The Inevitability of Infertility Eugenics
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As we all know, eugenics is the worst thing imaginable. Yet, over a million Americans alive today are the result of sperm and/or egg donations. In those cases, somebody had to choose for some reason which sperm or eggs to use (except, arguably, in the rare cases where a system to insure randomness was devised). So, the issues raised by infertility treatments are extremely interesting, as commenter noyb points out:

A few years ago, I attended a number of informational meetings for people considering using egg or sperm donors. The format was always the same. Some doctors and lawyers would talk about the medical and legal issues. Then there would be a panel of 3 to 5 couples or single parents who had used donors. They would talk about their experience and answer questions from the audience. One of the questions was always how they had chosen their donor. All but one (more about this odd couple later) described spending days or weeks poring over catalogs of donors. As Chase says, the catalogs contained detailed family histories and information about health, education and athletic achievements for each donor, a picture of the donor and, always for egg donors and usually for sperm donors, an essay by the donor about herself or himself.

Of the parents who used egg donors, all but one (the odd couple) said that they would not consider any donor who did not show proven exceptional intelligence. They focused on IQ’s, SAT scores, GPA’s (all must be very high), schools attended (only the most selective colleges) and academic majors (a preference for hard majors where a high GPA really means something, rather than soft majors where everybody receives high grades). Parents who used sperm donors were less likely to say intelligence was their top consideration. Many were more concerned about the subjective factors revealed in the personal essays. Artistic talent and athletic ability were the most sought after, but there were also a lot of parents who said that they had chosen a sperm donor whose essay seemed to indicate that he was a happy person. Not surprisingly, lesbians often focused on idiosyncratic factors. Many excluded men who sounded dominant or athletic. I remember one lesbian couple in particular who said that they had excluded all men who reported having body hair. A few lesbians, though, said that they had specifically selected dominant, athletic donors.

I assume the difference between egg and sperm donees reflected the fact that using an egg donor is a very expensive process that costs $80,000 to $100,000 and sometimes much more. The parents who used egg donors were therefore all rich professionals who thought intelligence was the most important thing in the world. Using a sperm donor is a much cheaper process, costing only a few hundred dollars (and costing nothing for those who use the turkey baster method with a male friend as donor), so parents using sperm donors had a much broader range of incomes and were much more likely not to worship intelligence above all else. You also can’t ignore the fact that professionally accomplished fathers tend to be very competitive and usually seem to take the lead role in choosing egg donors, while mothers tend to be much less competitive and take the lead in choosing sperm donors.

One thing that both groups cared a lot about was appearance. They wanted good-looking donors. Most also wanted a donor who looked like the infertile parent, so that the child would look like the genetic offspring of both members of the couple. This was even true of gay and lesbian couples — one member of the couple would provide the sperm or womb and the donor would look like the other parent — despite the fact that, of course, everybody would know that it was physically impossible for the child to be genetically related to both parents.

The odd couple took a different approach. They pointed out that regression to the mean created a large chance that even the smartest egg donor would not produce an exceptionally smart child. They said they suspected that parents who selected for intelligence (or beauty or athletic ability, etc.) and whose child turned out to be average or less would feel as if they had not gotten their money’s worth. (This seems pretty likely to me, considering who the parents were.) The odd couple hadn’t wanted to take the chance of feeling that way about their own child. Reasoning that all of the donors had been screened for good health, they had just opened the catalog and chosen the donor who appeared on the first page they saw. I had to respect them for that, although I wouldn’t have the strength of character to do the same myself.

As an aside, the reason why using an egg donor is so expensive is that, in most states where the use of surrogate mothers is legal, the law allows her to change her mind and keep the child if it is genetically hers but not if it isn’t. As a result, the almost universal practice is to use both an egg donor and a surrogate (the “carrier”) who is not genetically related to the donor. Both the donor and the carrier receive large fees (donation involves a month of taking a bunch of different hormones and drugs several times a day on a rigid schedule). Then, expensive medical professionals fertilize the egg and implant it in the surrogate. There is a very high failure rate, so the process often must be repeated several times, sometimes involving more than one donor or surrogate, all at additional high cost. Also, implantation of multiple fertilized eggs results in a very high incidence of twins and triplets, which involves the expense of raising more than one child for those parents (they looked like a majority to me) who were unwilling to abort (or “reduce,” as the euphemism goes) the extras.

A few times, prospective parents in the audience announced that they were going to avoid this expense and use just one woman, a surrogate who would both conceive and carry the child. The lawyers always warned them not to do that. One lawyer said, “If you go ahead with this idea, the surrogate can keep the child and in my experience they will do that 100% of the time.”

I suspect cognitive dissonance / buyer’s regret might be a very real issue in this kind of selection process where prospective parents pick from a catalog but then, due to regression toward the mean and other vagaries, don’t get what they expected to get.

I wonder if for something this important, you might not want to create an elaborate system for selection.

The Republic of Venice had very complicated rules for picking its rulers, even ones mandating a certain level of randomness. And they seemed to work pretty well, considering how long Venice prospered in a tough neighborhood.

I could imagine an infertile husband and wife doing something like the following to select a sperm donor to minimize feelings of regret that your child isn’t what you thought you were buying.

  • Look through old catalogs to get a sense of what traits are available.
  • Draw up a list of priorities
  • Choose the wisest relative from each side of the family, probably an aunt or an uncle of each spouse rather than a mother-in-law, to do the actual selection from the catalog. (My wife and I probably would have spent about 60 seconds reaching an agreement to ask her Aunt Ellen and my Aunt Fran. In contrast, if you can’t come to an agreement on something that ought to be pretty easy to achieve a consensus upon, maybe you should rethink the whole baby thing.)
  • Have the two wise elders get together and go through the latest catalog using the couples’ priority lists. They should pick, say, the three best candidates, then choose randomly among the three.
  • The elders should be reticent: “We couldn’t find any donor who quite matched all your priorities, but we did our best and we are sure you’ll love your child.”

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