermCenter.com, so women and couples could search a national registry for traits they're seeking, such as eye and hair color, blood type or ancestry.

But nobody knows for sure how many children have been born from donations, because nobody's counting. Most media report 30,000 sperm donor babies born each year, but that number is 20 years old. At least one sperm bank claims today's number is 50,000. That all suggests each donor "sires" 20-30 children, with the most popular donors responsible for 60 or more.

There's no federal law limiting donor offspring. Some banks limit births indirectly, by limiting the amount of semen collected. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine publishes guidelines on limiting donor offspring, but they're nothing if not vague.

But there are medical reasons to limit offspring. One -- limiting the spread of genetic disorders -- was spotlighted last week when five children born of sperm donated to a Birmingham bank were revealed to have a rare genetic disorder. Another: The more children a donor has, the greater the chances they might unwittingly meet and mate -- though in a country this size, odds are not great. The Netherlands limits donors to 25 offspring. In England, 10; in France, five. Only the Dutch number is based on scientific study. If we scaled that to our larger population, we'd allow 465 kids per donor. So the dozens of kids coming from single donors still leave the chance of inbreeding in the United States reassuringly slim. But with so much unknown, it would be hard to prevent.

Besides, the idea of 60 children makes many people cringe -- and raises the specter of eugenics. This is driven by a market that allows potential parents to seek attractive traits. If you want PhD sperm, expect to pay more. Whites and Asians are overrepresented relative to blacks and Hispanics. No doubt these preferences reflect the colors of the consumers, who tend to be more affluent. But does that entitle them to greater influence on the genome?

The ethical debate will rage for years. Meanwhile, we urgently need something much more practical and mundane: better tracking. Currently there is none. The FDA regulates sperm as a biologic substance, but concerns itself primarily with preventing disease, not counting babies. The CDC tracks procedures that use eggs, but not donor insemination.

I'm not a fan of regulation; I believe in free markets. But they operate best in total transparency. The sperm industry needs to come out of the dark on the issue of offspring. We need 100% reporting of pregnancies. We need a national donor baby registry that tracks births anonymously, where any woman could learn how many children a particular donor has produced, and in what cities.

Transparency benefits everyone. Consumers would gain information to make better choices.
Sperm banks would learn more about their customers. Society at large would feel more comfortable knowing what's happening.

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