Assisted reproductive technology (ART) surrounds us. Courts are certainly not strangers to the parentage questions that can arise out from situations made possible by ART—surrogacy, embryo donation, egg donation, and so on. Stories that revolve around ART births have hit the big and small screen: Vince Vaughn as a wildly prolific sperm donor in Delivery Man; a generation of donor-conceived half siblings in search of their biological father in MTV’s Generation Cryo; and lesbian co-parents Julianne Moore and Annette Bening in The Kids Are Alright, to name just a few. And it’s hard to pick up a celebrity or news magazine without finding some story about some complicated or controversial birth facilitated by ART.
Despite the prevalence of ART—and its incredible usefulness for people dealing with medical or social infertility—we are still learning about its safety and efficacy. More research is certainly in order; perhaps more regulation, too. Consider just these recent reports:
- Healthy Children? Are children conceived with donor sperm as healthy as their counterparts? Professor David Amor and colleagues at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Australia just published the findings of their study of 224 donor-conceived children, now ages 5 to 11. The authors conclude, reassuringly, that these children enjoy health and well-being at rates comparable to the general population.
- Healthy Egg Donors? Do egg donors face greater risks than we think? That’s the question posed by Jane Brody’s Personal Health column in the New York Times on July 10. She tells the tragic story of a smart, athletic, musician who donated eggs three times to help pay for her Stanford education. She had asked if the procedure was safe and was told yes, but, in fact, there was no available research to support that answer. Unlike sperm donors, who take no drugs and undergo no medical procedures, egg donors are injected with hormones to stimulate ovulation before undergoing an invasive medical procedure to harvest the eggs. The donor was diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer at 29, from which she died two years later. Her mother has become a strong advocate for a registry that would track egg donors over their lives and facilitate the collection of long-term health information. Clearly, more research is needed, particularly as egg donation becomes more common and women are increasingly likely to freeze their own eggs (requiring them to undergo the same process as a donor) in order to delay childbearing.
- Healthy Sperm Counts? Why are sperm counts dropping across the globe? A study of sperm counts in China recently revealed that they have dropped precipitously in recent decades. Coupled with China’s elimination of the one-child policy (families are now allowed to have two), the infertility associated with low-sperm counts is spurring record demand for fertility treatments. China is not alone. The New York Times ran an article in March, the online version of which subjects the reader to a dizzying video of a “sperm under the influence of an endocrine disrupting chemical in sunscreen,” reporting that about ninety percent of sperm in a typical young man are now misshapen—two heads, two tails, or some other deviation from normal structure. Changes in quality and quantity have been noted. And a massive meta-study just revealed that the counts are declining at a rapid rate in Western countries, most likely due to chemical exposure.
- Healthy Older Moms? Earlier this week, it was reported that a 59-year-old woman gave birth to a full-term baby, conceived with a donor egg and her husband’s sperm, after four unsuccessful decades of trying to get pregnant. A study in Ireland showed that the number of women over age 50 giving birth has tripled since 2007; the number over age 45 has more than doubled. The study credits longer lifespans and advances in ART.