Sperm donation and millions of kids

An article in the NYT yesterday about sperm donors fathering hundreds of children left me with a lot of questions. The first of course being where’s Jack Shafer when you need him? The article is, unsurprisingly, bereft of information. Despite its length, it fails to report average numbers of children fathered or any indication of how widespread the phenomenon is or even what a sperm donor earns for his ‘donation.’

Regardless, I think it brings up some really fun questions about demand for children and demand for certain traits in our children as well as throwing the marriage market for a little loop (Clearly, I’m teaching demand this week in principles). In general, literature about the marriage market indicates that humans engage in both positive assortative mating and negative assortative mating, depending on which traits we examine. For instance, we positively assortatively mate (or choose partners that are similar to us) when we look at traits like education, intelligence, attractiveness, income and wealth. It seems that we have the best chance attracting and keeping a mate who is similar to us, at least when it comes to those qualities. This wasn’t always true, at least on factors like education, and things like in-home and out-of-home work skills. In fact, there is an entire book written about negative assortative matching on certain qualities and how that contributes to our understanding of marriage and gains from specialization. Even where we do see negative assortative matching (where people choose dissimilar mates), there is often an underlying similarity that is driving the match. For instance, a debate into which I unwillingly stumbled the other night revealed that marriages between people raised in Jewish and Catholic traditions were more successful than marriages between those raised in Catholic and Protestant traditions. The argument is that the group rituals associated with Jewish and Catholic faiths are more similar in terms of fostering interdependence than rituals among different sects of Christianity, imbuing people with differing levels of individualism and thus compatibility.

But I digress. When parents, for whatever reason, choose to have a child with the help of a donor, either egg or sperm, that process of pairing biological parents through matching on similar qualities no longer occurs. Instead, we have a situation where we commodify those traits we were formerly matching on. Without the matching mechanism (regardless of how strongly you think it predicts mating patterns), the best prediction of who gets the most attractive, educated, intelligent person to provide the other half of a child’s genes is now not the most attractive, educated or intelligent person, but rather just the one willing to pay the most money.

And so, even if the proliferation of kids from a single donor is rare, it really should come as no surprise. There are likely premiums paid to sperm donors for such traits, if not, those guys really need to get their act together. If I were going to pick someone to biologically father my children, irrespective of and also ignorant of his character, attitude and ability to provide for those children, I’m sure that I’d choose the 6’2″, athletic, handsome, 150 IQ physicist over the 5’6″, dumpy, overweight, tv watching, 90IQ burger flipper. It could be that the latter would be a much better father and provider, but merely as a gene donor, I’ll take the former. And probably so would most women, and probably they would also be willing to pay more for it. I have no idea whether physicist with 150 IQs donate sperm, but even so, it’s likely that there are donors that are more in demand than others.

I realize that all of this may seem very obvious, but I’m not sure that anyone has actually looked closely at it. Of course, it may be that no one has looked at it because it’s a pretty small issue (hence my wish for Jack Shafer to call it out), or because it’s rather difficult to measure. The article itself mentions that even many sperm banks do not know how many children are actually born as a result of their work, so accurate, aggregate numbers might be hard to come by.

In college, a friend who was struggling financially looked into selling her eggs. She decided not to do it–having one’s eggs harvested is extremely hard on the body–but not before finding out that her potential offspring were quite valuable. Young, athletic, blond and wicked smart, the agency was sure they could all do quite well with her eggs. I think the only thing she could have done to increase the price of her eggs was be Jewish (apparently there are relatively very few Jewish egg donors, thus driving up their value).

Ultimately, the high demand for sperm from certain types of people is likely more easily met than demand for eggs from certain types of people; that’s why we’re talking about men fathering hundreds of children, not women. And we don’t exactly know what the consequences are of having so many children from one parent are, but this brings up a collective action problem as well. Likely, it would be better for everyone–the child himself, society as a whole, the potential half-siblings, etc–if you didn’t choose that best-qualified sperm donor. Variation in the gene pool is important for evolution, not to mention the risks (as mentioned in the article, though they are likely small) for unintentional mating between half-siblings. But it’s really best for you individually to choose that best sperm donor, especially if you don’t know that his sperm is also going to spawn 200 other children, in which case, this is really a problem of imperfect information.

I think I did too much economics this week.


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