Sperm Banking: Buyer Beware

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


December 29, 2016

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Hi. I am Art Caplan, and I am the head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

Sperm banking has been around for a long time. Lots and lots of babies have been made through sperm donation, sometimes from a person who is married to the intended female recipient and sometimes anonymously, but the industry of sperm banking has problems. It basically requires more regulation, with some "buyer beware" information if you have a patient who is thinking about using that technology.

A case out in California makes clear the problems. A woman had a husband who had suffered from a lethal genetic disease—Marfan syndrome, in this case—and he had deposited sperm, hoping that even if he died, they could have children together after his death. Vials of his sperm were put into a clinic in a town in the Los Angeles area. After many years following his death, the woman went to get the sperm because she decided she wanted to try and make that baby that they had agreed on. The sperm vials were not there.

Worse, it appears as if they had been used, maybe for other couples. Because her husband had a genetic disease, you certainly would not want to use his sperm without screening and making sure that the sample did not have that condition. It was not clear that, at the clinic, they had not used the sperm for someone else without testing it adequately to make sure that disease was not passed on.

Although many clinics operate sperm banking perfectly well and are careful about screening and checking samples and tracking them, sometimes the banks are not. One of the things that people need to understand is that if you come in and you say, "I want to be a sperm donor"—and you make claims about your skills, aptitudes, test results, and health—it is not always the case that every sperm bank makes the effort to screen to verify those claims.

In other instances, it does not look like the sperm banks necessarily have good storage and labeling practices. In many states, there is no auditing. You may make a deposit at this bank, but it is not clear that you can trust them to handle this material responsibly. In some ways, we have a 19th-century tracking system for a 21st-century technology.

Patients and families need to understand that. You must ask questions. You want to make sure that they talk to people who had a good experience at a sperm bank before they go out and try to use this technology, either to have a child when their partner has died, because they need to get sperm because they do not have a partner, or there is a health reason why their partner cannot supply it.

While I am not at all against sperm banking, sperm donation, or trying to help people have babies, I think we need to get tougher in the oversight that we give to sperm banks. I think we need to tell our patients that they must be careful when they try and pursue this option.

I am Art Caplan, at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center. Thank you for watching.


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