By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When it comes to the dangers of brother and sister blending bloodlines, the statistical improbability that Rothman and the rest of the industry talk about is a rapidly diminishing thing. Sibling interrelations have long been the forgotten child of the field, while there are dozens of papers about the damage done by father-daughter incest.
One of the few times the question of sibling incest has been studied was in 1984, by the Law Reform Commission in New South Wales, Australia. That 23-year-old study found no danger of incest among donor offspring in the U.S., but its research was based on an annual assisted-reproduction birthrate of 10,000 nationwide. These days, some 30,000 women annually use California Cryobank’s services alone. And in 2004, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 49,458 infants were delivered via assisted reproduction. But considering how often such babies go unreported, many see the CDC number as extremely low. Today, the statistics used in the 1984 sibling-incest study are little more than a fairy tale of old.
Not surprisingly, the first organizations to react to this threat are religious in origin. The Catholic Church feels that any form of assisted reproduction threatens the sacred covenant between man and woman. The church has forbidden the entire procedure, often citing both the dangers of incest and a remarkable study done in 2004 by scientists at the University of Western Australia that found the dangers of birth defects rise by 30 percent to 40 percent with any assisted-reproduction technique. (Others have repeated this study and reached different conclusions, but the Catholic Church doesn’t often mention this fact.)
The Southern Baptist Church too has begun looking into the dangers of accidental incest. Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission for the Southern Baptist Convention and head of the organization’s public-policy arm, says, “We don’t share the Catholic prohibition against AIH (artificial insemination by husband), but forget the religious implications. There are good medical reasons why all states have laws against incest. It produces very real medical dangers. And the more we understand about the human genome, the more we should understand those dangers.”
Referring to the Human Genome Project’s DNA map and its influence on contemporary science, Land says, “In the past 20 years, we’ve learned enough about the tyranny of biology to know that, for the most part, the nature-versus-nurture argument is dead. Nature always wins. Which means incest is a real concern, and the more children who are the product of sperm banks, the more this concern becomes a problem for everyone.”
There are a few distinctive items in Cappy Rothman’s corner office, on the second floor of the California Cryobank. On a pedestal by the window is a small statue of a man with what might be described as “10 tons of testicles.” His balls hang to the floor, his ball sac six times the size of the rest of him. Directly across from that, hanging from the ceiling, is a model of the solar system with the starship Enterprise positioned dead center.
“I’m interested in the frontiers of technology and humanity,” Rothman once said. “I know there are always dangers implicit in the sperm-banking industry — I reread Brave New World once every three years — but I also know that infertility is the kind of problem that ruins lives. I only wish the government would recognize this fact as well.”
What Rothman means is that unless the industry finds a quick way to address donor anonymity and all of its downstream concerns, it’s only a matter of time before the federal government gets even further involved, and that’s exactly what the gamete-banking industry most fears. Earlier this year, at the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Reproductive Society, the very first slide to appear during the presentations was an 800-pound gorilla — in this case, the gorilla in the room is the Food and Drug Administration.
“They’re the most onerous obstacle involved in reproduction right now,” says Rothman. “They’re unaware of the field and are currently taking orders from an administration that has time and again proved themselves irresponsible with science.”
Rothman cites everything from Bush’s global-warming policies to his administration’s stand on stem cells to back this up. But what really raised the alarm was the FDA’s position on sperm importation from other nations.
The most popular donors in most cryobank catalogs — the books used by hopeful parents to choose the biological father — are described as white, blond, blue-eyed, over 6 feet tall and college-educated. “Danes are what people want, so we opened a branch in Copenhagen,” recalls Rothman. But in 2001, the FDA established guidelines banning the importation of sperm on the grounds that such sperm might be contaminated with mad cow disease. The difficulty with this particular ruling is that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a prion disease, meaning it is not sexually transmittable, Rothman says.
The only danger could come from actually eating frozen sperm containing mad cow. In truth, the ban on importation had more to do with placating the American consumer. Rothman closed the Copenhagen branch as quickly as he’d opened it.