September 25, 2005
Couples Too Busy For Sex Opt For IVF

An article in the Daily Telegraph reports on women who are too busy for sex who opt for in vitro fertilization (IVF) to start pregnancies.

Wealthy career women in their 30s and early 40s, some of whom have given up regular sex altogether, are turning to "medicalised conception" - despite being fertile and long before they have exhausted the possibility of a natural conception.

People want everything now.

Emma Cannon, who runs the fertility programme at Westover House, said: "I have patients who diary sex in. When the they don't fall pregnant they panic and think they need IVF.

"People want everything now. If they can't have a baby now, they want IVF. They think it's no different from putting your name down for a handbag. Some people are horrified by the idea that they have to have sex two to three times a week. About 10 per cent of people I see don't have time to have sex. It's usually when you have two professionals who are based in the city and are very busy.

In some cases one member of the couple works away from home and they only see each other on weekends.

I'd like to know what percentage of the women doing this are using sperm bank sperm. I've made the argument that once DNA sequencing becomes cheap women will have much greater incentive to use sperm bank sperm to start pregnancies. Why? Greater satisfaction with the resulting child. By choosing among a much larger set of men for sperm that they could not get as husbands women will be able to get DNA for their pregnancies that satisfies many more of the preferences they have for their offspring in terms of hair color, eye color, facial shape, physical build, personality, behavioral tendencies, risk for diseases, and intelligence.

Women who are willing to separate sex from reproduction and who also are willing to separate having a marriage from reproduction are prime candidates in the future for the use of sperm donors to start pregnancies. Those women who opt for the advantages of DNA tested donor sperm will make the first big step toward human genetic optimization. After that step comes genetic engineering techniques done to sperm, eggs, and embryos which will usher in a still more rapid rate of change to the human gene pool.

So when will a substantial number of women start opting for genetically tested sperm? Probably within 5 years of very cheap DNA testing. Once each person can have their entire genome tested for, say, $100 then the significance of most genetic variations will be identified within a few years and then the sperm banks will be able to offer much more detailed genetic profiles of donors. This information will greatly enhance the perceived advantages of some donors and will also lead to more aggressive measures to seek out donors with the most wanted genetic characteristics. Sperm banks will compete on the basis of their ability to supply the most number of genetic preferences that each woman customer specifies.

Update: Someone asks in the comments how can people who do not have time for sex find time to raise a child? My guess is that for the higher income types who can't find the time for sex nannies are pretty much de rigueur.

We also see here an obvious market for artificial wombs. Many women who can't be bothered to have sex to get pregnant will probably want avoid slowing down for a pregnancy. Avoid the need to shop for maternity clothes. Avoid bladder problems and stretch marks. Avoid the need to go on a strict diet. The advantages are too numerous to pass up. Plus, the actual birth process even interrupts attempts to keep up business negotiations on cell phones. Can't have that.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 September 25 11:56 AM  Bioethics Reproduction

John said at September 25, 2005 1:28 PM:

From my own experience I learned that people who claim not to have time for something often don't want to make time, they just have different priorities.

But if you don't have time for sex, where do you find time to raise a child?

Randall Parker said at September 25, 2005 2:27 PM:


I wondered the same thing. My guess is they hire nannies.

me said at September 25, 2005 5:17 PM:

I recall that there was a project to set up a sperm bank which only had sperm from nobel prize winners a while back. Sperm banks as they are already do a fair amount of genetic screening.

A Berman said at September 25, 2005 6:06 PM:

Two points:
1) The way to get pregnant isn't to have sex several times a week. It's to have intercourse several times a DAY during the 3 or so days of optimum fertility. The other times don't matter.

2) Couples who claim not to have time for sex are actually saying they don't have time for sex with each other-- they're usually both having sex in some form or another, be it vibrators, porn, or extra-curricular quickies that take less time and emotional energy.


Phillep said at September 25, 2005 6:24 PM:

Biological fathers are being held absolutely responsible for paying child support, creating certain problems with sperm banks.

Fly said at September 25, 2005 6:29 PM:

“I recall that there was a project to set up a sperm bank which only had sperm from nobel prize winners a while back.”

A couple of decades ago the Nobel sperm bank was announced and several of us were discussing it at a university biochemistry department party. A couple of the women were PhD’s doing work in genetics. I thought they’d be very supportive of the sperm bank. Those PhD women had no interest in the sperm bank. As they expressed it, the emotional connection with the father was more important than the genes.

The following Salon article describes how the project fared. The most important result seems to be that the project significantly improved the quality of the average sperm donor bank. Competition helps the marketplace.

The "Genius Babies," and How They Grew

Randall Parker said at September 25, 2005 6:46 PM:


Do you have any URLs to support your claim that sperm bank fathers are being held responsible for child support? I have never heard this before.


