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Do we have a right to know our genetic parents?

26 July 1999

By Juliet Tizzard

Director, Progress Educational Trust

Appeared in BioNews 018
This week's BioNews includes news from the UK that the government is planning to put an end to sperm and egg donor anonymity. The news has been greeted with a considerable amount of concern, particularly from infertility clinics and patients worried that a change in the law will mean a massive drop in the supply of donated sperm and eggs. Others, most notably Lord Winston of Hammersmith, have asked for evidence which shows that children born of sperm and egg donation are damaged in some way by being denied knowledge of their genetic parents. Since there is no such evidence, they argue, a change in the law is not justified.

These concerns about putting an end to gamete donor anonymity seem valid enough. Current sperm donors in particular are unlikely to relish the idea of a child born as a result of their donation contacting them some 18 years down the line. And it does seem rather rash to contemplate such a seismic shift in gamete donation services for an unsubstantiated concern about the welfare of the resulting children. Practicalities are very important, but surely principles need discussing too.

Those arguing for an end to donor anonymity say that everyone has a right to know their genetic parents. But is this true? Children might feel a need for such information and they might feel cheated if they know they are being denied it. But whether they have a right to it is another matter altogether. We all assume that the people that say they are our parents, really are genetically related. We trust that our parents have been truthful with us. But whether parents are truthful is up to them and them alone. If the government compelled parents to tell their children everything about their conception, we would live in a rather draconian world.

People who campaign for an end to donor anonymity rely heavily upon adoption to bolster their arguments. If adopted children have a right to know their genetic heritage, they argue, then why should children born of gamete donation not have the same right? But if a child has a right to seek out its genetic parents, it is a right which does not apply in gamete donation.

When a child is put up for adoption, it has a right to be cared for because that child is a legal entity with interests and needs of its own. When that child discovers that it was adopted, it may feel distressed or bewildered in the knowledge that its genetic mother could not or would not care for it. But this possible distress is not based upon the fact his mother is genetically related to him. Rather, it is because she carried the child in her womb, she gave birth to him and she handed him over to the adoption agencies. The mother and the child had, if only briefly, a relationship.

None of this applies in gamete donation. An egg donor does not become a mother  by donating her eggs, just as a sperm donor does not become a father by donating his sperm. A gamete donor has no relationship with the resulting offspring any more than in the most limited, biological sense. Anyone who maintains that adoption and donation are the same runs the risk of arguing that sperm and eggs are as important and real, living children. But they are not and they never will be. It would be a terrible thing if, in all the debate about the supposed rights of children to know their genetic heritage, the importance of social parenting - rather than mere genetics - were undermined.

Juliet Tizzard is the Founder of BioNews and was formerly Director of the charity that publishes it, the Progress Educational Trust (PET). She is coauthor of Key Issues in Bioethics (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Designer Babies: Where Should We Draw the Line? (buy this book from Amazon UK).


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