Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Economics of Donor Insemination

Today's New York Times sported the article "Hello, I'm Your Sister. Our Father is Donor 150."

It is another installation in the larger discussion about how children created through donor insemination (DI) are dealing with their personal realities. Ryan Kramer, the donor-conceived son of Wendy Kramer, founded the Website Here, more than 5,000 people have joined with the hopes of getting in touch with their anonymous donor.

Many registry members, however, are happy to "settle for contacting their half-siblings, who actually want to be found. As they do, they are building a new definition of family that both rests on biology and transcends it."

While many donor-conceived children prefer to call their genetic father their 'donor,' to differentiate the biological funciton of fatherhood from the social one, they often feel no need to distance themselves, linguistically or emotionally, from their siblings.

DI children seem to find comfort in meeting their half-siblings. In part it may be due to the relatively scant information they have about their donor and, therefore, their physical/medical history; one-half of the "nature" part of that nature/nurture equation.

For one DI daughter, knowing one of her half-siblings has "eased her frutration of knowing only the scant information about her biological father contained in the sperm bank profile."

According to "Sperm bank officials" (Now THAT would be a title to which to aspire: "I'm an accountant down at Wells Fargo. What do you do?" "Oh, I'm in banking too! I'm a Sperm bank official.") about 30,000 kids are born to donors every year. The industry, however, is largly unregulated and so banks do not have a clear idea how many children are born to each donor and where they (kids? donors?) are.

This could cause a pesky regression in our little eugenics experiment: the potential of unwitting incest.

Theoretically, sperm banks monitor the number of children produced from each donor and their location, limiting the sample availability based on statistical sampling on a regional basis. Of course, that is all in theory, with the problem increasing with the degree of unregulated markets (not to mention labor mobility!).

Interestingly, it is the DI Kids that are calling for more regulatio on this front:

Even as the Internet is making it easier for donor-conceived children to find one another, some are calling for an end to the system of anonymity under which they were born. Sperm banks, they say, should be required to accept only donors who agree that their children can contact them when they turn 18, as is now mandated in some Eurpean countries.

Enter economic man. Presumably there are a host of reasons why anyone would donate sperm. Possibly, (as the WashingtonPost article from last June implied), it is to help infertile (or lesbian) couples conceive. Economics would argue that it ss the bottom line that matters: money, predicting that it would mainly be donated by younger, relatively poorer men whose economic alternatives are smaller. As it stands, sperm banks typically pay men $50 to $100 per sample (customers pay about $150 to $600 per vial plus shipping). So, donors, economic theory predicts, are those men whose opportunity cost of their time (15 minutes?) is less than or equal to that $50-$100 range.

Most banks charge more for "professional" donors (those with a higher degree), but it is not clear as to whether the donors get more per donation (or whether it translates into higher "productivity", i.e. pregnancies or even smarter kids for that matter).

Donors probably aren't donating with the thought of future emails from their heretofore unknown spawn 18 years later. It would be expected that relaxing the anonymity option for donors would increase their marginal costs (future discounted marginal costs?) and therefore cause a decline in donations.

More recently sperm banks have begun to charge more for the sperm from donors who agree to be contacted by their offspring when they turn 18. But they say far fewer men would choose to donoate if they were requrie to release their identity.

And you thought you'd never think about supply and demand again after college.


Sarah and BB said...

That was such a great article. My wife and I live in Europe(Germany) and are trying to conceive thru DI. We picked a donor that wants to know our future child, and he has contact with all his other "children" (when/if the parents want it). We thought it was important that our child understand it has biological parents and a family tree, not just two Mommies and donor 150. Thanks for the insight.

Taggert said...

Damn. This law would seriously increase the costs of DI. I know I wouldn't want to "donate", er I mean sell my sperm if the kids were allowed to contact me after they were 18. Well, maybe if the price were right, and it would have to be a lot higher than what it currently is. I can imagine the emotional costs 18 years from now would be large. Which makes me think that the only people willing to donate will be those with very large rates of discount. Which means old people who are about to die, or young people who think it likely they will die. Well if the law passes, you have an interesting research question, look at the rates of discount of the donors, before and after.