Women will become more supportive of the sperm bank approach when they become able to compare in great deal the genetic sequences of potential mates with genetic sequences of sperm bank donors.

Rob said at September 25, 2005 7:14 PM:

I'm not sure men will readily go along with the program. Sure, high powered woman wants stratospheric-quality sperm, but how will her husband feel? If she isn't in a relationship, moms aren't the hot dating commodity they imagine themselves to be.

Another thing, embryo selection lets both parents be genetically related to the child, with a decent improvement on many heritable traits (IQ, appearance, height)

Randall Parker said at September 25, 2005 8:29 PM:


I certainly think only a small fraction of women will go the route of using sperm donors. But for that small fraction the result will be smarter, better looking, and healthier kids.

Among blacks in America illegitimacy is over 68% and even among whites illegitimacy is over 20%. Husband? What husband?

Moms who aren't hot dating commodities: But a lot of women in their 30s already find themselves unable to find Mr. Right and hear their biological clock ticking loudly. They despair of the dating scene but still want kids. Some women go out and intentionally get themselves knocked up by one night stands. I know a woman who did this in her 30s.

Also, a lot of women get themselves knocked up in relationships that they know won't last. With really good genetic testing they'll have better alternatives.

Bob Badour said at September 25, 2005 11:04 PM:

And don't forget the possibilities for clandestine donors. "I want a genius decathlete who doesn't even understand what it means to be sick. Oh, and he has to have chestnut brown hair, a square jaw, dimpled chin and green eyes to match his father."

Dave Milovich said at September 26, 2005 3:26 AM:

"Clandestine donors"? Not gonna happen. Paternity testing is one the coarsest kinds of genetic tests. Googling "paternity test," I found sites selling mail-in, 99.9% accurate paternity tests for less than $200. These sites also pointed out how easy it is to get the needed tissue samples covertly. Today, the only thing preventing a paternity test is lack of suspicion. Moreover, within a generation, detailed genetic testing for purposes of medical diagnosis and risk assessment will be universal among developed nations. As a side effect, paternity testing will also be universal.

Fly said at September 26, 2005 12:03 PM:

Rob:“Another thing, embryo selection lets both parents be genetically related to the child, with a decent improvement on many heritable traits (IQ, appearance, height)”

Embryo selection is useful for weeding out a couple of very harmful gene alleles that cause severe birth defects. I doubt it will be very effective for selecting for particular traits.

First you could examine the parent chromosomes to look for candidates. Presumably you’d do this by looking at gene alleles that correlate with IQ. (Assume that the gene alleles that contribute to high IQ follow a power law so that at least a few make a substantial contribution and that those gene alleles are known. Further assume that the gene allele affects are additive and don’t depend on the presence of other gene alleles.)

For each autosome pair you’d need to compare the four possible combinations of autosomes. Based on the total affect of gene alleles present on a chromosome you’d determine an IQ score for each combination. So for each autosome there would be a most desired and a least desired combination of chromosomes. (I’m ignoring recombination.) In many cases there would be little difference. (If good parental chromosomes aren’t there then they aren’t going to be in any of the embryos. Or if all the chromosomes in the parents are good then the offspring chromosome pairs in the embryo will already be optimal. Assortative mating makes such outcomes more probable.) You could then rank all the combinations. If (and that is a big IF) there are few autosomes for which the IQ difference for different combinations is high then selecting embryos for those particular combinations should significantly increase IQ.

If you are searching for a particular autosome combination either half or a quarter of the embryos should have that combination. So searching for the top three autosome combinations might require searching through 4**3 embryos. (Or you could examine all the chromosomes of a fixed number of embryos, e.g. 100, and take the one embryo with the best IQ score.) It is not clear how the potential parent would get so many non-identical embryos. (Trying to select for even more traits such as height compounds the difficulty.)

How well would this screening process work?

It depends on the breeding population. (The breeding population is who actually mates. There are “leaky” barriers of race, culture, SES, attractiveness, IQ, etc. that separate a total population into a substructure of breeding populations.) If the breeding population has little chromosomal diversity for IQ, then screening won’t have much affect. On the other hand, if one percent of that breeding population has significantly higher IQ than the breeding population average then screening should be effective. (Also, selecting embryos won’t account for environmental contributions to IQ.)

My guess is that the knowledge of how DNA influences brain development and function will lead to nutritional, drug, and training enhancements that will be more effective at increasing IQ than will embryo screening.

palecur said at September 26, 2005 12:03 PM:

A Berman, I'm curious about your assertion that sex multiple times a day is optimal for conception. It takes about 48 hours to properly recharge the sperm -- unless these multiple sex encounters are with different men, and then you have foreign-sperm spermicide problems to deal with*, any sessions after the first one of the day is going to be shooting so close to blanks as to not be worth bothering with, compared to the first one.

