TONY COX, HOST:
I'm Tony Cox and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Holidays are generally a time for family to come together, and that's parents, spouses, siblings, and children, of course. But if you're the child of a sperm donor, that proverbial family table could be very crowded. Some children born through donor insemination may never see or know their fathers and may have literally dozens of half-siblings who remain strangers for a lifetime.
A recent report found one sperm donor could be the father of more than 150 children. Concern over the implications of that scenario is leading to renewed interest in regulating reproductive services.
To find out more about the issues facing sperm donors and donor offspring, we've called on Sean Tipton. He is the director of public affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, an organization of reproductive medicine practitioners.
Also with us, Wendy Kramer. She is the founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, which assists donor offspring in making, quote, "mutually desired contact with others with whom they share genetic ties," end quote. And she is the mother of a son conceived using donor sperm.
Let me thank both of you for coming and welcome you to the show.
SEAN TIPTON: Happy to be here.
WENDY KRAMER: Thank you.
COX: Mr. Tipton, I'd like to start with you. We mentioned this story of a donor who reportedly sired up to 150 children. I think most people would find that to be a shocking number, if it's true. How might this happen?
TIPTON: Well, I don't think we know all the facts and the first thing we need to establish is what do we know and what we don't know. What we know is that there are hundreds of thousands of children born thanks to the use of (unintelligible) donations, sperm donation or egg donation. We know that there are families for whom a (unintelligible) donor is the preferred way for them to build their families and we know any regulation of that is likely to impede access and increase the cost.
So I think we need to figure out the problem before we can evaluate any potential solutions.
COX: So I'm hearing you say that this isn't an incredible possibility that someone could actually have sired, through sperm donation, 150 children.
TIPTON: I really don't have the information on the specifics to make that kind of evaluation.
COX: What about that, Wendy Kramer? Is it credible to think that that could actually happen?
KRAMER: Absolutely. We have a lot of sibling groups on our website that are 20, 50, 70 and all the way up to 150 children born from the same sperm donor.
COX: The connections made on the donor sibling registry are largely based on self-reporting, at least initially. How can you, 100 percent, be certain that people are who they say they are and that they are, in fact, donor siblings, Wendy Kramer?
KRAMER: Right. Well, in 11 years, with 33,000 people on the website, we have never had a case of misreporting, so all of the people are very clear which sperm bank they went to, which donor number they bought. There's records with the sperm bank, so there's really no question here, and we've been raising the issue of large sibling groups for years. This is not news.
COX: Mr. Tipton, would you say that this is a problem that needs addressing? And if so, are there any requirements that you know that your organization has supported that are in place to limit the number of children who are conceived in this manner?
TIPTON: Well, just to briefly describe the existing regulation, the Food and Drug Administration does, in fact, regulate the tissues involved. They primarily have standards pertaining to how to screen and test donors to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases. They do not have a limitation on the number of uses.
Our organization, the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, has had guidelines for quite some time. Our guidelines call for a limit of a use of 25 per sperm donor in a population of 800,000. We developed those guidelines at a time when the marketing of sperm was primarily one city at a time. That has changed to some degree so that now you have national and even international sperm banks. So it's difficult to know exactly what the correct number is, but the scientific data is really not that clear as yet.
COX: What about the donor? What is the donor entitled to as far as your organization is concerned with regard to their right to privacy, if there is such a thing?
TIPTON: We think everyone is entitled to whatever they want and whatever they agree to, so we think the informed consent process is essential. So everyone needs to understand what the restrictions and rules are or are not, agree to it only if all the parties agree, and don't have any changes to that agreement unless all the parties agree.
COX: So Wendy Kramer, does that present a problem for the children who, at some point, are seeking out the identity of their birth father?
KRAMER: Yeah. I think what we need to do is publicly ask the question, what is in the best interests of the children being born? And they're one party that hasn't been a part of any decision-making. It's all about the rights of the sperm banks to make money and help people get pregnant and the rights of parents to achieve a pregnancy and the rights of donors to remain anonymous.
