Imagine waking up one day and discovering that you have more than 100 half siblings whom you’ve never met. Talk about emotional! But that’s precisely what’s happening to children across the United States who were conceived with the help of a sperm donor.
The New York Times ran a fascinating article this weekend called “One Sperm Donor, 150 Offspring” that discusses the implications of having the same sperm donor fathering dozens and sometimes even hundreds of children. The piece focuses on 48-year-old Cynthia Daily, a Washington-based social worked who used a sperm donor to conceive a baby with her partner back in 2004. She searched a web-based registry for other children fathered by the same donor with the hope that one day her son would get to know some of his half siblings.
Little did she know that her son has not just one or two half siblings but a whopping 149! That’s right, there are 150 children out there right now who were all conceived with sperm from one donor. And, as Daily says, “They all look alike!” (Daily sometimes vacations with other families in her son’s group.)
Call me naive, but I had no idea that a single donor could father that many children; I figured there had to be some sort of cap. Turns out there’s not at least not in the United States. According to the article, other countries like Britain, France and Sweden limit how many children a sperm donor can father (in Britian, for example, it’s 10), but there is no such limit in the United States. We simply have “guidelines” issued by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which recommends restricting conceptions by individual donors to 25 births per population of 800,000. Also of note is that mothers are asked to voluntarily report a child’s birth to the sperm bank used, but only 20 to 40 percent of them actually do so.
Not surprisingly, this whole idea of a single donor fathering upwards of 50 children has some disturbing repercussions. A big one is the possibility of accidental incest between half sisters and half brothers who often live close to one another but would have no way of knowing that they’re related. In fact, one mother of a teenager interviewed in the Times article says her daughter knows her donor’s number for this exact reason. “She’s been in school with numerous kids who were born through donors. She’s had crushes on boys who are donor children. It’s become part of [her] sex education.”
According to critics, fertility clinics and sperm banks are earning huge profits by allowing too many children to be conceived with sperm from popular donors. They’re calling the practice “unethical,” and they say we should be placing legal limits on the number of children conceived using the same donor. They also believe that families should be given more information on the health of donors so that children can access their medical history.
The piece also reveals that one sperm donor, based in Texas, asked how many children might result and was told that five would be a safe estimate and that it would very rare for a donor to have more than 10 children. He later discovered that some donors had dozens of children; one learned that he had 70.
It’s an interesting debate that will no doubt garner more and more attention as an increasing number of women turn to sperm donation. I personally was shocked to learn that there’s no legal limit to the number of children a donor can father. It’s disturbing on many levels and it’s time the Unites States caught up with other countries on such a life-altering matter.