It's also not every 40ish year old man who is even physically capable of going 3 to 4 times in a single day, however willing the spirit. At 31, 3 is my realistic limit, 4 with extraordinary encouragement -- but that'd be strictly for fun, because shots 2, 3, and 4 are going to be strictly pro forma, as far as reproductive material goes.

* Sperm from different men are slightly mutually toxic, I believe Randall himself posted a link to the story a few years ago.

Randall Parker said at September 26, 2005 12:50 PM:


I agree with your points on embryo selection. One has to make all those embryos. One has to grow them up far enough to get a cell out of each embryo to test. Also, IQ will be just one of many traits that will be desired. An embryo could test as having high IQ potential but also have alleles for crooked teeth, unattractive face, higher risk for allergies, asthma, and cancer, and other undesired traits.

A woman who wants it all will want to start with donor sperm that has lots more desirable alleles and then do embryo selection on top of the use of ideal donor sperm.

epobirs said at September 27, 2005 2:01 PM:

Sperm from different men aren't just mutually toxic. They attack each other! I cannot find a link at the moment and need to go to work momentarily, but the gist is that there are three different types of sperm produced. Two of those varieties react to foreign sperm by attempting to entangle them and keep them from reaching the egg. Researchers have managed to catch this behavior on film and it's a remarkable thing to see that also makes one ponder the role of promiscuity in our species.

There is surely far more detail available but as I said, I'm off to work.

Mthson said at September 28, 2005 2:03 PM:

Though artificial wombs are a long ways away, surrogate pregnancies today seem to potentially be a more economic investment for higher-income couples than traditional pregnancies --though many of us would certainly stick with the latter for its emotional desireability. In economic terms, this would just be another example of the economics of outsourcing labor.

jmgordon said at September 28, 2005 3:07 PM:


Following cut from December 1999 issue of Science:

No Evidence for Sperm Wars

Remember that '60s refrain, "Make love, not war"? For sperm, some scientists say, love and war are one and the same. According to the so-called kamikaze sperm hypothesis, sperm from different men hanging out in the same vagina may sabotage each other in the run for the egg. New findings, however, cast doubt on this idea.

In many species, from fruit flies to humans, females sometimes mate with multiple males in such quick succession that sperm of various appellations find themselves vying for the same prize. That phenomenon has prompted a sexual arms race: Mammals such as chimps have evolved larger testicles to churn out more sperm, for instance, while some insects use part of their reproductive apparatus to scrape out enemy sperm before depositing their own. Fruit flies poison the competition with a toxic protein in their seminal fluid.

Noticing that sperm in a mixed sample tends to clump together--making it less mobile--and to have a high mortality rate, reproductive biologist Robin Baker, formerly of the University of Manchester, proposed about a decade ago that some mammals, including humans, manufacture "killer" sperm whose only function is to attack foreign spermatozoa, destroying themselves in the process.

To test this idea, reproductive biologist Harry Moore and evolutionary ecologist Tim Birkhead of the University of Sheffield in the U.K. mixed sperm samples from 15 men in various combinations and checked for how the cells moved, clumped together, or developed abnormal shapes. "These are very simple experiments, but we tried to mimic what goes on in the reproductive tract," Moore says. The team found no excess casualties from any particular donor or other evidence of warring sperm, they report in the 7 December Proceedings of the Royal Society. "The kamikaze sperm hypothesis is probably not a mechanism in human sperm competition," says Birkhead.

The findings are "the nail in the coffin for the kamikaze hypothesis," says Michael Bedford, a reproductive biologist at Cornell University's Weill Medical Center in New York City. He says he had never given the idea much credence. But Birkhead maintains that kamikaze sperm might exist in species where promiscuity is the norm and competition is intense. The toxic sperm of fruit flies, he says, "tells us that almost anything is possible when it comes to reproduction."

jcrack said at September 29, 2005 5:23 PM:

I find it hard to believe there are "couples" too busy to conceive children. Sounds more like an economic functionality out of THX1138 than a coupling. Imagine the man abstaining from sex months at a time: they call it "blueballs". And what woman will put up with such a shared living relationship, except under court order? These couples are probably not couples at all but rather statistical inventions in glossy magazines, that perpetuate the view that young urbanites always "get it" every week, the only disagreements being how often they do it, or whether they prefer dark brunettes or redheads. The picky ones never get it, and if they are so protective of their "busy" lifestyles, no amount of sperm banking will ever reach the required minimum. There are a million euphonious excuses for this situation like "I never found the right guy", but this can't disguise the miserable statistic that western society can't find the energy to replace its numbers,which is the real news in science.

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