No More Family Secrets

The New York Times ran an astounding story yesterday about a sperm donor with 150 offspring. Imagine having 149 half-siblings, putting you in one of the biggest genetic families in history. Jacqueline Mroz's piece nicely explored some of the ethical queasiness and consequences of leaving family-making entirely to the free market. Here's the key quote:

"We have more rules that go into place when you buy a used car than when you buy sperm," said Debora L. Spar, president of Barnard College and author of "The Baby Business: How Money, Science and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception." "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."

Should these rules (or libertarian lack thereof) really be left up to the buyers and sellers, making people into commodities? It's hard for those in the throes of baby hunger to think through all the possible complications that lie ahead when someone is promising to help you make a family. But however new all this may seem, sperm donation, egg donation, and surrogacy bring up many of the same ethical questions as does adoption: Does a person have an absolute right to know her or his own genetic origins, or can that be trumped by the interests of the social or genetic parents? What role should money play in the creation and exchange of children? What level of openness -- about genetic origins, about siblings, and more -- is healthy? Some of these issues were explored in the Evan B. Donaldson Institute's report "Old Lessons For A New World: Applying Adoption Research And Experience To Assisted Reproductive Technology," by Naomi Cahn, which is worth a serious look. Possibly the most controversial recommendation is this: No more secrecy. Many sperm "donors" (a term that wrongly implies no money is changing hands) sell their gametes without thinking much about the future. "Yes" donors, men who agree to be contacted when the child is 18, are highly prized in part because they're rarer. How much would sperm donation fall off if men had to imagine being contacted someday not just by two but by scores of genetic offspring?

I've spent several years reporting on troubles in international adoption and can tell you that, in family-making, a libertarian lack of law and regulation does not lead to liberation. In international adoption, for instance, there's a gap between supply and demand: between the small number of healthy abandoned infants and toddlers who need new families, at one end, and the large number of Western families that want to adopt them, on the other. Without regulation, that gap gets filled by unscrupulous entrepreneurs who "find" healthy babies by any means necessary. Whether you grow up to discover that, to your shock, you have living birth parents in Sierra Leone or 149 half-siblings, you might conclude: In the absence of regulation, money makes its own rules -- rules that are not necessarily the best for the rest of us.

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