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Not in front of the children!

29 October 2012
By Dr Gillian Lockwood
Medical director, Midland Fertility Services
Appeared in BioNews 679

The recent case in which a woman called for legal changes to prevent men from donating sperm without their wife's consent (reported in BioNews 671) has already drawn interesting responses from Anna Smajdor (BioNews 675) and Stevienna de Saille (BioNews 677).

However, debates about whether gametes may be regarded as 'marital assets' - the same logic would apply if a wife chose to donate her eggs - fail to capture the essence of the woman's sense of injustice. The whole point is 'What do we tell the children?'

The children in question aren't the donor-conceived children; they may but, statistically speaking, probably will not be told be told of their origins. Rather, the question is what to tell the donor's other offspring, who may include other 'artificially' conceived half siblings or, in cases of embryo donation, full siblings.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 did many good things, but in one aspect it was disastrously misguided. Perhaps the ending of donor anonymity impacted on people's willingness to donate, but the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority's decision to increase the limits on compensation paid to gamete donors does suggest that they felt that altruism needed a little bolstering after anonymity was lost.

The requirement for parents of donor-conceived children to tell their offspring of their genetic provenance was shelved in the face of practical difficulties (and the added complexity that probably five percent of all conceptions are the result of non-paternity, or 'unofficial' sperm donation).

But if parents of donor-conceived children face a dilemma over 'telling', donors who are parents of other children face a much greater one. The central asymmetry of the Act allows a donor-conceived person at the age of 18 to access identifying information about their genetic parent or parents - and hence their children, if any. But the other children of the donor have no such reciprocal right to access information about their half or full siblings, even though their parents will know how many there are, what year they were born in and whether they are boys or girls.

Many people who have offered to become donors have asked for guidance about what they should tell their children, even if they haven't had them yet. If they don't tell their children that they have half brothers and half sisters 'out there' and then one of these gets in touch when they turn 18, what could this do to the family and its sense of trust?

But if they do tell and none of the donor-conceived children ever tries to make contact, doesn't that leave the donor's own children in exactly the same sad and incomplete place that the legislation was so keen to rescue the donor-conceived from? For they have no rights to information at all beyond the number, year and gender information available to the donor parent.

It could be argued that the donors will not ask for information about the outcome of their donations, but actually many do want to know and there is no statute of limitations on when they can ask! I am dreading the counselling implications of people who were altruistic donors in their youth and then never went on to have the family they once imagined. They may well return to the clinic to find out, many years later, what became of their eggs or sperm.

Some would-be donors are quite disappointed when they are told that it is unlikely that they will be contacted by their genetic offspring in the future. Many are surprised that the information they can receive is so limited. Disentangling motivation in human relations is difficult at the best of times and I am still saddened and taken aback when a woman who has used donor sperm to conceive sends in a photo of her child 'to be passed on to the donor so he can see what a beautiful daughter he has'.

In what sense does he 'have a daughter'? In what sense does she 'have a father' in the sperm donor? And yet, in 15 years' time, they may both consider that as the reality.

The tabloid press is full of stories of the offspring of 'one-night stands' meeting their genetic dads and finding at best, joy and, at least, some answers. Today's would-be recipients of donor gametes probably have more information about the other parent than those 'accidental' mums.

Family structures today are extremely complex and our progressive legislation facilitates the creation of all sorts of families that previously never existed. Surrogate births, posthumous births, single, gay and lesbian parenting are all possible and bring much loved and wanted children into the world, but we must remember to consider the welfare (and that means rights to information) not only of the child that 'might be born' but also of 'any child that might be affected by the birth'.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
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