Hazel McHaffie

sperm donation

Father to thirty?!

Wow! The garden has gone from nought to sixty in one fell swoop. Everything is burgeoning and sprouting and bursting into colour, the birdsong has racheted up to symphony standard, the sunshine exceeding the benefits of any pharmacological tonic.

I’ve been alternating writing indoors with reading outside (when I’ve not been weeding and pruning and artistically directing, or course!) and loving the exhilaration of both. So it’s probably not surprising that, surrounded by all this new life and activity, my mind instantly latched onto a report about a different form of creation: babies.

This week it’s been revealed that a diminishing number of sperm donors are fathering eye-watering numbers of children. Now, as long ago as sixteen years (can it really be?!) I wrote a novel about the risks of this phenomenon: Paternity, so it’s a subject I’ve thought about long and hard. But even for me the statistics were like a cold water douche.

Figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) show that, in a period of 24 years (1991-2015):
17 British men have fathered at least 30 babies each,
a further 104 have fathered between 20 and 29,
1,557 between 10 and 19,
and more than 6,000 have created up to 9 babies.

Though these men are offering hope to many many childless women/couples, huge risks are inherent in such practices. Obvious ones are passing on undetected hereditary diseases and risks, and half-brothers and -sisters forming sexual relationships and procreating together. Donated sperm are currently tested for diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, CJD, Huntington’s and cystic fibrosis, but not for genes indicating increased risk of cancers or Altzheimer’s. In the face of the latest statistics, campaigners are calling for more stringent enhanced screening to try to reduce the incidence of faulty genes being passed on, but representatives from the world of assisted conception caution that further screening could reduce the number of donors coming forward or being deemed eligible to donate, already worryingly low.

Research in this area is complicated, not only by the powerful emotions and opinions and ethics around infertility, but also by the fact that sometimes the full consequences of what is permitted in this area are not fully apparent until a generation or more has gone by – which is why I felt compelled to write a sequel to Paternity: Double Trouble. And once you start tinkering with genes it can be impossible to repair any damage done.

So, what d’you think? Just how much control or interference should there be? What are the rights and interests of the babies as well as the parents, donors and recipients? What makes a man a father? Which diseases are worse than non-existence? Who decides?

Now there’s a little package of ethical conundrums to conjure with while you watch birds and animals multiplying prolifically all around you! Welcome to my world!

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Moral obligation

Every now and then something crops up that challenges my thinking on ethical issues, and I’m reminded all over again that these questions are always evolving and it behoves me to stay on my toes and constantly revisit them.

This week it was a half day seminar on ‘Leaving your brain to science: Engaging with law and ethics’, organised by Edinburgh University. Now, although I’ve been immersed in the subject of organ donation for the last few years, as you know, I hadn’t explored giving the brain specifically, so I was intrigued to know what would emerge. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’d like to share something of the workshop that concluded the day.

It focused on moral obligation. We were given a collection of possible actions which might be of benefit to others and asked to rank them in order. At one end was ‘MORAL OBLIGATION’ which essentially meant the action is of recognised benefit to others with very little risk to oneself, making it something where there is a high level of obligation to carry it out (eg. on finding a fire one should summon the fire brigade). At the other end of the scale was ‘MORAL SUPEREROGATION’, meaning that the action might well be deemed praiseworthy, but it carries risks of such an order that there would be no obligation to do it (eg. rushing into a blazing building to rescue someone); it goes way beyond what might be considered a duty.

Rating moral obligationThe actions to be ranked were:

Live organ donation

Cadaveric organ donation

Egg donation

Sperm donation

Giving samples of tissue for research

Bone marrow donation

Donating the brain for research

Blood donation

How did YOU respond?Why don’t you try it yourself? Weigh up the potential benefits and costs and see where you feel a sense of duty/moral obligation takes YOU. You might well be surprised – as I was – at where ‘giving your brain after death‘ comes.


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