Tuesday, October 25, 2011

This Year in Bioethics, Sperm Donor Edition

The second of my top stories in bioethics for 2011 is the story about the sperm donor who's been discovered to have 150 or more children. (The first "top story," on pending reforms to the Common Rule protecting human subjects of research, is here.) This is only the largest reported instance of many large groups of half-siblings. This raises the issue of how to control problems of consanguinity: children of donors are naturally afraid that they'll meet and fall in love with someone who is, unbeknownst to them, their half-brother or -sister. This, in turn, raises the issue of why it is that we permit sperm donors to remain anonymous. If they weren't anonymous, the consanguinity issue would be easy to handle. The case for donor anonymity is not, in my view, terribly strong. The main claim made in favor of anonymity is that without it, the number of sperm donors would decrease drastically. But donor registration numbers have not been drastically affected in countries that have abandoned anonymity, such as Sweden and, more recently, the UK. A second argument is that donors need anonymity to protect them from paternity suits; but while there have been a couple of isolated cases of such suits succeeding in the U.S., abolishing liability seems a more direct way to treat the problem than preserving donor anonymity. Some clinics may prefer anonymity because it relieves them of the duty to keep updated information on file for many years; and some recipient couples may want anonymity because they think their family lives will be simpler if the sperm donor is completely and permanently out of the picture. But the children of gamete donation often turn out to want information about their biological parents, just as in the case of adoption; and it seems odd to privilege the convenience of parents over the interests of children. Some US clinics already offer only non-anonymous donation. Some try to take a middle-ground position, offering a sheaf of the donor's genetic and anonymized family-history information, so that children of the donors can make use of relevant medical information and satisfy some of their curiosity about their roots without actually learning the identity of the donor parent. But this doesn't solve the consanguinity problem. In my view, donor anonymity ought to be abolished, donor liability eliminated, and the number of families to which a given donor can donate sharply limited.

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