27 February 2012
ByAppeared in BioNews 646
Directed by Jennifer Lahl
Available from the Anonymous Father's Day website
As a generation of donor-conceived children reach adulthood, Anonymous Father's Day looks at donor conception from the perspective of the children. It follows three donor conceived people who are actively raising awareness of donor conception, and the rights of donor-conceived children.
The short documentary, by Jennifer Lahl of the Centre for Bioethics and Culture, questions how well donor conceived children's health, wellbeing and rights are taken into consideration within the fertility industry in the United States, where anonymous sperm donation remains common practice.
Both the filmmakers and interviewees come to predominantly negative conclusions - not just about the regulation and practices of the fertility industry, but of the practice of donor conception itself. The film paints a bleaker picture of donor conception than I expected, considering recent research into donor-conceived people's experiences. It could certainly do more to provide context and highlight international examples of good practice designed to protect the rights and wellbeing of donor-conceived children.
It is interesting and refreshing, however, to hear the voices of the children conceived by donation, when so much media attention tends to focus on a couple's struggle to conceive, and the film succeeds in raising awareness of their experiences. As Stephanie Blessing, Barrie Stevens and Alana S discuss their experiences, they express unease about their own conception, the possibility of discovering numerous half siblings and about the commercial aspect of sperm and egg donation.
They describe their motivations for searching for their anonymous donors: from believing in the right to know and contact their biological parents, a feeling of 'genealogical bewilderment' and an incomplete sense of identity - from not knowing their biological father, to seeking information about family medical history.
The film also includes an interview with Elizabeth Marquardt, author of the report 'My Daddy's Name Is Donor', and Vice President for Family Studies at the Institute for American Values. As she discusses her report (reviewed in BioNews 567), based on a survey of donor-conceived and adopted individuals, she reiterates the opinions of the other interviewees.
What is not discussed in the film is the growing body of peer-reviewed research exploring the experiences and feelings of donor-conceived individuals about their conception and family relationships. Much of this research is based on samples from the Donor Sibling Registry, a not-for-profit website set up in 2000 for donors, children and parents to search for, and connect with, their genetic relatives.
This research creates a more complex picture of the experiences of donor-conceived children than suggested here, including a range of emotions about their conception, from frustration, anger, and confusion; to curiosity, acceptance, and happiness (1). According to such studies, most express an interest in contacting their anonymous donor, and the majority of those who have succeeded in contacting their donor or donor half-siblings report positive experiences (2, 3).
It would be a richer and more balanced film if a wider range of perspectives were presented, specifically some of the positive experiences of donor conception, which patently do exist.
The documentary finishes by asking: 'Can we draw any conclusions?' My answer would be: 'No, not from the limited information and views presented in the film'. Without providing some context in terms of the current regulation of assisted conception, it is difficult for the viewer to engage with the film's conclusions, or form a critical opinion.
The interviewees would like to see anonymous sperm donation banned; a limit to the number of children born from one donor; and the establishment of a donor registry. Although there is minimal regulation of the fertility industry in the US, many other countries – including Sweden, Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom - have adopted some or all of these policies and the film could discuss whether they have been successful in promoting the rights and wellbeing of donor-conceived children.
As for my conclusion, Anonymous Father's Day provides an introduction to the issues surrounding anonymous sperm donation and the perspectives of donor-conceived children. But without further context about the regulation of donor conception in the United States and elsewhere, or a greater discussion of the research into the experiences of donor-conceived children, it isn't giving us a very balanced, or informative, overview.