Should artificial insemination be regulated?

An article in yesterday’s New York Times tells the story of one anonymous sperm donor whose donation has resulted in at least 150 offspring.

Sperm banks, as they are called, are as yet unregulated in the US. That means that it’s up to those institutions to set guidelines and policies, like one’s that might cap the number of times one donor’s sperm can be used. According to the article, it doesn’t appear many sperm banks in the US are self-regulating.

The result is an unusual scenario of huge extended families of half-siblings, many who don’t know how large their family really is. Of course, the internet is stepping in to solve this problem–websites like are allowing kids born from donor sperm to find one another via the donor’s unique number. This is where the 150 sibling family showed up.

I’ve written a bit about assisted reproduction before, in particular surrogacy. I think the ethical concerns that these technologies bring up–sperm donation, surrogacy, egg donation–are going to be some of the most difficult ethical questions of the reproductive justice movement moving forward.

I’m definitely in support of regulation of these industries. Because most of these institutions are for-profit, we cannot rely on them to self-regulate. The bottom line will be the most important factor, and if a sperm donor is very popular, it’s in their financial best interest to keep selling that donor’s sperm.

Of course, deciding what regulations are acceptable is the trick. Assisted reproduction, while ethically murky, also has allowed non-traditional family structures to exists. Single parents, queer families, co-parents. It’s also a question of autonomy. If men want to donate sperm, why should they be stopped? If women want to be surrogates, who are we to say that they shouldn’t be allowed to? But regulations on these industries are really important for protecting both the donors and surrogates, the intended parents and the children themselves.

When I wrote that article about surrogacy, I found there were few reproductive rights and justice organizations willing to take on the issue. It’s a challenging one, but we’re in serious need of advocates to push for protections and regulations, so that the industry that profits off these technologies isn’t the only one lobbying.

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  • William

    Please help me out here. What problems with this system are in need of regulation? Is it that one man helped 150 women conceive? Is he somehow being considered the “father”? Are people upset? I’m not at all reflexively anti-regulation, but I don’t see a single harm in the way this post describes the system. Can you explain it a bit more to me?

    • honeybee

      Geez are you serious? For starters:

      1. The more offspring from one person the more likely two of his children will conceive a child together which is known to cause birth defects, etc. 150 might seem alot in a big country but probably all were within 1 state and if that number were to say be 1000+ the chances of two offspring coupling is not unthinkable.

      2. Courts in some countries have made rulings that pave the way for men like this to potentially be financially responsible for his offspring. Imagine paying child support for 150 children?

      3. How can one father possibly give love and care to 150 children? This is relevant because more and more children are seeking out their biological parents and courts in many countries have refused to enforce agreements which block kids from learning their identities – even if they had a signed contract saying it would never be revealed it often is.

      4. Are men informed how many women his sperm is being given to? Are the mothers told how many other women were given the same sperm?

      5. If everyone gives birth from a few “select” sperm then besides #1 above, we also lose out in important genetic processes which rely on a large variety of DNA in order to improve the species over time.

      etc., etc., etc.

      • davenj

        1. So set the cut-off at 1,000+. Regulating for genetic safety exists in anti-incest laws already, and numbers that put a significant population at risk for potential future birth defects ought to be regulated under the same principle.

        2. We ought therefore enforce contracts and laws that make sure this does not occur.

        3. See #2. I see no issue with this unless contracts aren’t adequately enforced. Sperm donors ought not be asked to be parents for any of the children their donations result in, be it 1 or 150.

        4. This would depend on contracts and the policies of the institutions that these men and women did business with.

        5. It would take more than a few of these instances to reduce the genetic potency of humanity. This is made even more true by our growing population and genetic diversity as a species.

        The OP basically went “150 kids, gross”, as if what men and women choose to do privately with their sperm and eggs ought to be our business when it doesn’t threaten genetic diversity (and in this case it doesn’t).

