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Sperm and the quest for identity

BBC News Online (British Broadcasting Corporation), by Clare Murphy, January 20, 2004

What are the implications of banning anonymous sperm donations, as speculation mounts that the UK may give children conceived through donor insemination the right to trace their biological parents?

The Australian town of Albury may not be teeming with tourist attractions, but the wildlife sanctuary claims to be one of the few places where visitors can tickle the kangaroos, while a day trip to Melbourne is not out of the question.

But the 12 foreigners who take up an offer from an Albury fertility clinic for an all expenses paid round-trip in exchange for sperm donations must not wander too far afield nor overly exert themselves in any capacity - they will be expected to perform every two days for two weeks.

The clinic, which advertised for donors in Canada, said it was forced to do so after failing to find enough Australians willing to donate.

Sperm donations have apparently dried up in the state of New South Wales as a result of an imminent change of law which will entitle all donor offspring to discover the identity of their donor parent when they are older.

The 12 who accept the AU$7,000 (3,000) package will not be exempt from this legislation. They will be required to hand over all the identifying details needed along with their samples in March, and be prepared in the future to field inquisitive phone calls, emails and letters from the offspring they have produced.

The UK is widely expected to announce this week that future donor offspring will be given the right to identifying information about their biological parent, bringing the country into line with other European Union states such as Sweden and Austria.

The prospect prompts fears that sperm donors - often students interested in a little extra cash - will vanish, but the British authority which regulates assisted reproduction believes that the right of a donor conceived child to know its genetic heritage outweighs the need to maintain the number of donors.

Identity crisis

The existing research does indeed suggest that many of those conceived through donor insemination experience identity problems, which are exacerbated by their inability to find out anything about their genetic parent.

A foray into the international community of donor offspring produced a number of tragic tales.

Karen is a 37-year-old mother of two who lives in New York.

It was in the heat of a row with her mother - shortly after the man she then believed to be her real father had died - that she found out she was donor conceived. Karen says she had long sensed that "something was not right" and that her parents were concealing something from her.

After she was told she sought in vain for her genetic parent, who had been a doctor in the mid-1960s. Like many of those who join donor conception support groups, her inability to find her father has been a source of deep disquiet in her life.

"People have told me that it doesn't matter. Like I should pretend that my dad was my genetic father. Like all my dad's blood relations are my blood relations. I don't think that they understand that they are my family but not in the same way as they are their own family. I am the odd man out," she says.

Karen does not just want anonymity lifted. She says she would like to see donor insemination banned outright.

"Parenting is not a right, it is a privilege. If a couple can't conceive, they shouldn't. I love my life but if my parents could have asked me whether or not they should conceive using a donor, I would tell them the same thing. After all, what's wrong with non-existence?"

But such identity issues are not inevitable: Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok, for example, a donor conceived professor at the University of Wales, has yet to experience the kind of malaise that has plagued Karen's life.

"I've always known who I am, and for that reason I've never really had any interest in trying to find my genetic father," he says. "It's not that I don't understand the quest - it's just that for my part, I feel complete."

"I think anonymity is crucial if we are going to maintain the number of donors. Donor insemination is such a simple process, but it's a gift - and one we should cherish."

Best policy
However much donor offspring differ on anonymity and the need to find the donor, there is widespread agreement that honesty about the circumstances of their conception is crucial.

"Parents should be honest with their children from the start," says Helen, who discovered she was donor conceived when she was 20. "It's the lying that hurts, not the truth."

Ironically Sweden's experience with transparency has, at least in some cases, had the opposite of the desired effect.

Legislation banning anonymous donations was introduced in 1985: interviews with parents who have used donor insemination since suggest that many have not told their children they were donor conceived for fear that they will find their genetic parent.

"But that doesn't mean it was the wrong thing to do," says Dr Claes Gottlieb, who carried out the research. "It will take time before full transparency is achieved, but I honestly believe that the best way to avoid identity issues is for children to be fully informed."

Dr Gottlieb, who heads a fertility clinic in Stockholm, also stresses that banning anonymity has not had a long term impact on the number of donors, which are back at their pre-1985 levels.

Nonetheless, sperm is in short supply in Sweden, pushing infertile couples abroad - often to neighbouring Denmark, a country whose males donate More overm than any other and one which is home to the world's largest sperm bank - Cryos International.

"Anonymity is key," says Ole Schou, Cryos founder and chief executive. "If you removed that, we wouldn't have the donors we have."

Nature or nurture?
There is little doubt that - at least in the short term - donations will go down in the UK if anonymity is banned, although it is hoped that in the long-term they will pick up.

"I'm going to have to think hard about it," says Steve, who is reviewing a decision to donate.

"My gut feeling is that offspring should have the right to know. If I decided not to donate that would be my choice - and I think the kids should have a choice too as to whether they want to find the genetic parent or not."

But beyond the issue of rights - the right of the child to know, the right of the couple to conceive, the right of the donor to remain anonymous - is a broader issue.

At the heart of the anonymity debate is the question of what makes us what we are - whether we are made or born.

"I wonder if it's right that we put so much store in our genetic origins," says Steve. "I tend to think we are what we are through nurture, rather than nature. Would I really be a father to the resulting children if I did donate? Not in the way it matters."