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Thinking about the numbers game

Posted Oct 04 2011 4:12pm

By Mary Ellen McLaughlin

It is kind of scary to think about the possibility that hundreds of people – thousands, even – are out there, innocently living out their lives and unaware that the guy who lives next door could be a half-sibling – genetically speaking, that is.

It’s a possibility that has the fertility field (and those with an interest in controlling it) fairly abuzz these days. The number of children who could be created by a single sperm donor during his fling with this particular brand of philanthropy is fairly mind-boggling, when you think about it.

One Toronto man tells a Canadian newspaper that he was born in 1952 with sperm from a donor who supplied his semen for over 30 years. It’s likely, he says, that his donor/father has between 500 to 1,000 children in Canada, the U.K., and who knows where else? “Freaky” is one word he uses to describe it.

Why is this cause for alarm? Well, the possibility of inadvertent incest, for one. For another, the possibility that these children might share disease-causing genes that might spread exponentially throughout the population.

Similar concerns have been voiced about children born through egg donation, though the scale of the issue there is far, far smaller – for practical reasons, if nothing else. Women produce far fewer eggs than men do sperm. The collection process entails a comparatively onerous medical procedure that’s a far cry from the “one and done,” if you will, of sperm donation. Women undergo a very comprehensive physical and family health history before qualifying as egg donors, which I’m not certain is as standardized for sperm donors.

There are very clear ASRM guidelines on how often a woman should donate her eggs, at least in the U.S.: No more than six cycles. For men, ASRM guidelines on sperm donation limit donors to 25 live births per population area of 850,000. (Some estimate that only between 20 percent to 40 percent of births are reported.)

In neither case, however, is there centralized tracking. While I can’t speak to sperm donor agencies, in the egg donor community, agencies like ours communicate locally and do a good job of monitoring. Yet there is nothing keeping (or to monitor) either sperm or egg donors from moving to new areas and starting all over.

It’s a concern that’s not going to go away, and has prompted calls for tighter regulations. The thought of more government regulation is always one for concern. Better yet that we, as an industry, revisit an idea that has been discussed for years and find a way to make it work: A centralized registry of egg and sperm donors that is scrupulously maintained. And where participation is a badge of honor.

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