        • Evelyn

          To be fair, I think Miriam’s opinion on the issue is more nuanced than “150 kids, gross,” but she probably could have delineated the consequences of unchecked sperm banks more clearly. When I read the NYT article, two things jumped out at me:

          (1) There are sperm donors who were told that 5-10 children could result from their donation, but later discovered that they had “dozens and dozens of children.” So there is a potential that sperm banks are not being fully transparent about their practices and misleading (intentionally or not) their donors.

          (2) “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?” (A question posed by the founder of the Donor Siblings Registry). Considering that some sperm banks keep their donors anonymous, on top of the fact that some parents never tell their child that he or she is the product of a sperm donation, 150 half-siblings seems much more worrisome.

          Both of these problems can be addressed by increased regulations. Mandate that sperm banks (1) be fully upfront about their practices and (2) make available information about donors and half-siblings. It’s not the 150 half-siblings that are a problem, it’s the lack of information available to donors, donor families, and the resulting children. I agree with you, davenj, that “the genetic potency of humanity” is not at stake, but perhaps the health of individuals is. I argue that call for regulation is prompted by our need for accountability and informed consent, not by our desire to cast judgement on “what men and women choose to do privately with their sperm and eggs.”

          • davenj

            1. That’s an issue of contracts and perceptions, as well as clinics misleading their donors or customers. It’s a basic transparency issue that can be rectified with simple regulations not against how many times one’s sperm can be used, but rather against concealing this number.

            2. “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?” I think this is a matter for parents to decide, isn’t it? Bodily autonomy already allows people to have the ability, to some degree, to deny a person’s access to that information.

            Your genes are your genes, but your parent’s genes aren’t. People don’t have the right to someone else’s private medical information and history, even if that person is their father.

            I think it’s beneficial for them to have it, but if we’re in favor of autonomy then we need to be in favor of this kind of secrecy.

            And again, facilities that want to charge more, or get more business, can provide more information to their clients TOTALLY VOLUNTARILY. It is not necessary to compromise autonomy here to achieve this goal.

    • davenj

      I had the same impression after I read this phrase:

      “The bottom line will be the most important factor, and if a sperm donor is very popular, it’s in their financial best interest to keep selling that donor’s sperm.”

      What, exactly, is wrong about that? So long as no fraud is being perpetrated, what is the issue?

      I mean, I could see the issue from the perspective of whose sperm is popular, and the intersectional dynamics that play into that, but that’s not a supply-side issue, it’s a consumer habits issue.

  • Napoleoninrags

    I too am completely confused about what kind of regulation the OP is calling for here. From a feminist point of view, I just can’t see how what I do with my sperm or what you do with your eggs is not a no-brainer question of bodily autonomy.

  • Zed

    There is some long-term risk involved in allowing a small number of individuals to have a disproportionate genetic impact on the next generation. It’s not yet at a critical state, but imagine that if instead of 150, the number was 1500. That’s not an impossible number to reach over a lifetime of steady donations. Now imagine that a prolific donor has a genetic flaw that isn’t being screened for, either because it’s not required or because nobody knows how.

    Now fast-forward three generations, and assume that some of the offspring have the potential to become prolific donors themselves. Add in the possibility that the number of donors could be small for several years, limiting base genetic variation. Exponential expansion is one of those things that can take most people by surprise.

    That said, I keep getting the feeling that a lot of the desire for regulation comes more from a squick factor than from any rational analysis of risk, so I’m a little unsympathetic to the general argument myself, in part because letting regulators decide who can have too many offspring generates its own hazards, such as failing to notice some idealist who uses a position of power to start eugenics experiments.

  • Morgan

    Very interesting. What about other situations like egg donors?

  • Nancy

    honeybee’s first point is the most important, imo, i think we can all agree that siblings having children together is a bad thing. when the same man’s sperm is sold to hundreds of women in the same geographic location this can become a huge problem. there should definitely be some oversight as to how many children a man can anonymously father. don’t get me wrong, i’m all for surrogacy and sperm donation, i just think we need to take steps to ensure we don’t have a ton of unknowing siblings out there procreating with each other.