This spring, three Canadian families filed lawsuits against a Georgia sperm bank that failed to fully disclose their donor’s medical and criminal history, which included schizophrenia and a felony conviction. Since then, the responsibility of sperm banks to investigate and share pertinent information about donors has been under scrutiny.
Medical ethicist Art Caplan captured the troubling paradox of sperm bank negligence in The New York Times Quotation of the Day last week: “It’s absurd that we have these materials so valuable that people pay to store them, but we run it like a 19th-century grocery.”
In an interview with Boston Public Radio Wednesday, Caplan explained what’s going on in some sperm banks. “They don’t track their inventory,” he said. “They are inspected for infectious diseases, they make sure there’s no HIV in the donor sample, make sure you handle the sperm hygienically, but there’s no auditing or checking that... the person who says, “I am a seven-foot Ukrainian mathematician tennis player” actually is that.”
While sperm banks are potentially responsible for a variety of ethical issues, the onus is on them to anticipate the complexity of their work. “Material is lost, clinics are bought and sold. They don’t necessarily transfer your valuable samples. Sometimes they overuse them,” Caplan said. “There are places where in a small town you might have the same sperm donor used, you know, twenty times, and all of a sudden you’ve got accidental incest going on, because nobody tracked how many times they’ve used the sample. It really is a scandal that we haven’t got tougher regulations on the sperm banks.”
Arthur L. Caplan Ph.D., is the Drs. William F and Virginia Connolly Mitty Professor of Bioethics at New York University, Langone Medical Center, in New York City. To hear the full interview, click the audio link above.