Many parents admit that they didn't tell their children about the circumstances of their conception to protect them from the frustration of meeting an impregnable wall of silence regarding the identity of the donor. In some cases this would even cover non-identifying information, such as medical history.
Nowadays, parents are urged to tell children of their donor-conceived status, preferably prior to adolescence. This is to promote honesty and trust and to avoid potentially destructive family secrets and a shock later in life, should the news eventually be discovered.
Many thousands of donor-conceived people suffer distress and anguish because they are not allowed to establish links to their donor parent and to one half of their biological family tree. Documented testimonies and research suggest that this can have profound psychological consequences as donor-conceived people struggle to establish a personal identity based on a continuous and coherent - rather than a patchy and fragmented - life story. But recently the donor-conceived have become increasingly vocal in calling for changes in the law.
On Wednesday 28 March, the Law Reform Committee (LRC) in Victoria, Australia, published its landmark recommendations (1) on access by donor-conceived people to information about their biological parents. The recommendations by the five Committee members (drawn from both houses and all parties) are expected to gain bipartisan support in Parliament and lead the way for reform.
They represent a world first in establishing the right of donor-conceived people to retrospective access to identifying donor information.
The LRC considered the 'legal, practical and other issues that would arise if all donor-conceived people were given access to identifying information about their donors,' regardless of the date the donation was made (page ix).
Currently in Victoria, donor-conceived people born after 1998 have access to identifying information, those born between 1988 and 1997 have access conditional upon the donor's consent, and those conceived from gametes donated prior to 1988 have no legislated right to obtain information. There is, therefore, a lack of equality before the law.
Additional LRC mandates included examining: the relevance of the donor's consent or otherwise to the release of information, in the context of the relevant ethical guidelines; any practical difficulties (for example in obtaining records prior to 1 July 1988, which would not have been stored centrally); the impact of contemplated changes on current arrangements; the impact of transfer of information from the Infertility Treatment Authority to the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages; and, lastly, implications of change under the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act of 2006.
According to the Chair, Mr Clem Newton-Brown, MP: 'The key questions that emerged were ethical'. Namely, should a donor-conceived person have access to information about his or her donor, and should he have that right even if the donor was assured he would remain confidential? (page xvii) Moreover, the role of the State in facilitating access to information regarding both donor and offspring was examined.
The LRC initially tended to side with the wishes of some donors to remain invisible. However, after considering the testimony of witnesses including donor-conceived people, gamete recipients and donors, and academics and heads of various organizations, the Committee changed its mind.
It recognised, unanimously, that the State has a responsibility to provide all donor-conceived people access to identifying information regarding their donors, regardless of when the donation took place and whether or not the donors were promised anonymity. This decision was seen to be consistent with legislation in place assuring that the welfare and interests of donor-conceived children are paramount, as well with the retrospective access to information previously granted to adopted children.
However, steps were taken to ensure that no 'unreasonable interference' occurs in donors' lives. Both donors and donor-conceived people should have the ability to place a veto on contact from each other. Moreover, comprehensive counselling for donors and 'all of the people affected by donor conception' as well as additional supportive measures were recommended (page xviii).
This is a victory not only for Victorians but for donor-conceived people everywhere, who through no fault or doing of their own, are denied their basic right to receive information regarding a biological parent's background.Bartering away such an essential right has clearly not protected their welfare, a matter that should be of prime concern for the State.