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In the U.S., the American Association of Reproductive Medicine suggests that an individual man’s sperm produce no more than 25 children within an urban area with a population of around 800,000 — which in California would apply to San Francisco, with 799,263 people, and San Jose, with 944,857. In much smaller cities like Long Beach and Fresno (population 491,564 and 464,727, respectively), this halves the limit of recommended donor offspring to 12. Unfortunately, there is no hard data governing populations like those of the state’s two largest cities, Los Angeles, 4 million, and San Diego, 1.3 million, or governing California’s dozens of small towns and cities, so there’s no way to accurately represent the dangers.
Yet because of sperm-donor anonymity, buyers have no idea if they are among a concentrated group choosing the same donor. Moreover, there is no law backing up these guidelines, which are voluntary. Nobody knows how often these guidelines are violated by sperm banks. Nor is there anything in place that stops a man from donating at California Cryobank and then traveling a few miles down the freeway and making another donation at Pacific Reproductive Services in Pasadena.
Instead, the sperm banks police their own limits (California Cryogenics, for example, draws its line at 20), but there are dozens of examples of this safety measure being boldly ignored.
This happens for a variety of reasons. Only about 40 percent of the women who utilize a cryobank’s services report back with news of a live birth, and nobody knows how many of the remaining 60 percent of women end up having babies thanks to purchased sperm or eggs. So the numbers of resulting children that the banks estimate may be woefully shy of the truth. Plus, sperm banks don’t cap sperm sales from a single donor until those 20 live births are reported. And because certain — think blond-haired, blue-eyed — donors are extremely popular, the banks often sell the same man’s sperm to more than the guidelines’ recommended number at once.
If any of these women fail to report their births, or report them long afterward, then more ampoules of that donor’s sperm may be sold in the interim. Furthermore, because most families order sperm for their immediate pregnancy needs and then pay a storage fee to the cryobanks to hold more in reserve for future use, there’s no way to enforce the limits.
“There’s no accurate record keeping,” says Kramer. “No sperm bank knows how many children are born to specific donors. They don’t know who these kids are or where they are.”
More alarming is the charge that sperm banks have been intentionally underplaying how many kids have been sired by a particular donor’s sperm. The most egregious example of this is the case of Dr. Cecil Jacobson, who ran a reproductive-genetics center in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Instead of using donor sperm, Jacobson substituted his own. When he was caught, investigators found that seven children had been sired by the doctor. Moreover, 75 parents refused the court’s request for a paternity test — many not wanting to know if Jacobson was the dad.
Dr. Jacobson, many suspect, may not be the only one. Because there is no centralized donor registry, there is no way to track those with insider access to the process.
Talking about this problem, San Francisco’s Chloe Ohme, both a midwife and the first person in history to impregnate herself using Internet-found, mail-order sperm, says, “I’ve been at lesbian gatherings of single mothers and people suddenly realize their kids look a little too alike and begin comparing donor numbers and, sure enough, they match.” There’s also Fairfax Cryobank’s Donor 401. Regular viewers of The Colbert Report know that comedian Stephen Colbert pretends to be the nameless donor who, according to the Washington Post article that first outed the real Donor 401, definitely sired 11 children and most likely fathered around 20.
And that’s nothing compared to what Kramer noticed after she opened her donor-sibling registry for business. “Very quickly,” says Kramer, “we found donors on the Web site with 30 and 40 and 50 kids.”
The accusation that the industry ignores incest is not misleading. “We don’t talk about it,” says Cappy Rothman, “because it’s not an issue. Not only is it statistically improbable, but go back 300 years and just about all of us lived in tiny villages. There was no public transit. Everyone was related to everyone else because there was no one else around to marry. We’re all descendants of incest. Secondly, from a medical perspective, you’re talking about the danger of one generation of incest — even if that happens, the chances of something going wrong are minute.”
The problem with his claim is that, outside of anthropological studies of the ancient Egyptian and Roman cultures, where sibling incest was practiced, there is almost no scientific research on the topic. What is known is that some cultures allow some form of incest — usually cousins marrying cousins.
A normal couple carries a 3 percent to 4 percent risk of abnormal offspring. This percentage rises to 6 percent to 7 percent when cousins interbreed. “What we do know,” says Dr. Robert Friar, professor of reproductive physiology at Ferris State University in Michigan, “from animal and plant research, is that when family members inbreed, you get both the supergood traits and the superbad traits — of course, in this case, it’s those superbad traits you have to worry about.” For example, siblings might be carrying recessive genes that could raise their risk of abnormal children to as high as 50 percent.