The Big Chill

CABRILate in the summer of 2012, healthy non-identical twin girls were born to a 25 year-old California woman and her same-sex partner. The biological father, aged 92 at the time of the birth, was a semen donor. His gametes had been collected in 1971, and had been frozen in liquid nitrogen for 40 years before being thawed and used in an ICSI-IVF procedure at the Alta Bates Fertility Center.

While scarcely noted in the press, this event was important. As expected from copious earlier data in farm animals, it shows that human sperm can be safely cryo-preserved for many decades. A common but specious argument against Assisted Reproductive Techniques (ART) is that the process is somehow intrinsically unhealthy. It is also gratifying to see a lesbian couple empowered not only to bear children and have a family, but also to select as their donor a father of indisputable longevity.

The sperm banking industry is a badly flawed enterprise. Shadowed in secrecy, it refuses to accept regulation or even retain records of what it has done. Driven by profit, it does not store semen nearly as long as it should. Instead, it creates dozens, and at times hundreds of offspring from a single donor in a brief period of time, often before the donor himself reaches 30 years of age. Only during the next 30 to 50 years does it become apparent whether this irrevocable act will end happily or in tragedy. There are well documented cases of both outcomes. In 1997, a sperm donor in the Dutch city of Den Bosch began to stumble and slur his speech when he reached middle age. He was diagnosed with autosomal dominant cerebellar ataxia (ADCA). Startled physicians discovered that he had conceived 18 children in 13 families. As this disease is untreatable and ultimately fatal, they froze in confusion and kept this information a secret for 3 more years.

In light of this sad case, one can better appreciate the intelligence of the lesbian mother in California, who personally met and selected her donor socially. She will never have to wonder whether the father of her daughters will live a long and healthy life – he already has. And it is also clear that her girls cannot possibly inherit ADCA from him.

Using known donors is relatively new to fertility, but there is already a free website available just to facilitate the exchange of information between prospective mothers and the donors they might select as reproductive partners.  It is impossible to know exactly what matters most to women seeking a donor, but the word “healthy” and the phrase “documented STD negative” are almost universal. Tall, blue eyes, and intelligent also get a fair amount of weight. It is difficult to think of any fact that can ethically be withheld from a mother about her donor, under any circumstance, limited only by the expense of accurately determining that fact. But the only way to know if the donor lives a long and healthy life is simply…to wait and see. Sperm preservation allows that.

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