Sperm banks are a pretty great idea: women who don’t have a male partner or whose partners aren’t fertile can choose a genetic father with characteristics they like, such as a certain height, eye color, hair color, hobbies, and so on. Thousands of children are born each year in the United States to mothers who like the sound of “tall, dark, enjoys astrophysics and Shostakovich” or “blond surfer, Ivy-League educated, great sense of humor.”
But something very strange has been going on over the last couple decades, and the New York Times covers it in a recent piece: some donors’ sperm has been used many, many times—so many times, in fact, that people are starting to get alarmed.
Up to 150 children each have been born from the sperm of popular donors, far more than donors and mothers had anticipated. American sperm banks don’t keep rigorous records of children born from donor sperm, nor do they limit the number of children born from a particular donor (a chance, some might say, for sexual selection to run out of control—those green-eyed geniuses can be mighty sought-after). Parents only find out that their child has dozens of half-siblings when they look up their donor’s number on the Donor Sibling Registry, Jaqueline Mroz writes at the NYT. And this isn’t a trivial issue:
Now, there is growing concern among parents, donors and medical experts about potential negative consequences of having so many children fathered by the same donors, including the possibility that genes for rare diseases could be spread more widely through the population. Some experts are even calling attention to the increased odds of accidental incest between half sisters and half brothers, who often live close to one another.
“My daughter knows her donor’s number for this very reason,” said the mother of a teenager conceived via sperm donation in California who asked that her name be withheld to protect her daughter’s privacy. “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 sex education” for her.
Parents and other critics are calling for greater accountability on the part of sperm banks. In other nations, such as the UK, legislation limits the number of children born to each donor (in the case of the UK, that’s 10). The issue has been gathering steam for some time and has gained speed in the last few years, since a donor’s sperm was linked to a rare blood disease in five children he fathered and another fathered several autistic children.
If you’re an archaeology buff, you may recall that this isn’t the first time in history that some dads have hit the kid jackpot—though then, at least, it was on purpose. Ramses II, who ruled Egypt from 1279-1213 BC, had over 100 kids, too. And for the Egyptians, incest wasn’t so much a worry as the royal rule.