In another wonderful piece of writing, Amy Harmon of The New York Times continues her exploration of the world of test-tube babies. This time, she looks at sperm donors and their offspring. People are searching for each other from both ends of this strange relationship, often with no help at all form the clinics that broker the sperm donations.

It may seem curious that as impersonal an act as donating sperm could lead to a lifetime of curiosity about the children that resulted. But if it does, perhaps the problem lies with us, and our ready acceptance of the mechanical assumptions of the test-tube baby industry that the genetic material of a woman or a man can simply be substituted for that of another. If you thought that gametes (sperm and eggs) were just biological Legos, read Amy Harmon and you will think again.

Listen to this "donor," years later: "I have this overwhelming desire to meet my genetic offspring," said John Allison, 46, a software engineer in Tucson who donated sperm for easy money as a graduate student in the mid-1980's and never had children of his own. "We'd rent a boat, we'd go fishing. I'd answer anything they had to say."

The American in vitro industry is essentially unregulated. Some other countries have rules that require or enable disclosure. It seems the pressure is growing here, partly because parents are being more candid with the children and children are seeking the same rights as adoptees (who can discover their biological parents when they are 18). Many children (or parents) have succeeded in connecting with those with whom they now have biological relationships through what seemed originally to be an entirely anonymous process. They have often to put pressure on clinics (for whom anonymity is so much simpler) to get the information. While reproductive technologies raise many ethical problems, if they can be "humanized" by our ridding ourselves of the "Legos" approach, we shall have begun to put things to rights. And we shall have the Times to thank for helping the process along.

Latest Cloning Stories

With the headline "A tempting job offer for Hwang," the English-language Korean paper the Chosun Times reports that the UFO cult the Raelians, who have claimed more than once that they have already cloned people, have offered the disgraced professor a job. Since the one thing that seems to be certain about Hwang is that he has not succeeded in cloning human embryos, and since the Raelians claim they have, this does not make much sense. But they have proved adept at gaining publicity for themselves, and that may explain everything.

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The UK's Sunday Times reports that Alison Murdoch's partner, Miodrag Stojkovic, has not just quit her team but left the country for a new post in Spain. And from that perch he is denouncing her—for getting unethical publicity for her work, without telling him, and for taking the credit for cloning embryos when all she has done is supply the eggs.

Meanwhile, the head of the Korean National Bioethics Committee has resigned, under pressure because of his role in the Hwang disaster, according to the Joongang Daily.

And Korean feminists have risen to the occasion. The Chosun Times reports that more than 30 feminist groups have called for a government investigation of egg procurement techniques in light of the Hwang scandal.


On the nanotechnology front, a new report from the Woodrow Wilson Center highlights concerns about toxicity. It seems that when you get down to the very small scale of nano, materials take on quite different properties, so existing rules and regulations may not mean much. The Washington Post quotes Clayton Teague, a key federal nano administrator, as expressing concern about the burdensome effect of new regulation unless it can be shown to be "truly inadequate." That does seem a curious criterion when the one thing we do know about nano-scale materials is that they are full of surprises.

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Life Matters columns include:

Breeding Humans Like Rabbits? | From the frying pan into the fire. (Jan. 20, 2006)
The Prospects for 2006 | Deeper into the (Christian?) biotech century. (Jan. 9, 2006)
Peter Singer Meets Dr. Hwang | The ethics of the Brave New World. (Jan. 5, 2006)
Bethlehem's Bioethics | Christmas in the early 21st century. (Dec. 22, 2005)
A Common Cause for Our Common Humanity | Left and right come together in defense of us. (Dec. 14, 2005)
Face Off—and Back On | Face transplants raise more questions than answers. (Dec. 8, 2005)
Bioethics in Narnia? | C. S. Lewis was way ahead of the curve. (Nov. 30, 2005)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
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