Sperm Donation, Anonymity, and Compensation: An Empirical Legal Study

[Cross-Posted at Prawfsblawg]

In the United States, most sperm donations* are anonymous. By contrast, many developed nations require sperm donors to be identified, typically requiring new sperm (and egg) donors to put identifying information into a registry that is made available to a donor-conceived child once they reach the age of 18. Recently, advocates have pressed U.S. states to adopt these registries as well, and state legislatures have indicated openness to the idea.

In a series of prior papers I have explained why I believe the arguments offered by advocates of these registries fail. Nevertheless, I like to think of myself as somewhat open-minded, so in another set of projects I have undertaken to empirically test what might happen if the U.S. adopted such a system. In particular, I wanted to look at the intersection of anonymity and compensation, something that cannot be done in many of these other countries where compensation for sperm and egg donors is prohibited.

Today I posted online (downloadable here) the first published paper from this project, Can You Buy Sperm Donor Identification? An Experiment, co-authored with Travis Coan, and forthcoming in December 2013 in Vol. 10, Issue 4, of the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

This study relies on a self-selected convenience sample to experimentally examine the economic implications of adopting a mandatory sperm donor identification regime in the U.S. Our results support the hypothesis that subjects in the treatment (non-anonymity) condition need to be paid significantly more, on average, to donate their sperm. When restricting our attention to only those subjects that would ever actually consider donating sperm, we find that individuals in the control condition are willing-to-accept an average of $43 to donate, while individuals in the treatment group are willing-to-accept an average of $74. These estimates suggest that it would cost roughly $31 per sperm donation, at least in our sample, to require donors to be identified. This price differential roughly corresponds to that of a major U.S. sperm bank that operates both an anonymous and identify release programs in terms of what they pay donors.

We are currently running a companion study on actual U.S. sperm donors and hope soon to expand our research to egg donors, so comments and ideas are very welcome online or offline.

* I will follow the common parlance of using the term “donation” here, while recognizing that the fact that compensation is offered in most cases gives a good reason to think the term is a misnomer.

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 “Sperm Donation, Anonymity, and Compensation: An Empirical Legal Study”

  1. I am *amazed* that men are willing to give up their anonymity for such a low price! I wonder if/how this will change once we move even further into a world where nothing is really anonymous and everyone can be “re-identified” – the perfect segue into the online symposium going on right now here at Bill of Health!

  2. Thanks Holly. We are currently doing a follow-up study on actual sperm donors so we will see if the same numbers hold or not. That is a great point about re-anonymization and whether the line between identity-release and anonymous sperm donation will get blurred!

  3. I reunite separated families for free and many of those families were separated by parents who signed reproductive agreements promising not to assume parental responsibilities for any children born of those agreements. I spend a good part of each day trying to crack those donor codes or find children that gamete donors gave up. It does really do tremendous damage to the donors entire family for generations even when the offspring are found the records will never accurately reflect their kinship.

    I think it’s fine for people to donate their gametes, the problem is that they also agree to abandon any resulting children as part of private contracts and that is just unconscionable that the law allows for that. What happens when all people with offspring are not held to the same legal requirements is that all offspring then don’t have equal rights. When parents abandon their young without ever being named on their birth records the records are falsified and incomplete and it should not be within the purview of any one family member to control the flow of information to everyone else in the family. For instance parents can’t control the fact that grandparents and siblings may wish to and do seek out the children given up by the parent. They are not under contract and nobody consulted them. People do have the right to obtain birth marriage and death records on their relatives prior to them turning 18 without the consent of the parent and so these agreements make that impossible because the medical records are medically inaccurate.

    If we are going to say that donors are only giving up gametes not children, then their contracts should state that the gamete donation does not alter their parental obligation when their offspring are born and that abandonment is a crime and anyone who helps would be aiding in that crime. If they are not being paid for their children then make it explicit that they remain responsible for their offspring as parents once they are born. Nobody should have a problem with that who says they are only donating sperm.

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