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Response to Ben Saer

20 May 2013
By Olivia Montuschi
Co-founder of Donor Conception Network
Appeared in BioNews 705

Having just returned from the States, I thought at first it was the jet lag. Surely the BioNews article I was reading couldn't possibly contain that many completely unsubstantiated assertions and assumptions? But a second reading, when more compos mentis, revealed that it did.

In addressing egg-donation dad-to-be Ben Saer's points, it is hard to know where to start. In the first paragraph he applauds British Columbia Court of Appeal's decision to disallow retrospective access to donor records for donor-conceived children. 'Anonymity, guaranteed to the donor at the time of conception, was rightly respected', he asserts. In the next paragraph he regrets that such respect is not afforded to donors in the UK, completely failing to mention that current donors in this country donate under different conditions and accept that identifiability is part of the deal, and that donor records cannot be accessed retrospectively in this country either.

Nowhere in the world are donors forced to donate their eggs or sperm. In the UK, it is by-and-large a completely free choice to do so, although some might argue that prevailing economic conditions and the recent raising of the 'compensation' levels for donation might introduce a coercive element. Mostly, it is a choice freely made.

Saer parrots the long-standing media myth that 'the ending of donor anonymity in the UK cut supply overnight'. The nuances of the situation are missed - it was the attitudes and actions of many doctors that caused the shortage, not the change in law. Doctors, fearing that access to sperm donors would dry up, put the fear of God into donors with nightmare scenarios of children turning up on their doorsteps. In this way, clinics ran down their practices and many decided not to carry on.

It took two pioneering clinics changing the way that sperm donors were recruited to show that it was perfectly possible to recruit men willing to be identifiable. Similarly, egg donor shortages had always been a problem, with clinics being reluctant to put resources into recruitment. The National Gamete Donation Trust is quite clear that when the need for egg donors is publicised, suitable women willing to be identifiable do come forward. In fact, many clinics in the UK now have a surfeit of egg donors.

This raises the question of why Saer and his wife chose to go abroad, presumably to the Czech clinic he is now promoting as part of his business. Was it because they could not find a donor in the UK or was it because they were seeking an anonymous donor? His antipathy towards state intervention in assisted reproduction leads me to assume the latter.

Saer goes on to criticise the Nuffield report not only for not recommending a review of donor anonymity but also for the encouragement of donors to re-register as identifiable saying, 'hectoring them to come forward is intrusive and probably illegal'. There are of course no plans to hector donors in any way. It does seem reasonable, however, to have a high-profile campaign pointing out how valuable it could be to some donor-conceived people if they did re-register, but only if they choose to do so. It seems to me that donors who take on the responsibilities associated with identifiability are the real heroes here.

This brings us to the needs of the children, who in Saer's world don't appear to be offered any choices at all. In what feels like a veiled reference to the Donor Conception (DC) Network, Saer accuses 'countless websites, some with charitable status' of asserting that donor-conceived children face an identity crisis later in life. The DC Network has never claimed this - and indeed all the children of the founders, including mine, are highly unlikely to ever have any identifying information because they were conceived before 1991. These young adults are doing well and have not suffered identity crises. But there are many donor-conceived people who do feel that knowledge about their donor would help them understand themselves in a more profound way.

Even if they have no wish to actually find the donor, most donor-conceived young people have a curiosity about those who contributed to their existence. Those conceived in the UK since 2005 will have a choice about what level of information to have. They, and those conceived since 1991, are able to have contact with others conceived via the same donor if they choose to do so. These choices are not available to children conceived in the Czech Republic and elsewhere that anonymity prevails.

Saer naively assumes that 'good parenting will alleviate most emotional difficulties', and this is a position I have some sympathy with, as many parents in the DC Network hope that early telling and good parenting will somehow curb curiosity. Before actually becoming parents, recipients of donor gametes often worry that their child might reject the non-genetic parent. Experience, however, has shown that many young people live with the curiosity without being obsessed by it and children do not reject either of their parents because of donor conception. Good parenting is of course supportive and protective in many ways, but it does not resolve the desire of some teenagers to know more about the person who helped create them.

Young people who were conceived prior to 1991, like my daughter, know that the culture was different then: that we, their parents, had no choices offered to us with regard to donors and that donor anonymity was the only possible option. Nowadays, with the change in culture towards openness and the availability of identifiable UK donors, prospective parents who exercise their choice to go abroad for anonymity need to understand what this means for their child in a modern context.

Saer says that he does not question the importance of putting children first, as enshrined in the 1989 Children Act, but it is hard to square this with his choice to go abroad. There is no 'statutory access for all' or 'mandatory revealing of the donor's identity', as asserted in Saer's article, simply an option for a young person to pursue if this is what they choose to do. Surely this is the only ethical and genuinely respectful position.

17 June 2014 - by Kate Brian 
Produced by the National Gamete Donation Trust, 'Letters to my donor' is a collection of letters from parents who have undergone or who are undergoing IVF using donor sperm or eggs to their gamete donor...
7 April 2014 - by Dr Ruth Curson 
Sadly, there are currently not enough egg and sperm donors in the UK to meet our needs. Recipients are now seeking alternative routes to find donors, either by travelling abroad or from unregulated internet sites: both with the potential for unwanted consequences...
19 August 2013 - by Sarah Norcross 
These Donor Conception Network booklets can certainly help with preparing to tell friends and family about donor conception, but it's a shame that there is a need for people to be told how to be considerate to others and that there still seems to be a stigma attached to infertility...
8 July 2013 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Families are complicated and no two are the same. It is often said that assisted reproductive technologies (ART) challenge traditional family models. But what has received less attention to date is how these 'new families' navigate a complex thicket of social, legal and policy norms...
13 May 2013 - by Ben Saer 
The recent Nuffield report makes two disappointing recommendations - that anonymous donation should not be reintroduced, and that the state should encourage those who donated pre-2005 to come forward. Both positions are obstructive to donors, past and present...
29 April 2013 - by Professor Eric Blyth 
Donor-conceived individuals might justifiably feel short-changed by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report 'Donor conception: ethical aspects of information sharing'...
29 April 2013 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
In its latest contribution to practical bioethics and policymaking, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in its report on information sharing in donor conception recommends, among other things, that parents of donor-conceived children should not be mandated to inform them about their origins....
22 April 2013 - by Dr Wybo Dondorp 
The Nuffield Council report rightly rejects the call to pressurising parents into compliance, as this abstract ideal of openness disallows them to make their own moral judgements about what is best in their situation and for their family...
Response ( - 20/05/2013)
I commented on the original article, expressing my disagreement, coming from the point of view of the mum of a child conceived through donor eggs. I think your point about the different options available now - anonymous and not - is very important. We would like our son to grow up knowing other children who are donor conceived so that he doesn't feel too "different" but many of the people we know who followed the donor option went abroad to do so, some because of a perceived shortage of donors and some because they actively wanted anonymity. I wonder what the conversations are going to be like between these children as they near 18. Donor conceived children may already face a feeling of "otherness", is the fact that some can trace genetic parents and some can't going to make that worse? And I worry about the messages being sent in families where parents chose to go abroad for donated gametes precisely *because* it precludes future contact. Will that insecurity transmit itself to the child? The longer I spend as a donor recipient mum and the more I think about the issues, the more evangelical I become about prospective parents using a UK donor. And I fear that the wrong motives are at work for parents and for clinics when a UK clinic advises would-be recipients to go abroad - I fear that the last person being considered is the possible resulting child.
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