Let's Talk About Baby Daddy Issues

Who’s in charge here?

That’s the first thing I thought when I read this morning’s story in the Globe about Ben Seisler, a sperm donor who found out that he’s fathered more 70 children and will be appearing in a reality show about his experience (a similar story in the New York Times last week profiled another ‘father’ of 150). A growing number of families who conceived through artificial insemination are using websites and online chat rooms to share information about their shared donor fathers. But when average men who donate sperm can suddenly find themselves with the genetic distribution just short of Genghis Khan, there’s got to be something amiss.

But who exactly is responsible in this scenario? Is it the clinic that is seemingly handing out sperm vials like tic tacs? Or is it the donor, who doesn’t seem to register the reality that those multiple visits to the porn room could result in parenthood on a massive scale?

According to George Annas, the chair of health law, bioethics, and human rights at Boston University’s School of Public Health, these cases occur because there’s been far too little oversight when it comes to sperm donation. Right now, the U.S. doesn’t regulate the amount of times one donor’s sperm can be used to conceive a child. Other countries have instituted limitations — usually the number is usually 10-12 children — which Annas still believes is high. “In the U.S., we’ve always thought that physicians would be responsible and limit it to a few,” he says. “But once you start using these booklets and descriptions” — the booklets provided to women in order to find a donor — “some people are more attractive.” (This makes me wonder if there are guys diligently visiting these clinics who, thanks to a less-than stellar profile, haven’t yet fathered anyone. Know of one? Tell me.)

Annas believes that we need to implement some uniform regulations that would limit the number of donations, create quality standards for screening donors (which he says can vary from clinic to clinic), and provide complete records that are open to the children. But he also says that the donors have to think about what they’re doing: It’s not just doing your business into a cup for $150 a pop. It’s making babies.

In fact, Annas doesn’t actually refer to sperm donors as “donors,” he prefers to call them vendors. “Very few actually donate their sperm, they sell it,” he points out. And he says that when clinics promise that they’ll maintain anonymity and keep men in the dark about whether children are conceived, it creates a sense of denial. “You’re a young kid, you don’t know much about life. You don’t look at this as being a father,” he says. “You’re having sex with yourself, and the clinic encourages you not to think about it at all. But they are engaged in making babies — perhaps not intimately — and they are going to be their genetic children.”

Thankfully, Annas says that potential for incest between donor children is limited, and even in a worst case scenario, the chances that something could go genetically awry between two half-siblings isn’t that high. It’s far more of a cultural taboo: “It’s disgusting to think about marrying your sister,” Annas admits. But it’s also tremendously different, psychologically, to know that there are perhaps a few children that share your DNA, versus scores of them out there. That added weight to the psyche is much more than most donors may have signed up for.