Laws to Catch Up With Science

09/21/2011 07:33 pm ET | Updated Nov 21, 2011
  • Diane Dimond Television journalist, author, syndicated columnist

Fooling with Mother Nature rarely works.
Children born of sperm donors are realizing they may have dozens of siblings they'll never know. Donors are realizing they may have as many as 150 children!
I've been reporting on this for years. Laws governing In Vitro Fertilization are long overdue!

Many years ago I was assigned to cover a story about a certain sperm donor, a newly graduated doctor in Kansas who had donated on such a frequent and regular basis that he was suspected of being the biological father to 500 children. You read that right -- 500 children!

My research led me to learn that professors and medical mentors had often urged their male med school residents to donate sperm as a way to a) Put a little money in their pockets and b) To help propagate future generations of intelligent children. The belief was that if the sperm came from a person smart enough and driven enough to study to be a doctor, well, all of mankind could benefit from the children they would sire.

An elitist viewpoint, to be sure, but a prevalent one back in the early 90s.

A problem arose following this particular Kansas doctor's years of donating when it was learned that many of the recipients lived within a small radius. The children who resulted from this man's donations began to grow up within miles of each other and as they matured into teenage, attending the same schools, churches or sport camps, they began to become attracted to each other, pulled together by an unexplainable and invisible magnet of familiarity.

Some of the teens began dating and were sexually attracted to each other. Accidental incest was a real possibility -- if it hadn't already happened, I was told.

In some instances the children did not know of their test-tube beginnings. In almost all other cases the parents were completely unaware of how many siblings their son or daughter might have or that that their child could be romantically interested in their own half-sister or half-brother.

I reported back then that the sperm bank was urgently trying to locate all the recipients of this particular doctor's donations and make a geographic registry of where his off-spring landed. Oh -- If they had only been so diligent from the beginning!

Flash forward to today -- some two decades later and the law still hasn't caught up with the science.

There are still no cohesive federal or state laws regulating how many times an in vitro fertilization clinic can disseminate one man's sperm or in what geographic area it should be offered.

Clinics continue to rake in profits but children born of this procedure have little more than a donor number to hold on to when they wonder about their paternal beginnings. Sperm banks and IVF clinics keep secret such vital information as the father's name, address and where he can be reached if a specific health problem crops up for the child later in life.

And, now, some donors are complaining about the system too, saying they were hoodwinked about the number of children that might result from their donation.

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

Since each donor does have a unique tracking number inquisitive parents have started independent registries on-line to track how many kids are born to particular donors. One woman found her IVF baby had more than 150 brothers and sisters! Others discover more than 50 offspring in their child's donor group.

The sudden realization that they have half-siblings or several dozens of half-siblings has to be confusing to many of the estimated 30 to 60 thousand IVF babies born in the United States each year. Some families decide to try to meet their IVF relatives, others choose never to tell their children about their biological beginnings.

Scientists worry about America's sperm donation system or a different reason. There is the possibility, they say, that our collective gene pool could be in the process of becoming skewed. If a popular donor has a defective gene that causes a rare disease, that disease will be a silent ticking time bomb spreading more quickly and widely through the general population than it would otherwise.

I recently did some research on that Kansas doctor whose story I reported so many years ago. He is still in the same area with an apparently successful psychiatry practice. I wonder if he ever stops to think about the psychological impact he's had on however many children it turns out he fathered.

Whether that doctor has stopped to re-think the ramifications of our current sperm donation system or not I think it's high time some some forward thinking lawmakers did. We're way overdue for some laws governing this field.

Fooling with Mother Nature almost never turns out well.

Diane Dimond may be reached through her web site: Her latest book, "Cirque du Salahi" revealing the real story behind the so-called White House Gate Crashers is available at