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Radio Review: The Donor Detectives

11 January 2016
Appeared in BioNews 834

Australian fertility clinics in the 1980s guaranteed anonymity to sperm donors, even though it wasn't required by law. Many clinics and hospitals destroyed medical records of sperm donors and donations, meaning that the children conceived through these donations, now in their 30s, have little to no chance of identifying their donors.  

The Donor Detectives is an ABC radio documentary about donor-conceived (DC) people who have turned to alternative methods in an attempt to identify their biological fathers. These include direct-to-consumer DNA tests, available for as little as AUS$100, which enable someone interested in their family history to identify distant relatives by entering their test results on an online database and connecting with others through their online profile. By working out a common ancestor from their family trees, finding the men in the family and deducing if any of them were in the right place at the right time, it is possible to identify  candidates for a biological father even if they have themselves never had a DNA test.  

Such methods are made necessary by the lack of success of the voluntary registers, where DC people and sperm donors can sign up to be matched. So far in New South Wales only one successful match has been made. Yet the number of people affected by donor conception is significant. Greg, a sperm donor from Sydney, has been given three different accounts of how many children he has fathered, none of which he believes to be accurate. One donor donated 318 times over 13 years, meaning there could be hundreds of his offspring unaware of their relation to each other. The Donor Detective makes it clear that these medical records should never have been destroyed, and there is evidently a need for much better services matching donors and their biological children.

For me, however, the show raised another issue that was not addressed – should people be using these methods to find their donors? Sometimes, the process can go wonderfully well and all parties are happy, as the programme illustrates in their interview with Sara Lamm in the USA. Sara identified her biological father through DNA testing. They met up, got on well, and he introduced her to people as his daughter. As Sara says, 'I guess I feel like I won', and clearly this is just about as well as this process can go.  

However, Matt Doran found the news of his donor's identity 'shattering'. His donor was notoriously prolific, fathering 'conservatively' at least 300 offspring, had a criminal conviction, and was rude and obnoxious when Matt contacted him. In another interview, Simon describes how he identified where his donor worked. One day, he says, he went to a café outside the man's work, and just sat there for half an hour, wondering if he would see him. Hannah, in Melbourne, looks at her suspected donor on Facebook and finds pictures of a woman who may be his daughter. She is excited at the idea of having a sister.  

This is where, to me, the idea becomes a little uncomfortable. Obviously DC people hunting for their donors are understandably excited by the prospect of potentially meeting biological relatives, but these accounts made me wonder about the donors' privacy. Hannah says 'the minute they used DNA from another person to create me, they gave away any chance of this person being anonymous', and this is true. However, I'm not sure that this gives DC people carte blanche to personally locate and contact their donors, even though many donors – like Greg – would be happy to meet their offspring.

Hannah considers briefly what impact getting in touch out of the blue may have on a donor's life, but this isn't something that the programme investigates any further. In fact, the show even verges on hypocrisy, bemoaning that the DC people's right to privacy is destroyed by having to make their DNA available in order to find their donors, without considering the privacy of the donors themselves.

I think I would feel unhappy, and possibly intimidated, if someone had contacted my third cousin asking for information on my location or profession, or sat outside my work waiting to see me – especially if I had been guaranteed anonymity at the time of donation. But with the failure of the voluntary registers and lack of medical records, what other choice do DC people desperate to find their biological family have?

I would have liked to have heard fewer, but more in-depth, interviews exploring the motivations, expectations and feelings of DC people, the thoughts of their biological mothers and social fathers, as well as those of donors who had been unexpectedly contacted. I hope that ABC will follow up the Donor Detectives and give more time to this issue, as I found it a thought-provoking and interesting programme, which left me eager to hear more.  

14 March 2016 - by Professor Guido Pennings 
The State Legislature of Victoria has decided unilaterally to break their agreements with the sperm donors who donated before 1998 and will reveal their identity. It is difficult to imagine a measure that shows more disrespect for both donors and recipients...
18 January 2016 - by Dr Linda Wijlaars 
A man from Luton, Bedfordshire, claims to have fathered 'in excess of 800 children' through unlicensed artificial sperm donations...
20 July 2015 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
A woman in New South Wales, Australia, has been given permission to extract sperm from her unconscious, dying husband...
6 July 2015 - by Rebecca Carr 
The Australian state of Victoria has revealed plans to extend rules removing donor anonymity to allow all donor-conceived people access to identifying information about their sperm or egg donor, irrespective of the donor's consent or when they donated...
20 February 2012 - by Dr Rebecca Robey 
The state parliament in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, is considering whether sperm and egg donors' details should be mandatorily recorded on their children's birth certificate....
5 September 2011 - by Dr Sonia Allan 
An Australian commercial television station recently ran a news story about a donor-conceived woman who has heritable bowel cancer (1). She did not inherit it from her mother. She is denied access to information about her sperm donor because he donated before laws in Victoria enabled information to be released to the donor-conceived. She cannot contact her eight half-siblings, who share that donor, to warn them they may be at risk...
6 December 2010 - by Professor Eric Blyth 
Australia has been a noted pacemaker in the field of assisted reproduction. It was the first nation to report embryo relinquishment for family-building, and a pregnancy and live birth from a previously cryopreserved human embryo. The Australian state of Victoria was among the world's first jurisdictions to remove the rights of gamete and embryo donors to remain anonymous...
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