How shocked would you be if you learned that you or your child had 150 half siblings? Sound impossible? For one family recently interviewed by The New York Times, the weight of this truth is all too real.
Cynthia Daily, 48, and her partner conceived a child seven years ago with the help of a sperm donor. From the beginning, the couple had hoped that, someday, their son would be able to meet and possibly have a relationship with some of his half siblings. So, after their son was born, Ms. Daily started searching a web-based registry for other children born to the same donor registry number. She even started an online group to help her keep track of all of them. No one could have imagined just how far her efforts would go.
Today, 150 different children have been linked to the same donor and even more are on the way, still waiting to be born. She told The New York Times, “It’s wild when we see them all together – they all look alike.” Some members of the group, including Ms. Daily, her son and her partner, vacation together. They have and enjoy their ‘extended family for modern times.’
In a way, it seems like a lot of fun to have this many half siblings but there is an underlying problem in having so many children by the same donor. It is a problem that is starting to get some real attention as the number of these large donor families continue to increase.
Currently, Ms. Daily’s group is the largest donor family but, as more and more women are opting for artificial insemination, more and more groups like hers are popping up. Some of the groups have already reached numbers of 50 or more half siblings.
Medical experts have voiced concerns about the chances of rare genetic disorders that may not be picked up right away. With so many children from the same donor, it could have serious negative effects on the population as a whole.
Another concern is the fact that, in many cases, donor children live in close proximity to one another. This has created a serious concern among experts, donors and donor parents. They are concerned about the chances of accidental incest.
“My daughter knows her donor’s number for this very reason,” said the mother of a teenager in California that was conceived. “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.”
Following this example may work well for some families but what about families that are heterosexual and don’t want to share or disclose to their child that they were artificially inseminated? Will they now be expected to compromise this ideal to avoid risks for their child?
Critics say that’s not the answer. Critics like Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College and the author of The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception stated, “We have more rules that go into place when you buy a used car than when you buy sperm. It’s very clear that the dealer can’t sell you a lemon, and there’s information about the history of the car. There are no such rules in the fertility industry right now.”
Mrs. Kramer, a woman that had her child through artificial insemination started the registry used by Ms. Daily and other donor families. She agrees with the critics. She feels that some sperm banks in the U.S. are treating donor families unethically and that the only solution is new legislation.
“Just as it’s happened in many other countries around the world, we need to publicly ask the questions ‘What is in the best interests of the child to be born and is it fair to bring a child into the world who will have no access to knowing about one half of their genetics, medical history and ancestry,’” Ms. Kramer said.
Sperm donors are becoming concerned about the issue too. One Texas donor who requested his name be withheld stated, “When I asked specifically how many children might result, I was told nobody knows for sure but that five would be a safe estimate. I was told that it would be very rare for a donor to have more than 10 children.”
Yet, despite the claims of the donor bank, the gentleman later discovered in the Donor Sibling Registry that there were donors that had dozens of children listed. “It was all about whatever they could get away with. It is unfair and reprehensible to the donor families, donors and donor children.”
Another donor on Ms. Kramer’s site stated he had learned that he had 70 children. He keeps track of them on an Excel spreadsheet. “It’s overwhelming and not what he signed up for. He was promised low number of children.”
Other counties like Britain, Sweden and France limit the number of children that can be fathered by the same donor. The United States has no such regulation. The only guideline in place is one that is issued by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine that suggests that only 25 births per population of 800,000 be allowed.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine does agree that new guidelines need to be made, however. Dr. Robert G. Brzyski, the chairman of the committee stated, “In the past, when decisions were made about how many children should be attributed to a donor, it was based on estimates of the risk of unintended consanguinity between brothers and sisters who could meet and marry.”
He admitted that, originally, the committee had felt it would be impossible for any single donor to father hundreds of children. “I think those models were very limited in their vision when they were created. Now I think there needs to be a reassessment of the criteria and the policies regarding the appropriate number of offspring,” Brzyki added.
The real problem is that, because of the secrecy surrounding reproductive donation in the U.S., it may be easier said than done to come up with new regulations and guidelines. Mothers are encouraged but not required to report a live birth born through artificial insemination. As a result, no one really even knows how many children are born in the United States via sperm donor. In fact, it is estimated that only 20 to 40 percent of women report sperm donor births. Some donor families, however, are coming forward, “advocating for some regulation.”
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