But nobody has invited into the conversation the rights of the children being born. They haven't had a voice yet.
COX: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox. We're talking about the issues surrounding children conceived through sperm donors. I am speaking with Wendy Kramer of the Donor Sibling Registry and Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
Sean Tipton, what about the kids? What are they entitled to?
TIPTON: Well, as far as I know, no one has ever consented to the circumstances of their own conception. I happen to have teenage boys who I suspect currently probably would not consent to me being their father. I don't know too many teenage boys who would consent to whoever their father is.
So I think we have to respect the rights of privacy that people have to build their families in the way that they see fit. There are many, many opinions about who should be a good parent, about the circumstances under which someone should agree to become a parent, and I think we need to respect everybody's individual decisions about those.
COX: Now, you mentioned your own sons. They may not have chosen you, but they know who you are.
TIPTON: There are many, many children who don't know who their father is. In fact, most medical studies would indicate that as many as 10 percent of the population is mistaken as to who their biological father is.
COX: Well, Wendy Kramer, explain why this is so significant for the children who are in search of their biological father and what impact this not knowing is having on those who you are encountering.
KRAMER: Well, we know over 11 years, anecdotally as well as through published research, that many donor-conceived people, just like in adoption, want to know where they come from. So they're not looking for a dad. They're not looking for money. But it's an innate human desire to want to know where you come from and they want to know about their ancestry, they want to know about their medical histories. They just want to see a photograph or meet their biological parents.
COX: Sean Tipton, does there need to be more done to protect A) the donor, protect the mom and protect the children? Or does there need to be more done to try to provide for them access to one another in those instances when they want to find out who the other is?
TIPTON: There is nothing blocking people having access to one another if they desire that. People who want to use a known donor, to have a sperm donor in the child's life, can find many a place where they can get that kind of donor. If they don't want to do that, they can go and do the route of anonymous donation.
COX: So Wendy Kramer, one last thing, there - according to Sean Tipton, there is an option that people have for selecting a donor, either anonymously or one that you can track down at a future time. Is that not sufficient?
KRAMER: Well, it's a little bit different depending on which sperm bank you're talking about. Some sperm banks - you know, you think you're picking a quote/unquote "open donor," where what this means is that when your child turns 18 the sperm bank will send a generic letter saying please update your files. Nowhere in the letter is it mentioned that the child wants to have contact with their biological father, so if the donor gets this letter, he tosses it in the garbage, says I don't have anything to update, and the child thinks, at that point, that the donor has refused contact with his biological daughter.
So there are a lot of problems in the system. We have large sperm banks who refuse to give donors their own donor numbers, thereby prohibiting the donor from making contact on our site to exchange important medical and genetic information.
So the problem is there is no oversight. Nobody's making the sperm banking industry keep accurate records, know how many kids are born from any one donor, update medical records and share medical information amongst families. It's really a mess.
COX: And it's your position, Sean Tipton, that the system is not broken and does not need to be fixed?
TIPTON: We don't think the system's perfect, but we have been looking into how to develop a national donor registry and we have not found a solution to meet the very significant privacy concerns and cost concerns and intrusiveness concerns that such a registry would result in.
COX: Well, let me end the conversation by asking both of you this question. Is this an issue that will ultimately have to be decided in the court?
TIPTON: Oh, I don't think so. I think we can very easily leave people alone to make their own reproductive decisions.
KRAMER: Well, I know that there are court cases right now against several of the sperm banks and I think we just need to see more accountability, more accurate record-keeping in this infertility industry.
COX: Wendy Kramer is the founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, which seeks to provide mutually consensual contact between those who share genetic ties. She joined us from member station KGNU in Boulder, Colorado.
Sean Tipton is the Director of Public Affairs for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. That is the leading professional group in the area of reproductive medicine. He joined us here in our Washington studios.
Thank you both very much.
TIPTON: You're welcome.
KRAMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.