THE ACCIDENTAL OPTIMIZER

Some couples discover that only one partner can have a biological connection to their child. A sperm donor or egg donor is needed to make use of the gametes one partner does have. If they don’t adopt, lesbian mothers need a sperm donor and gay fathers need an egg donor (and a gestational mother). If they turn to a sperm or egg bank, "quality control” is built in. Sperm and egg banks screen for diseases and disabilities. But there’s more: surprisingly (to me, anyway), there are websites advertising gametes; and at these sites you can choose an awesomely talented sperm donor who looks like Keanu Reeves or an artistic egg donor who goes to an Ivy League university. If you came to the gamete bank just because you needed gametes—any gametes—is there anything wrong with optimizing while you’re at it?

Then again—backing up a bit—what about the whole practice of using other people’s gametes to make babies? Should the donor give gametes away and the recipient make use of them? Most people agree that nobody should deliberately produce whole babies for the sole purpose of helping potential adopters. It would be even worse if an infertility lab decided to implant leftover embryos in gestational surrogates, offering the babies to patients for adoption—and still worse if all of that were commercialized, with the babies advertised and sold. But most of us would go further. It’s commonly thought we should use contraception to avoid a baby being accidentally conceived, even if chances are the baby could be transferred from biological parents to adoptive parents.

One good reason we think all of this is because it’s terribly painful for most people to relinquish a child. If it’s not painful, most likely the person is in extremely difficult circumstances that interfere with being responsive. Giving away a baby is giving away part of yourself—and these are exactly the words often used by relinquishing parents. If you care about yourself and respect yourself, you’ll try hard to avoid the predicament in which that might be your best choice, all things considered.

Another reason we think baby transfers are to be avoided is because we think it’s better to come into the world being wanted and loved by your creator—wanted and loved to the point of being kept and raised. A significant number of children given up for adoption do later wrestle with the fact that they were relinquished, suffering a "natal injury” of some size, from small to large. So we have two reasons to think giving up a baby is a last resort—a good choice in some cases, but to be avoided as much as possible.

What, then, of deliberately giving away sperm or eggs, as opposed to whole babies? It seems only consistent to have the same sorts of reservations to some degree. If you are thinking about the situation realistically and sensitively, there must be some pain involved in knowing you have a child “out there” whose life you are not involved in. It’s not surprising that some donors choose distorted ways to think about what they have done. An egg donor discussed by a recipient in a New York Times magazine article describes egg donation as being akin to blood donation, as if there were no parent-child relationship at all between the donor and the future child. On the other hand, there is also a natal injury for the child to deal with, though again, perhaps a smaller one than when children are given up for adoption. (The child produced through gamete donation was never literally in the arms of one woman and then passed to another.)

Am I saying gamete donation is bad, all things considered, and should never be pursued? David Velleman does take that position in an interesting article called "Family History,” on the grounds that the natal injury involved is too severe to be justifiably inflicted. Rivka Weinberg also worries about gamete donation, arguing that the donors are responsible for the resulting children, and cannot unproblematically transfer that responsibility to recipients. On the other side of the debate, it certainly would be unfortunate to conclude that there is no ethical way for some couples (gay and lesbian couples, infertile heterosexuals) to gain access to the very great good of procreation—that procreation, for them, necessarily requires misbegotten gametes.

Setting aside the hard questions about the morality of gamete donation, let’s suppose a couple does use donor gametes. What about adding some oversight, or quality control, while they’re at it? Why not select the taller sperm donor or the smarter egg donor?

This can’t be problematic in exactly the way selecting between your own gametes is problematic, if my account of the problem is a reasonable one. The ordinary selector’s choosiness is in tension with simply wanting a child, any child, who “comes from me” By contrast, the recipient of an egg or sperm donation isn’t compromising openness to any and all of his or her own children. This may be someone who has tried long and hard to have children in the ordinary, haphazard, non-optimizing way. Or—if a same-sex couple—they are people who would be delighted if their two eggs could unite or their respective sperm could unite. They’re seeking a gamete donation instead of adopting precisely because they’d like to use the sperm or egg supplied by one partner, come what may; they aren’t choosy about the outcome of using that gamete. In fact, selectiveness about the missing gamete may not even stem from hyperconcern with the child’s attributes. It may represent, instead, a desire for some level of control, a desire that exists only because control is already so diminished in the lives of people enduring all manner of infertility treatments.

What goes on here—on the surface, shopping for better babies, with catalogs, paid concierges, and high price-tags—sounds like a Neiman Marcus for reproduction. But the reality may be rather different. It tells us something important that the couples taking gametes from these banks would often give anything to just make babies in the usual free-range fashion.

Procreative ethics is complex territory, full of technical and vexing questions. I have barely scratched the surface here, and haven’t considered any particular dilemma in detail. This has been no more than a brief visit to a very complicated set of issues. But let us move on, keeping our eyes on the big picture. One way or another, you’ve become pregnant (let’s suppose), and in about nine months you will give birth to a baby. The philosophical parent will have lots of questions about what’s going on in there—inside the uterus, where a tiny organism is changing and growing, hour by hour, day by day.

 
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