Reflections on a Recent Study Showing Sperm and Egg Donor as Übermensch/Uberfrau

Last week, I sat on a panel at the Mid-Atlantic Law and Society Association, with my wonderful colleagues Kim Mutcherson, Gaia Bernstein, Rene Almeling, and Cynthia Daniels on sperm donor anonymity. [NB: as in most of my work I will use the term “donor” because it is used in common parlance while acknowledging that “seller” is more accurate].

Among other topics discussed, Cynthia shared with us a new paper she has just published in Signs, co-authored with Erin Heidt-Forsythe, the contents of which I found fascinating and I think some BOH readers may as well. They examined the characteristics of 1,156 sperm donors from the top twelve sperm banks in the U.S., and found them to be very much (in my view) that of the ubermensch and uberfrau (in the Nazi conception of the term, not necessarily the original Neitzchean).

Among other findings they note that 44% of sperm donors are above 6 feet tall compared to 10% of American men; 61.9% have healthy weight in Body Mass Index (BMI) terms, as compared to 32% of the U.S. population; 62% had a college or higher degree compared to 26% in the U.S. population and only 2% of sperm donors had high school as their highest level of educational attainment compared to 32% of American men.

They also found that African-American and Latino donors, both underrepresented groups in sperm donor pools compared to the U.S. population, were much more likely to be listed as being on the light or medium skin tones for those groups rather than the dark side, again in variance with the distribution in the general population

They then compared these findings to a similar review of 359 egg donors recruited from eight fertility clinics.

In order not to steal too much from the paper I won’t report the details here just the general findings: egg donors were significantly taller and thinner than the female population. They also are twice as likely to have completed a college or higher degree.

The authors connect these patterns to the marketing and search for idealized masculinity and femininity in the two populations of donors.

Here are three questions that have long interested me that this study brought to the fore:

First, how well do the banks’ donors match up with consumer preferences? Or to put the point another way, how much are the donors these banks recruit attempts to meet versus shape consumer preferences?

Second, to what extent are users of donor egg and sperm correctly or incorrectly estimating heritability of these various traits? It would be interesting to compare estimates of heritability to actual heritability rates.

Finally, and I think most provocatively, I would be interested in knowing for partnered recipients, to what extent are egg and sperm recipients consciously or unconsciously “trading up” and choosing donors with characteristics that they themselves view as “better” than the partner whose reproductive material is being substituted? For single individuals, it would also be interesting to know whether they are “trading up” compared to the genetic endowment of the reproductive partners that would be available to him/her  in a world without Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART).  I am also interested in whether such “trading up,” if it takes place, should be thought of as at all normatively problematic, of if the question exposes the existing distribution of who gets what genes as being problematic in a world without ART, and ART as the corrective.

I. Glenn Cohen

I. Glenn Cohen is the James A. Attwood and Leslie Williams Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and current Faculty Director of the Petrie-Flom Center. A member of the inaugural cohort of Petrie-Flom Academic Fellows, Glenn was appointed to the Harvard Law School faculty in 2008. Glenn is one of the world's leading experts on the intersection of bioethics (sometimes also called "medical ethics") and the law, as well as health law. He also teaches civil procedure. From Seoul to Krakow to Vancouver, Glenn has spoken at legal, medical, and industry conferences around the world and his work has appeared in or been covered on PBS, NPR, ABC, CNN, MSNBC, Mother Jones, the New York Times, the New Republic, the Boston Globe, and several other media venues. He was the youngest professor on the faculty at Harvard Law School (tenured or untenured) both when he joined the faculty in 2008 (at age 29) and when he was tenured as a full professor in 2013 (at age 34).

3 thoughts to “Reflections on a Recent Study Showing Sperm and Egg Donor as Übermensch/Uberfrau”

  1. Glenn,
    It sounds like it was a great panel and some great empirical data to chew on. As part of my experience as a teaching fellow for the bioethics course co-taught by Michael Sandel and Doug Melton, I was taken by how the issue of heritability (or lack thereof) and our misconceptions about it seemed to be a constant source of frustration for Professor Melton. While I’m certainly not an expert, given his frustration, I would say that a vast number of of people that use third party gametes entertain some level of heritability fallacy. If this is the case I contemplate if a more robust explanation of which traits are heritable should be included as a part of an informed consent process for patients purchasing/using “donated” eggs and sperm. I pause to conclude it should be part of the process because it feels like another barrier to reproduction for the infertile and dysfertile — does not burden its users to understand heritability.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.