"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sperm Donations–Designer Babies Here We Come!

When I first heard of Harvard men and women donating their sperm and eggs for later artificial insemination, I was delighted.  Construction of the road to designer babies had begun. Now, many years later, the idea seems cute, since with the rapid advances in genetic engineering, we will soon be able to pick out DNA from Christmas catalogues and have exactly the baby we want – a combination of  the athletic ability of Michael Jordan, the business smarts of Bill Gates, the innovation of Steve Jobs, the beauty of Scarlett Johansson, and – if we can scrape enough genetic material off the bones of poor Albert Einstein, the brilliance of the smartest man in history.

For the time being, however, today’s Americans will have to take their chances with old-fashioned sperm and eggs.  I know for sure that there are women who would have signed up in an instant for some of the spunk of the Winkelvoss twins – Harvard, tall, blond, handsome, smart, athletic, and successful.  Although these women would more than likely have preferred to have one of the real Winklevosses between the sheets, either of the twins’ rooster’s contribution would do just fine.

The problem with this, of course, is that at least one of the 250 million sperm ejaculated into a test tube by a Harvard student for later use could contain the DNA of  some reprobate grand uncle and ne’er-do-well whom the donor family expunged from the genealogical record years ago.  Imagine the surprise of Mabel Huskins of Ames, Iowa, who purchased the sperm of Porter Winston III, Harvard summa cum laude, who discovered the solution to The Overture Sequence, a mathematical puzzle unsolved until 1990 when Winston figured it out in his tower dorm room at Mather House.  Instead of getting another Porter Winston III, they got a few nasty genetic bits from old Bradley Winston, an 18th Century ancestor. 

The elder Winston, wrote the Hartford Courant, had been sent to debtors’ prison but not until he had bilked ten Beacon Hill matrons of all their savings.  Bradley Winston had all the brains and charm of his great great grandson Porter, but other genes determined that he was also to be a crook of the first order, a drunk, and a womanizer.  The Winston family had disowned him back in 1734.  In fact, he was such a disgrace that he was never referred to as ‘the black sheep of the family’, or dismissed with a shrug and a ‘Well, that’s Bradley for you’.  He was wiped out.  It was as though the never existed.  “Who?”, the family would respond quizzically to any question about Bradley. “You must be mistaken”.

In any case, airbrushed from the records or not, Bradley’s DNA got passed down through an early, legitimate, and quite happy marriage to a wealthy Bostonian woman; and their offspring went on to become successful ship owners and international traders.  None of the ugly strands of father Bradley got passed on to the boys, nor to their offspring – until 1970 when they showed up in some recessive genes hidden away in the DNA of the newborn Porter.

By the time William Porter Huskins, the son of Mabel and Arkady Huskins, was 10, he had gotten into real trouble.  Despite the strong moral fiber of Mabel and her family and their attentive upbringing, Billy Huskins turned out to be a bad seed.  He was dumb, a bully, dishonest, and ugly.  Of course these traits could have come from Mabel’s family; but they did not. In 2011 after he had been convicted of murder and sent to Angola prison in Louisiana – the only prison considered ‘strict’ enough to hold him – he had some DNA scraped from his tongue by order of the District Attorney who wanted to prove that he had committed three more murders in Santa Fe.  The family, who always felt that they had been gypped, asked for a more thorough testing done of their son’s genetic material.  Analysis found that he had definitely inherited some worrisome strands from the Winston line. 

Well, ‘You pays your money, you takes your chances’; and no one promised Mabel Huskins that she would get a clone of Porter Winston III; but she and the family were downright pissed.  They sued Hobbes & Merkel Sperm Traders, Inc. for selling them damaged goods, but the firm, knowing that they were always treading on shaky legal grounds, had retained a bevy of New York lawyers, and fended off the Huskins with no difficulty whatsoever.

This kind of thing will never happen in the Designer Baby era. Even the DNA of future Michael Jordans or Albert Einsteins will be vetted, cleaned up, and processed for genetic purity.  Anyone purchasing DNA in this not-so-distant future will not be disappointed like the Huskins.

Rene Almeling, writing in the New York Times (12.1.13) is concerned about the lack of regulation of the sperm donor industry; and he is absolutely right to raise the issue.

The Journal of the American Medical Association published one case study of a healthy 23-year-old donor who transmitted a genetic heart condition that affected at least eight of 22 offspring from his donated sperm, including a toddler who died from heart failure. The American Society for Reproductive Medicine recommends genetic screening of sperm donors, and many banks do it, but the government does not require it. The risks become magnified the greater the number of children conceived from each donor.

So, tragic consequences can result from unregulated sperm donations.  The heart condition passed on by the young donor cited above is bad enough, but to unleash a killer with the deformed genes of an 18th Century reprobate like Bradley Winston, is criminal.  However, because of these unhappy outcomes, the road to perfect Designer Babies will become easier.  Women who want donated sperm from outstanding men now know enough to look beyond the Nordic good looks and intellectual and athletic achievement of the donor and to the less sexy but no less important other strands. The more the human genome is deciphered, the more congenital defects will be isolated.  Soon the list will go far beyond Down’s Syndrome and Gay Sachs Disease and include just about every other human defective trait.  It will not matter whether the twisted bits came from Bradley Winston or The Man in the Moon.  Doctors will only have to do a little DNA curettage and bada-boom, problem solved. 

What I think I like best about sperm and egg donations is the spirit of American enterprise behind them.  Smart men and women at Harvard correctly analyze their market potential and set a price for their genes.  The dorky guy who screeches on his violin at 3am, barely scrapes by with a Gentleman’s C, and who got in to Harvard on a generations-long legacy, has no resale value at all.  The Winkelvoss Twins, on the other hand, could have an IPO higher than Steve Zuckerberg’s.

There are certainly stick-in-the-muds who yell Moral Outrage at the thought of commercializing human beings; but why not? We sell our looks, brains, athletic talent, artistic ability, and business savvy all the time; and selling the DNA which is responsible for these talents is simply a refinement.

These moral sentinels howl even more at the idea of Designer Babies.  We are playing God, they protest; but rather looking at it charitably – we are all Santa’s little helpers – these neo-Puritans insist that we are usurping Divine right. Howl they though they may, the handwriting is on the wall.  There will indeed be DNA catalogues sent to all young families who will be able to mix and match to satisfy all their dreams.  Virtual programs will enable these prospective mothers and fathers to see what their cobbled offspring will look like when he is 5, 10, and 30.  Oops…Don’t like the Roman nose which looked so good on an old picture of Rudolph Valentino but kind of guinea-looking and creepy in virtual reality? No problem.  A click of the mouse and Little Baby Boy will be transformed into a cute and cuddly Justin Bieber look-alike.

The business implications of all this are staggering.  Everyone will get into the act – sperm brokers, college recruiters, investment banks, lawyers, tech firms, software whizzes, advertising agencies, and of course the federal government which will figure out how to tax and regulate everything.  Nevertheless, the core values of the enterprise are so American, that the people will have their way.  Designer babies it is.


  1. Great article that I am going to use in my (High School) English class today. I expect my students to ask me if this was all true but I couldn't find any background information e.g. on the case of Winston Porter Haskins and his crooked ancestor. I would be happy to learn more about it or just have a reference to the sources. Thanks a lot. Kai V from Cologne, Germany

  2. Sorry, but that doesn't help. Could you be more specific, please?


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