*Names have been changed to protect the individuals’ privacy
Once Stephanie* had overcome the initial shock of becoming a new parent, she started investigating whether her donor-conceived child had any siblings ‘out there’. At which point, another round of shock kicked in.
Stephanie discovered that her daughter has 37 half-siblings.
The Importance of Donor Family Limits
A question asked by many potential donor recipients is, “How many families can my sperm donor create?” And it’s a great question. It’s an important question. Why? Because the number of families your donor creates will have a direct and lasting impact on your donor-conceived child’s life (as well as many other people’s, including your own). And those impacts may not be all ‘happiness and sunshine’.
So what then, is the answer to this very important line of inquiry? And why, in many cases, does the official response about donor family limits deviate significantly from the reality?
Janine* and her wife, Sam* were advised by their Brisbane fertility clinic that the maximum number of families who could use her chosen sperm donor was five. “I thought this was a reasonable number of children,” says Janine. “I estimated that if each family had one or two children, then it wouldn’t get too weird for anyone.” What the clinic failed to tell Janine and Sam is that because they were using an international donor, a worldwide donor family limit comes into play.
As a result, when Janine discovered six U.S. families had also conceived using her sperm donor, she was shocked. Janine emailed her U.S. sperm bank and asked the burning question: “How many families have used my donor?”
The polite woman from the sperm bank responded: “Thank you for contacting us. Every country has its own limitations and rules. However, not every donor is distributed to the same countries, therefore it is impossible to give a total limit of families. Please let me know if you need anything else. Have a great day!”
In other words, they haven’t got a donor family limit. Not one that they’re adhering to anyway.
So how does it all work? Is there legislation?
In some states, in some countries, yes.
How Do Family Limits Work in Australia?
Where state legislation exists, the following limits apply: in Victoria the family limit is ten,1 NSW is five,2 and WA is also five.3 Where there is no legislation, Australian fertility clinics must take reasonable steps to ensure that the number of families who use a donor is minimised; the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recommend a maximum of ten families.4
‘Reasonable steps’ might include, for example, ensuring that when a fifth woman is pregnant with the donor’s sperm – if the family limit in the relevant state is five, and four families have already used the donor – that no one else can use the sperm until all of her frozen embryos have been used, she fails to conceive and then decides to try with a different donor, or gives up. Only then does this open up the opportunity for someone else to use that donor’s sperm. The exception is where an existing family wishes to conceive again with the same donor.
How Do Donor Family Limits Work with International Sperm Banks?
Australian fertility clinics that make contractual agreements with international sperm banks must ensure that the manner in which they obtain sperm (and eggs and embryos) aligns with Australian standards. The international sperm bank must then work within the limitations of Australia’s state and territory family limits as part of their contractual agreement.
Does this happen?
Not really. In truth, the waters are positively murky.
Some countries manage the donor family limits well, some have legislation, some rectify their processes when they make a mistake; others not so much. And mistakes in governance happen. For instance, in 2017 in the Netherlands – despite there being a limit of twenty-five offspring per donor – one man donated at eleven different clinics across the country and produced over one hundred offspring. The donor said he did this because it made him feel helpful.5
When in comes to the U.S.A. – a country which many Australian fertility clinics use – sperm banks are not legally obligated to stay within their advertised worldwide donor family limits (in fact, legal obligations are almost non-existent). To add to the disquietude, some sperm banks, rather than employ people to follow-up users of their donor sperm, place the entire onus on their donor recipient customers to report a birth. Sadly, many people do not complete this step. The downstream effect of this ‘truancy’ is that the sperm bank continues to spruik the donor, his sperm continues to circumnavigate the globe, and the worldwide family limit transcends the definition of ‘large family’, to ‘modest-sized principality’.
The Donor ‘Secondary Market’
Furthermore, U.S. sperm banks have no way of tracking the secondary market where surplus vials of sperm are gifted or on-sold to other families. Some sperm banks do have buyback policies, but those tend to have restrictive conditions (e.g. 50% of the purchase price, and buyback must occur within 24 months of the original purchase). Many U.S. sperm banks also sell to other countries, some of which are not that inspired to keep track of data, like Mexico. Also, there is no tracking of surplus frozen embryos that may be on-donated several years later, and many embryo donation programs are still operating under total anonymity. One estimate is that there are over a million surplus embryos in cold storage in the U.S.A.6
And the siblings keep coming.
