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April 24, 2009

20, 50, 120: How Many Siblings Do You Have?

Basketofbabies2 In the sixteenth century, members of the Hapsburg dynasty suffered deformities and severe and deadly health problems which were preventable. Trying to hoard the throne, members of the Hapsburg clan had intermarried. These incestuous relationships caused genetic malformations. 

One would reason that in our enlightened era of medical advances, we would not be confronted with the same problems which plagued the incestuous Hapsburg dynasty, but I wouldn’t be so sure. 

Fertility clinics are impregnating an excessive number of women with sperm from a single donor. Wendy Kramer used artificial insemination and brought to term a bouncing baby boy. She was curious to see if her child, Ryan, had any half-brothers or sisters. What Ms. Kramer found out horrified her—Ryan has at least 120 siblings.

So be careful who you fall in love with, because you the person you are with just might be a half-sibling. Ryan’s biological father, by far, is not the only one who has an inordinate number of descendants. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but yearly estimates are staggering. Elizabeth Marquardt from the Institute of American Values says there are anywhere from 50,000 to 75,000 children conceived via sperm donation. A portentous vision of the near future looms, in which applications for marriage certificates (that is, if marriage as an institution isn’t redefined into extinction) will include a line for the donor’s number.

Besides the obvious medical issues which might occur if this state of affairs continues, John Burger warns in the The Human Life Review that fertility run amok has spawned other haunting problems—that of belonging. Here’s a legitimate question for any child to ask: “Who’s my father?” Children are intently curious about their parentage. Yet the anonymity of fertility clinics and sperm banks demands that children ignore one half of their heritage. 

Ryan Kramer's yearning to know his father is starkly evident in his remarks. He says, “When I would look in the mirror, discover something new, a new interest I had, a new talent or something like that, I could always relate what I had in common to my maternal side of the family, but on the other side of it, there were all these characteristics that I noticed about myself that obviously didn’t come from my mom’s side of the family. And always, my curiosity was driven by wanting to see the source of all those parts of myself in somebody else.”

Worse is the stinging pain of rejection. The men who help create these children do not necessarily want a relationship. The biological father of one woman told her that he didn’t want a relationship. She expresses the problem with this technology: “We offspring are recognizing the right that was stripped from us at birth—the right to know who both our parents are.”

Reproductive technologies have come a long way since the first test tube baby.  However, just because a procedure can be done doesn’t mean we should use it. Writing about the theology of infertility, Wilberforce Fellow and bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell warns readers that “reproductive technologies are not value-neutral.”  

And sperm (and egg) donations create an inequality in the family’s parent/child relationship. As Mitchell writes, “These [artificial] arrangements create a situation where the parents are not equally related to a child they bring into the world for just such purposes.” 

In this fallen world, sometimes couples cannot conceive. As painful as infertility can be, using these technology might have unforeseen repercussions, generations from now. 

(Image courtesy of Knight Science Journalism Tracker)

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Jason Taylor

It's not as if that was a new discovery. It was something of a dirty joke(well for the time)in the ninteenth century.

Calling Hapsburgs "incestuous" is rather grey; it was never worse then cousin marriage which is a bit sticky admitedly but at least that must be remembered.

Interestingly Amish have the same problem simply because there are so few of them and they never marry outside, or almost never(very awkward). Fortunatly there are often villiages close to each other. Unfortunatly the split between New Order and Old Order made things difficult. They also can't use E-harmony for obvious reasons, though I suppose they can get a Mennonite friend to handle that for them.
In any case it is something of an annoyance, enough to get one or two articles published about it in local periodicals.

This is an old bother among Arabs as well. The chief problem is social rather then biological for it harms the balence between clan loyalty and decency(or at least diplomatic competance)between clans in undue favor of the former. It is a far worse problem among Arabs then among Plain Folk as Arabs as is well known, do not have a doctrine of nonresistance...

Jason Taylor

By the way, who made that picture? It is a remarkably gross looking one?


Kim wrote: "A portentous vision of the near future looms, in which applications for marriage certificates [...] will include a line for the donor’s number."

Actually, Kim, I doubt it. To avoid in addition those extremely rare cases where a child is given up for adoption and then as an adult unknowningly falls in love with a sibling, I believe they'll use DNA comparison. Alleviating the need to track those pesky donor numbers, the marriage certificate application would come with cheek swabs. (How romantic!)

And of course, once in possession of all that genetic data, the governments will *promise* not to use it...

Hmmm, the world was incensed by "octomom". Just 23 more children and that sperm donor would be "grossdad" (although collecting all that money and having nothing to do with one's progeny already qualifies him for grossness, even if he's still - as far as we know - not up to 144 children).

Gina Dalfonzo

Jason, do you mean "gross" as in "disgusting," or "gross" in the way LeeQuod used it? :-)

Jason Taylor

Gross as in disgusting. The picture just looks grooss.

Gina Dalfonzo

Not sure why it would look gross -- it's just a basketful of babies. Or a highly Photoshopped attempt at a basketful of babies. I got it from the publication referenced in the last line. (I would have used the picture from BioEdge, but it was too many kilobytes and I wasn't sure there was anyone around to help resize it.)

Jason Taylor

It looks like a pile of babies arranged to look like a sprouting fungus. It has a demented appearance.


Gina, I hesitated to name Jason as the source of my inspiration, wondering if he'd want any credit for one of my puns or if he'd really prefer to disavow association. :-)

Effectively, that donor has to hold the world record for "Deadbeat Dad". So I think Jason's reaction to the picture is entirely appropriate.

A higher-resolution look at the picture reveals that the basket is labeled "Iowa Fruit Basket". That leads me to wonder if the apples won't fall far from the tree; when these children realize that in their father's eyes they were merely a financial transaction with no emotional commitment, how will they treat other people? Maybe we're breeding more industry titans who'd happily take their huge bonuses from the bailout money, irrespective of what it does to anyone else, and more petty criminals who see nothing wrong with stealing, mugging, etc. "As ye sow, so shall ye also reap."


That's crazy. Has anyone else thought about Adoption????? that would eliminate the crassness of sperm donors, many of which are college kids trying to save up drink/book money.

Jason Taylor

Mandy, don't be ridiculous. Your asking the world to be sensible.

kim moreland

JT, the Hapsburgs had uncles marrying nieces too.

Jason Taylor

Ew! Well I guess you know something I didn't.


People have already heard me rant about the LACK of ethics counseling even at an otherwise quality Chicago fertility clinic I went to years back.

They did not even have a "read and understand" agreement spelling out the possible risks.***

And we supposedly have LOTS of extra leftover embryos from years of blasting women with fertility drugs to overproduce eggs (one source says 400-500,000). Hmmmm!

(***I signed a "read and understand" agreement for routine tooth pulling which spelled out minor possible risks from that procedure...)


The above article is (indirectly) an argument for waiting to have sex with someone. (so you don't inadvertently sleep with a half sibling...EWWW!)


One more comment---sorry I am posting in haste

ADOPTION - There's always your state's or county's foster care system. Usually you would not pay any costs.

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