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Sperm donors - giving away your details

7 Feb 2003

The law is due to change so that people conceived by sperm donation can access "non-identifiable" information about their donor. But is this enough, or should disclosure include a donor’s name and date of birth?

In January this year, Health Minister Hazel Blears announced that, following parliamentary approval, people born as a result of sperm donation will be entitled to request information such as physical details, occupation and interests of the man who donated his sperm.

But she stopped short of announcing a change many people had called for – the complete lifting of anonymity on any and all sperm donors.

“We believe that this sensitive area needs further consideration and debate,” she explained. “Very few fertility clinics responded to the consultation exercise. We are especially concerned about the possible effect on donor numbers of removal of anonymity…and thus on the number of people able to receive treatment.”

This decision, perhaps surprisingly, flew in the face of the government’s own six-month consultation, which showed 132 of the 237 responses (56 per cent) in favour of providing identifiable information.

A second, six-month consultation period is now underway, after which the law may be changed again. So what are the arguments surrounding the issue, and how do you balance the right of the individual to discover their genetic heritage with that of the donor and the parents who have actually brought them up?

Today’s situation

Every year, 1,100 children are born in the UK from sperm and egg donors. In total, around 30,000 UK citizens have been born this way.

Under the law, a person under 18 is entitled to ask the relevant body – the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – whether they are, or may be, related to a named person they intend to marry. A person over 18 may also ask whether they were born as a result of sperm donor treatment. But that’s as far as it goes.

With significant legal changes in the rights of adopted children being addressed, it was only a matter of time before the question of sperm donation came under the same scrutiny.

The basic assumption is that the child’s right to find out about their origins exceeds those of the parents who bring them up to keep it secret. There should be clarity, openness and truthfulness when it comes to people’s biological make-up, and that should also apply to the system that helped create someone, the argument goes.

Why? Simply because the information can be very important to a child’s emotional well-being and their sense of self and of self-esteem, as well as providing them with a sense of cultural and social identity. Increasingly importantly these days, it can also help provide important genetic information, which may be useful in terms of medical care or risk of disease.

As a spokeswoman from the HFEA puts it, “Everyone has a right to know where they come from. There may often be anxiety about who their biological parents are. Perhaps this is a way of answering questions about themselves.”

Identifiable vs non-identifiable

The majority of people in the government’s consultation – including those who were donors themselves – were in favour of someone being provided with non-identifiable information about the donor. The only arguments against it were that it may lead to identification and that a donor should have the right to withhold such information.

However the question of supplying identifiable information – especially retrospectively – is a thorny one. There are very few statistics on who sperm donors actually are, although it is widely assumed that the majority of them are students supplementing their income with a visit to the sperm bank.

However, the thought of a young adult appearing on the doorstep 20 years later, asking to speak to “dad”, will make many donors break into a sweat. Suddenly, £20 and five minutes with a dirty magazine may not seem such a good idea.

For this reason, Clare Brown, executive director of national infertility support network CHILD, says some sperm banks stopped recruiting new donors until the consultation was completed. “Plus, there was a huge drop in donations at the very threat of anonymity being removed,” she says.

Sweden is usually used as an example of what happens when there’s a change to donor identity laws – the government removed anonymity in one go, and donor numbers dropped so dramatically that many couples are now forced to cross the border to obtain treatment. This has also created the odd situation of so-called “fertility tourists”, who go for treatment outside Sweden because they don’t want their child to be able to find out who the sperm donor was.

Advocates for the change to identifiable information argue that the child’s rights are paramount. But what of the right of the donor? What emotional tie-in is there when the sperm is collected in such a sterile, unloving environment? And how would providing such information affect the donor’s life?

The solution

The solution, it would seem, is a halfway house. Nearly all those involved in the decision are against a retrospective application of any change in law. Many of them have suggested, instead, the introduction of a voluntary register where donors are given the choice of whether they want to keep their details secret.

Some see that as a solution, others as a stopgap. Clare Brown explains, “This would work for the time being – it gives people time to become educated about all the issues.”

A period of education and research is vital, she says. “A lot more research is needed. There is not a lot of information out there about this. We don’t have any figures. For example, just how many parents tell their children they were born this way? And if not, why not? What are the reasons?”

The same applies to the people who donate sperm and to the people who go for treatment. The latest IVF techniques mean that men with a very low sperm count can still father children, so when it comes to couples, is it usually men with no sperm at all who seek treatment? But what percentage do they make up? And what effect will this have on any change in the law?

The question of why so many people donate sperm in the first place also has to be asked – is it just for the cash? And would donors really mind being contacted by their genetic offspring? No one knows the answers to these questions.

The HFEA is behind a complete lifting on information, but says a register is “a good idea” in the meantime, according to a spokeswoman. She also stresses that men who donate sperm would have no legal responsibilities to the child.

Likely outcome?

Everyone involved in this complicated area agrees that more discussion is needed and this is precisely what’s going on. However, with so few real facts about sperm donation, it may need more than six months of consultation before society can decide what the best path to follow is.

Further information:

Department of Health

Link to this story on Discovery Health

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