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Posthumous sperm donation and donor-conceived peoples' rights

10 February 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1034

Recent media coverage of recommendations published in The Journal of Medical Ethics regarding non-directed posthumous sperm donation highlights the ready ease with which donor-conceived people are marginalised in policy decisions about donor conception. Instead of taking fear-based, constraint-focused decisions that disenfranchise stakeholders, let's work to establish a just society that approaches donor conception without fear - a community that supports win-win policies.

According to coverage by the BBC and in the Guardian, Dr Joshua Parker, from Wythenshawe Hospital, Manchester, and Dr Nathan Hodson, from the University of Leicester, recommend that UK men be allowed to specify their sperm for posthumous donation in the UK in a manner like organ donation. The researchers argue that such an approach will address the shortage of UK donor sperm that prompts many intended parents to go abroad. Further, their solution addresses a fear possibly experienced by intended parents that their donor-conceived children may form a relationship with the donor or donor-siblings. Finally, while not explicitly stated, their recommendation also seems to address donor's possible fears about being pursued for child support.

I imagine the researchers feel they provide an exciting solution to the problem they intend to solve. Unfortunately, their framing of the problem is too narrow. Parker and Hodson's recommendation would strip donor-conceived people of the ability to contact their donor or exercise their rights to know their biological origins.

Compounding their attack on donor-conceived people, prominent media coverage from the BBC implied support for removing regulations by drawing several wrong-headed conclusions.

  • 'There is a growing shortage of donations around the country because of strict regulations.' This is a bold assertion. Sperm donation involves medical samples that need testing to ensure the health of the recipient. By creating human life, sperm donation involves the rights of the persons so conceived, including a right to know one's origins. But absent evidence in BBC coverage creates the impression that these regulations create a shortage.

  • 'In 2014, a national sperm bank serving the UK opened in Birmingham with a government grant of £77,000. Less than two years later, the bank had closed its doors and stopped recruiting donors. Only nine signed up after its launch, with one of those later dropping out.' Strangely, this report carefully avoids the logical critique, that the effort was woefully underfunded. Instead, notice the next sentence....

  • 'Since 2005, the law says that sperm donors in the UK must agree that any children born from their donations can contact them when they turn 18.' No explanation is provided for this fact, but the clear implication is that these regulations are to be blamed for the shortage.

Thus, the reader is encouraged to conclude that the government has over-regulated this space. To restore the supply, the argument follows, remove the medical protections and rights of donor-conceived people.

Because donor-conceived people can only claim their rights decades after they are conceived, and only if they are aware of the circumstances of their origin, intended parents, doctors and donors have all the power. All too often, these parties have conspired in lies and secrecy, claiming that expedience justifies sacrificing or denying the rights of the donor-conceived person, and that the fact of their existence should provoke sufficient gratitude on the part of the donor-conceived person as to merit forgiveness of those who made it possible.

At present, influenced by coverage such as the BBC's, the public appears to imagine a zero-sum game, pitting the yearnings of would-be parents (and their doctors) against seemingly hypothetical future concerns of donor-conceived people. Such twisted reasoning arises from a position of fear. And the anonymous donation industry feeds on fear, including:

  • Intended parents' fears that often centre on complications from knowing the donor's identity including competition for the child's affection, possible interference in parenting, and making sense of new relationships (such as donor-siblings);

  • Donors' fears that include being held financially or socially responsible for a child they helped create but did not plan to parent, and stigma around the act of donation.

As illustrated by this recommendation and the news coverage, in the fight for recognition of one's right to know one's origins, donor-conceived people and their allies must seek to reduce fear in order to build public sympathy. Unfortunately, donor-conceived people bear a disproportionate burden of work in this matter, as they are so easily cut-out of the decision processes, as described above.

Yet donor-conceived people can win the hearts of the public with compelling personal stories, humanising the issues, while advocating for policies that provide answers and assurances to the strongest fears of the parties in the room, parties whose decisions will be felt for lifetimes.

Let's work to reduce fear, rather than mine dead men's testicles.

Let men in Britain donate sperm after death, say ethicists
The Guardian |  21 January 2020
Sperm donations from dead men should be allowed, study says
BBC News |  21 January 2020
5 July 2021 - by Daniel Jacobson 
It didn't take long after starting to write for BioNews to realise that research into fertility and conception is less about understanding their features or mechanisms, and far more about our undeniable, unassailable right to family...
28 September 2020 - by Jen Willows 
A Scottish court has ruled in favour of a woman who wants to use her deceased husband's sperm for IVF...
17 August 2020 - by Professor Guido Pennings 
More and more fertility centres are imposing expanded carrier screening (ECS) on their gamete donors. ECS allows for the detection of the carrier status of hundreds of recessive disorders in donors who are not at an increased risk...
9 March 2020 - by Petra Nordqvist, Leah Gilman and Hazel Burke 
In common parlance, being an egg or sperm donor means donating to an anonymous stranger via a clinic or bank...
2 March 2020 - by Freddie Howell 
Anyone who donated sperm, eggs or embryos in the UK prior to the 2005 law change was promised life-long anonymity. Now in 2020, the probability of donors remaining anonymous is very much diminished, and continues to reduce, as more and more people take direct-to-consumer DNA tests...
27 January 2020 - by Alegria Vaz Mouyal 
Men should be permitted to donate their sperm after death in the same way they can donate organs, according to a new paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics...
27 January 2020 - by Dr Sonia Allan, Damian Adams and Stephanie Raeymaekers 
As we enter 2020 and countries continue to grapple with the issues raised by donor-conception and surrogacy, reflection on recent 'consultations' and 'reviews' by government, not-for-profit and United Nations (UN) organisations around the world reveal that meaningful inclusion of the voices of people born as a result of such practices is often lacking...
Comment ( - 10/02/2020)
The suggestion that posthumous donor sperm would somehow meet the demand in the UK for donor sperm is both offensive and impractical. There is a simple reason why American sperm banks provide sperm to the world; why 90% of the donor sperm used in Canada and 25% of donor sperm used in the UK originates in the USA.  It has nothing to do with open ID.  American donors are fairly compensated contrary to the allowable policies in our two countries. It seems bizarre that it is morally acceptable to some to remove sperm from a corpse and harass a grieving family than it is to pay fair compensation to a living donor. 
Dr.Art Leader, Ottawa, Canada
Comment ( - 15/02/2020)

there are so many reasons to object to this proposal, I will stick to one.  Did the authors consider who these 'donoprs' will be?  Surely older men will  be excluded, if not by regulations, by potential parents who want to avoid the addtional  risks for children of older fathers.  
So  these donors will not have died of 'natural' reasons.  The most frequent causes of death for younger men are suicide and accidents, many of which are linked to substance misuse and/or violence.    Unless the practice is defended by layers of secrecy (in the name of privacy?),  what fully informed person will agree to this?
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