The dark side of sperm donation

Another dispatch from the Reproductive Revolution. BioEdge, MercatorNet’s associate site about bioethics, has been tracking the generosity of sperm donor dads for several years. Some men have fathered dozens of children, a few may have fathered hundreds. But in the case of Detroit gynaecologist and obstetrician Dr Philip Peven the word “thousands” is being used. It will be impossible to know, but since he delivered some 9,000 babies in his 40-year career, it seems possible. Some proportion of those children carry his genes.

Dr Peven is now 105 years old but is still in reasonably good health. Online DNA tests from sites like 23andMe and have united several of his offspring when they did some sleuthing into their genealogy.

Two of them confronted him early last year before the Covid-19 pandemic cut off personal contact. In the late 40s, he explained to them, medical students and young doctors often donated or sold sperm.

When he set up his own practice, he continued to use his own sperm to help women whose husbands had infertility problems – without informing them of the donor. At least once he was given a vial of sperm from a patient’s friend, but discarded it and used his own. He has no idea how many offspring he has, although he told his visitors that “My daughter thinks I could have fathered thousands of children.'”

Some of the offspring have noted that Dr Peven is an Ashkenazi Jew and people with that genetic heritage are prone to Gaucher disease, Tay-Sachs disease and cystic fibrosis. Many of his patients belonged to Detroit’s Jewish community, complicating matters still further. Their children could easily have married a half-sibling.

The Jewish News newspaper has covered this story extensively and found that other doctors were involved. One of the offspring of these other doctors made comments which apply to Dr Peven as well.

“I now realize that it was a different time, a time when doctors were not questioned, but I still consider the doctor’s behaviour unprincipled, unethical and possibly dangerous,” the person said. “The possibility was certainly there that half-siblings could meet, marry and have children. I do realize the doctor was trying to be helpful in enabling couples to have a child, but he should have told the mother he was using his own sperm. I doubt most women would have said yes to that scenario.”

As The Jewish News sought more information about Dr Peven, it unearthed deceptive donor sperm practices by other fertility doctors in Detroit. Dr Sylvester Trythall, who died in 1970, told one patient in the late 50s that he was going to mix her husband’s sperm with a medical student’s. But when a woman named Lynne Weiner Spencer investigated her genetic heritage, she found that she was really the daughter of Dr Trythall’s handyman, Hank Heemsoth, who died in 2006. Now it appears that Mr Heemsoth may have been the biological father of about 60 children – not many compared to Dr Peven, of course -- but still noteworthy.

Secrecy is bad, of course, but the fundamental ethical problem with sperm donation is not secrecy; it is sperm donation. Every child deserves to be born as the beloved gift of a mother and father in a marriage. Sperm donation turns children into products and cuts them off from a father’s love, his own family connections, and a genetic heritage. However loving the child’s mother may be, erasing the father is a kind of child abuse. It should be banned.

But IVF clinics and sperm banks continue to promote it; the law continues to permit it. And as long as they do, some twisted men will take advantage of its legality for their own perverse reasons.

A horrifying feature in the New York Times this week shows a very dark side of sperm donation today. It examines the case of Jonathan Jacob Meijer, a Dutch musician in his 30s, who may have fathered 200 children – so far. Through donations to IVF clinics in the Netherlands, he has about 100; through private arrangements, another 80.

Even the New York Times suggests that at least more regulation is needed:

As an industry, however, it is poorly regulated. A patchwork of laws ostensibly addresses who can donate, where and how often, in part to avoid introducing or amplifying genetic disabilities in a population. In Germany, a sperm-clinic donor may not produce more than 15 children; in the United Kingdom the cap is 10 families of unlimited children. In the Netherlands, Dutch law prohibits donating anonymously, and nonbinding guidelines limit clinic donors to 25 children and from donating at more than one clinic in the country. In the United States there are no legal limits, only guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine: 25 children per donor in a population of 800,000.

The dismal truth is that some males get a kick out of spreading their genes far and wide. A member of Donor Offspring Europe, told the Times that some men travel around Europe trying to have as many children as possible.

“It’s kind of disgusting in a narcissistic way,” she said. “No sane person would want 100 children or more. The big question is why? These men want confirmation that they’re a great guy and everybody wants them.”

Mr Meijer, for instance, has been donating to a number of sperm banks outside the Netherlands as well. Ties van der Meer, the director of the Dutch Donor Child Foundation, told the Times that his offspring could number several hundred or even 1,000.

Mr Meijer says that this is “ridiculous” and invokes an ersatz, mystical, flower-power version of love. “I am disappointed by the obsession of the numbers," he says. "I became a donor not for any numbers but out of love to help parents with realizing their dream. I cannot understand how anyone can only focus on numbers and see my donor children as a number.”

Ultimately the problem is not more regulation. The Reproductive Revolution has to be unwound. We have to return to the notion that a new life is sacred and should only begin within marriage. That is where it is best protected.

Otherwise we end up with Genghis Khan wannabees like Philip Peven and Jonathan Jacob Meijer.


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