What’s in a Number? 150+ Offspring from One Donor

Posted by Emily Beitiks October 7, 2011
Biopolitical Times
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A recent front-page article in the New York Times, reporting that one man’s sperm has been used to produce over 150 children, is raising widespread discomfort with the practices of the fertility industry. In the world of reality television, a new program on the Style Network tells of a similar phenomenon.

The program, Style Exposed, features Ben Seisler, 33, who was a sperm donor throughout law school at George Mason University. Years later, Seisler used the website donorsiblingregistry.com, created by Wendy Kramer, to learn about his biological offspring, keeping track of his findings on an excel spreadsheet. He has been able to confirm that he is the biological father of over 70 children, though he estimates the real number to be between 120 and 140. Style Exposed follows Seisler as he shares these numbers, first with his fiancé and then with a close male friend. Both were shocked, but the friend seems mildly impressed whereas the fiancé is quite visibly freaked.

Reactions to these stories, as well as the abundant media attention around high-yielding sperm donors that has followed the New York Times article, focus heavily on the troubling numbers. Many bring up the risk of incest among donor children who have little access to information about their biological lineage and may “meet” one of their dozens of half-siblings without realizing it. Others note the risk of one donor spreading a genetic disease of which he is not aware.

But there are certain things that the numbers alone do not capture. Donor children have raised many concerns around the right to knowledge of one’s genetic heritage that are relevant regardless of how many half-siblings one has. In addition, the economic forces behind the large number of offspring from a single sperm donor are worth considering. Neither Style Exposed nor most of the media coverage has tapped into these deeper questions. 

We need to move past the dizzying numbers of offspring and half-siblings, and consider why this is happening. While fertility clinics and sperm banks make families possible for people who otherwise could not have them, their practices are for better or worse motivated at least in part by profits as baby-making has become a multi-million dollar business. It makes economic sense to use the same sperm donor repeatedly, especially if his traits are appealing and marketable.

Many countries including Britain and France have passed legislation to limit the number of offspring a clinic can produce from the sperm of one donor. That’s a good start, though donors, many of whom also think in economic terms, can still slip under the radar to do business with multiple clinics.

A second reason for this trend is that in choosing sperm donors, clients tend to select the same types of traits. That Seisler was a law student most likely played a role in his popularity as a donor. As clients make a decision, clinics should reveal how many other children have been conceived from a donor’s sperm. Until the recent publicity, most purchasers of sperm wouldn’t have imagined that the number could be as high 150, and frankly, would never have thought to ask. It remains unclear whether donors or prospective parents would be told even if they did ask.  Seisler explains that he was misled to believe his sperm would only generate a handful of children.

As demand for artificial insemination continues to rise, commercial pressures to “reuse” donors repeatedly intensify. Although the numbers get the headlines, the overarching problems raised by an unregulated fertility industry run much deeper.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: