Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Utilitarian Implications of Gamete-Seeking

Via Scott Scheule, I find that Virginia may become the first state to ban anonymous donation of sperm and eggs. Interestingly, it turns out the ban’s leading advocate is Katrina Clark, a young woman who was herself the product of anonymous sperm donation:
”I just felt like something had been stripped away from me,” said Clark, a deaf studies and bioethics double-major at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.
What, exactly, does Clark think was stripped from her? Her mother, Janie Price, provides one possibility: the knowledge of one’s heritage:
"I talked myself into believing that if I loved her enough, it would be OK," she said. "What I didn't consider is that one's genetic component is very much a part of her identity. Why else would we spend so much money as adults researching our genealogy?"
Clark herself provides another: knowledge of genetic health risks:
Clark said she grew up not thinking she was any different from her friends. That changed when she was 15 and saw a show about a woman who died of a genetic heart disease that she had no idea she was at risk of developing because she had been adopted.
Now both of these are clearly things that Clark lacks – or at least lacked until she successfully tracked down her genetic father. But was she in any meaningful sense deprived of them? I think not, because with the proposed ban in place, she likely would not have existed at all. As the article reports, nations that have banned anonymity in sperm donations have seen large drops in the number of donations, as well as rising sperm prices. A representative of one U.S. sperm bank noted that only 29 of 265 donors chose to allow their identities to be revealed to their progeny. While it’s possible that some of the other 246 donors would have chosen non-anonymity, many others would not. In any case, the set of willing donors under anonymity surely differs from the set of willing donors under a ban. It follows that the set of children conceived via sperm donation under one regime differs greatly, if not entirely, from those who would have been conceived under the other.

What we have here is another practical application of the conflict between average and total utilitarianism, which I’ve discussed before. An anonymity ban most likely results in a smaller number of children, but those children might live somewhat better lives (through having knowledge of their heritage and possible genetic health risks). Setting aside the value of parentage to potential donation recipients, the average utilitarian should approve of the ban, since the utility of children who never exist doesn’t count. Caveat: this conclusion actually requires an additional assumption about the quality of life of children produced via donations relative to the average quality of life of all children. Assuming the lives of children from donated gametes are – in expected value – no better than those of typical children, then anything that reduces the number of such children while raising the quality of life for those that remain must increase the society’s average quality of life.

The total utilitarian, on the other hand, should oppose the anonymity ban unless (a) the quantity-reduction effect is substantially smaller than it appears to be, or (b) the gain from knowledge of one’s genetics is unexpectedly large.

Two factors might put the average and total utilitarians on the same page. First, even if some jurisdictions ban anonymous donations, others likely will not. If Virginia bans anonymity, Virginians can just go to Maryland or Washington, D.C. Sperm exportation is already common, largely because people seek out the most desirable donors, anonymous or not. If the anonymity ban extends to sperm imports as well, expect more sperm-seeking tourism to those jurisdictions without such bans. Local bans simply might not matter much in terms of the utility calculation, because anonymous donations will occur anyway, just in different places. The higher price of traveling for a donation might deter some gamete-seekers at the margin, but not as many as would be deterred by a blanket ban on anonymity that reduces overall donations.

Second, an effective ban on anonymity (say, one enforced by agreement among jurisdictions) could reduce the quality of life for the smaller number of children still conceived. As indicated above, gamete-seekers want the highest quality donors. A ban that reduces total donations has the potential to reduce the quality of the donation pool, especially if higher-quality donors are more likely to value their anonymity. (Entirely possible; imagine future politicians or celebrities who would like the cash now, but not if their progeny could come seeking handouts or publicity later.) The effect of lower-quality donations could outweigh the value of greater genetic self-knowledge. But if so, then the anonymity ban would result in a reduction in both the quantity and quality of lives of the children of donated gametes – a loss on both average and total utilitarian grounds.

(I will admit once again that I really should read Derek Parfit before doing any more posts like this.)


Anonymous said...

I could understand a publicity campaign, ads in sperm donation centers, etc. encouraging sperm donors to donate non-anonymously, and encouraging the women who accept such donations to choose sperm from donors who have donated non-anonymously; but this seems firstly ungrateful to those donors, and secondly to be trampling on mothers' rights: a mother has a right to choose how to raise her child, and that includes the right to choose an unidentifiable sample.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this could be solved by a single-blind system: Don't tell the child his father's identity, but pay the father to send in biannual medical updates and give the child access to relevant but non-identifying information.

This would increase the cost of sperm a great deal, but it probably wouldn't have much of an effect on the total cost of artificial insemination and childbirth.

I don't think it would be too hard to design a system that would protect the identities of fathers from all but the most resourceful of unscrupulous sperm bank employees.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis from the perspective of the average utilitarian did not account for the fact that some parents would be worse off under the ban (presumably they would be unable to afford children). All things considered, it seems debatable whether the average utilitarian would approve the ban.