Even more disturbing, some U.S. sperm banks refuse to disclose how many children a donor has conceived, which naturally begs the question: why not?
But wait, there’s more… To further agitate the millpond, Australian fertility clinics do not generally check whether an international donor has been used at clinics in other Australian states. The result is that while the Australian clinic can congratulate themselves on adhering to the relevant state or territory donor family limit, no one is controlling the total number of families the donor conceives on our golden soil.
Advance Australia fair.
And as Australian donor recipient, Angie, puts it, “At my workplace, we have to keep track of stock right down to the last nut and bolt. How is it not possible to keep track of human lives on this scale?”
What Can You Do About Donor Family Limits?
One of the ways to minimise the risk of large sibling numbers is to select what’s known as an ‘exclusive donor’. The definition of exclusive can vary somewhat, but essentially means a limited number of families worldwide – usually ten or fifteen – can use your donor. In some cases, with some sperm banks – if you purchase the entire inventory of sperm – you can be the only one who uses your donor’s sperm. The only downside to this fabulous option is that you may need to remortgage your house. And sadly, there is also the possibility that your ‘exclusive’ donor has tiptoed to the sperm bank across the road to offer his services there. Or alternatively, is now promoting himself on one or more matching sites as a known donor.
Other Types of Sperm Donors and Family Limits
What about other donor types? How do donor family limits work, and can they be controlled?
If you choose a known donor (a person you ‘know’, or someone you meet on a matching site and pretty much everything else in between), unfortunately there is absolutely nothing stopping them from attempting to ‘populate the planet’. And while this type of donor may seem as though he’s unlocking the key to happiness for you, it’s important to be aware that having large numbers of siblings can be extremely traumatic for donor-conceived people. Of course, there are many legitimate known donors who are happy to assist just a small number of families, and the scenario can work very well. The key is to do your homework thoroughly, and make sure you trust your donor.
What about Australian clinic-recruited donors? Can family limits be controlled within our boundless plains?
Yes. Well, most of the time.
Australian fertility clinics must comply with regulation – where it exists – and guilty parties risk a limited wardrobe and pre-packaged soggy sandwiches for up to two years if they breach the law.7 Where there is no regulation, clinics are issued with a ‘Fix-it-by-this-date’ style warning, and must hang a ‘We are temporarily closed’ shingle if they don’t comply.
Does this happen much? Not really.
Unfortunately, given our clinics don’t generally communicate with each other, there is still a risk that your donor has crossed the border to donate elsewhere. On the upside, this duplicitous behaviour appears to occur less regularly in Australia as it does in say, the U.S.A., and this is, in all likelihood, directly related to the absence of a cash reward in Australia.
What Can You Do to Solve the Problem?
Well, you probably can’t solve the problem – much legislation and change is desperately needed in the field of donor conception – but you can do a few things. Start by educating yourself about the needs of donor-conceived people, the only individual in this process that doesn’t get to make any decisions. With every decision you make, ask yourself: how might this impact my child, the person who will one day be a thinking and feeling adult?
Then, ask lots of questions of your fertility clinic, your sperm bank, your known donor, identify to the best of your ability how many children currently exist, how many more are intended, and move on if the numbers are too high. Locate forums where you can find parents who have already used your potential donor and check if they know how many children currently exist.
As for Janine and Sam, and their donor-conceived child, they wait in the wings, wondering how many more of their child’s half-siblings are out there, and how many more are yet to be born.
The U.S. sperm bank certainly doesn’t know. And sadly, nor do they care.
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- Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act No. 76 of 2008 (Vic), s. 29 (Austl.)
- Assisted Reproductive Technology Act 2007 (NSW), s. 27 (Austl.).
- Human Reproductive Technology Act 1991, (WA) Directions, Part 8 (Austl.).
- NHMRC, Ethical Guidelines, 2017, 5. Use of donated gametes in ART activities, p. 42.
- Kelly McLaughlin, ‘One donor fathers 102 children in the Netherlands after giving sperm at 11 clinics’, Daily Mail Australia., 24 Aug. 2017, <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4819312/One-sperm-donor-fathers-102-children-Netherlands.html>, accessed 16 July 2019.
- Tamar Lewin, ‘Industry’s Growth Leads to Leftover Embryos, and Painful Choices’, The New York Times, 17 June, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/18/us/embryos-egg-donors-difficult-issues.html, accessed 16 July 2019.
- Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act No. 76 of 2008 (Vic), s. 29 (Austl.)