In September 2011, the cable TV network ‘The Style Channel’ ran a short documentary called “Sperm Donor: 74 Kids and More.” The cameras followed a sperm donor, ‘Ben,’ who estimates he may be the father of as many as 120-140 children. He’s not exactly shying away from the consequences: “I want to be available to these families,” he said, and “to be a resource for them.” Even so he also says “They’re not my kids. I don’t see them as my kids.” But Ben turned to donorsiblingregistry.com and found some of the biological children who were looking for him. Half-siblings to whom he was the biological father were finding one another that way too.
The New York Times has also reported a sperm donor with 150 children. These large numbers seem to be the exception rather than the rule, but it’s hard to see why they exist at all. The difficulties of ovum donation make these huge numbers of children unlikely for women. Sperm donation is far easier, and -- not only that -- but the male donor is not (ordinarily) responsible for the children, not to raise them or support them financially. There’s no disincentive for the donor that way.
The large number of offspring from a single donor can be problematic in several respects. First of all, the donor has to negotiate what relationship, if any, to have with the children born with his sperm. Some countries don’t permit full anonymity, but the United States does, so men don’t ever have to come forward if they don’t want to, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to make a decision about seeking contact or not. Secondly, the women involved and the children have to negotiate what relationships they want to have with their ‘donor father’ and with their half-siblings, if any. All gamete donation triggers these issues, of course, but there’s a multiplier effect here when so many offspring are involved.
Its’ hard to see why stronger standards are not in place in regard to the number of times a sperm donor may be used. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends to its members that they use a donor for no more than 25 births per 800,000 people in an area. In a city the size of metro Chicago – with in excess of 9 million people – that could mean 281 children of sperm from a single donor. Even in a big metro area, that’s a big number.
What benefit is conferred on anyone by arrangements that give men dozens of children and that give children dozens of half-siblings? As far as donors are concerned, what benefit do they accrue knowing that they have dozens of children, as against a few? As far as women using the sperm are concerned, their primary benefit is a successful pregnancy, as against using sperm that has already produced dozens of children. As far as the children are concerned, it’s unclear that they derive any benefit to themselves by sharing a donor father with scores of other children.
What we’re seeing in multiple uses of a single donor is how weak professional restraint is compared to enforceable standards.