Thursday, September 08, 2011

Who's Your Daddy?

Human Genomeby Dick Mac

How many siblings do you have?

I have four siblings, one of whom is a half-sibling as she has a different father. One of my brothers celebrates his birthday today.

I come from a large Irish clan based in Boston, Massachusetts, and although I only know about half of my cousins. I know who the other half are, and if we were to meet we would know each other by genealogy and name, if not visual recognition.

Some of my cousins come from families of nine children, and I went to school with twins who were from a family of fourteen kids. My mother's five offspring was considered a small family in the 1950s and early-1960s, when we were born. A family, especially an Irish family, with seven or more children was very common. Today, a family of five, even for an Irish Catholic family, is considered a huge family.

It's a joy to be part of a large clan, and my generation is an amazing concoction of Americans: half-Irish and half-Lithuanian, or half-Italian, or half-Polish, and in some cases, all Irish. The next generation of my clan includes half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese children who are mixed with their Irish or Irish-Italian parents.

We are uniquely American: that is, we are not at all unique, we are a mixed-up group of nationalities all melted together in a pot, just like we are supposed to be.

Because we are products of the American melting pot, in that part of the human diaspora where the gene pool is deepest, we have little chance of genetic birth defects. By participating in "mixed-marriages" (that is, marriages between Catholics of different nationalities) in the mid-20th Century, our ancestors help establish a pretty solid gene-pool.

I know Americans who are not so lucky. They are from families who marry specific people from particular families because of religion or financial considerations. Some of their family trees look more like spider webs or vines, rather than trees. There are so many lines leading back to each other, creating marriages among cousins and distant cousins, that their gene pool actually diminishes with time.

This is what happened to the royal families of England, and probably other monarchies. In their attempt to maintain control, they established rules of marriage and procreation that limit their options, and the white get whiter as the gene pool shrinks.

There are still laws in England defining the rights of bastard children to inheritance. That is, they have no rights. English law has been so screwed-up about the monarch's bloodline, that today's mixed-race Englishmen suffer the absurd notions of the past.

There are many Americans who trace their families back to the settling of North America, who are related to the British monarchs. In fact, the former presidents Bush trace their lineage right into the House of Windsor. Fortunately, for the Bush family, the most recent generation of adults began to marry people of other nationalities and their formerly shallow gene pool is deepening and widening. Now, if only their politics could do the same thing.

But, I digress.

Along with the offspring of British monarchy who have settled in America, there is a newer group of citizens whose gene pool might not be as easy to expand: test-tube babies. Children born via artificial insemination of embryos fertilized with sperm from a donor may have many half-siblings.

How many?

Well, this has been a concern of some doctors, geneticists, and philosophers since the first test-tube baby was born in England almost thirty years ago.

The English government took the issue very seriously and commissioned a study headed by modern philosopher Baroness Mary Warnock, which concluded that a single sperm donor should be limited to ten offspring. Other European nations followed suits and created some laws and regulations.

Sperm Donor Online ApplicationIn America, the fertility industry is a big business, and God knows you can't interfere with commerce by creating laws or regulations that might impede profits.

There are no regulations, no limits.

Since sperm donors tend to be stable people that remain settled in one place during their career as a genetic factory, and stable people tend to be smart people, and smart people (especially attractive smart people) are desirable choices, some sperm donors are more popular than others and their sperm is used in more insemination than others.

There is a man who is now the anonymous father of 150 children. This means that this single sperm donor has created 150 children who live in the same geographical area. Women do not travel abroad or interstate to purchase sperm, generally, they get it from their local provider.

If one donor has created 150 children, then there are potentially 150 half-siblings living in the same area. Perhaps some of the families have full siblings, if the mother has used the same donor for multiple births.

Those half-siblings who are now coming of age, become sexually active, romantically interesting young adults. How many of them will encounter half-siblings they do not know?

One mother thought about that, and in 2000, Wendy Kramer founded a donor sibling registry:

No one knows how many children are born in this country each year using sperm donors. Some estimates put the number at between 30,000 and 60,000, perhaps more. Mothers of donor children are asked to report a child’s birth to the sperm bank voluntarily, but just 20 to 40 percent of them do so, said Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry.

Because of this dearth of records, many families turn to the registry's Web site,, for information about their child's half brothers or half sisters.
One Sperm Donor, 150 Brothers and Sisters

Is there a potential health hazard here? Are people over-reacting to the potential danger of one sperm donor creating so many children?

As is noted in the article, there are more questions and regulations when buying or selling a used car than when purchasing human sperm or eggs for procreation.

In this age of anti-government sentiment, where ordinary Americans have decided their government is bad and must be destroyed and de-funded, it is unlikely that any politician would succeed in trying to pass regulatory legislation.

Fortunately, this is not an issue I have to face in my personal life. I was blessed with a large family and have managed to create a small family of my own.

If I was the child of an anonymous sperm donor, however, I think I would want to know that somebody is paying attention to the companies buying and selling the human sperm used to create me and my uncountable half-siblings.

One Sperm Donor, 150 Brothers and Sisters


gercasty said...

Very interesting and quite thought-provoking. I am a twin at the centre of a large family. My twin and I share three big sisters, three wee sisters, a big brother and a wee brother. I'm pretty sure our own gene pool is fairly deep.

Adam said...

I found this one thought provoking (and having a laugh) as well. As a Jew of Eastern European descent then married ot a non-Jew of Eastern European descent, I recall going for genetic counseling when we decided to start a family. My laugh was "mixed-marriages" being those between Catholics of different nationalities. Hah, hah!

Finally, and somewhat to my shame and consternation, Israel maintains a list of children born out of wedlock - according to Israeli standards. Because small religious political parties have always had oversized power in Israel (does this start to sound like another country you know), the Israeli government only accepts marriages performed by Orthodox rabbis. And Orthodox rabbis won't marry someone if that person was subject to a non-Orthodox conversion. Madness.