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Donor names: ill-conceived idea or every child's right?

The Edinburgh Evening News, Scotland, January 20, 2004

BECOMING a parent is one of the most life-changing events anyone can go through. And, if having children naturally is amazing, conceiving through infertility treatment must be an even more miraculous experience.

Thanks to scientific progress, thousands of couples who would otherwise be childless have become parents since the first so-called test tube baby was born. But all that is under threat through Government plans expected to be announced tomorrow abolishing the right of anonymity for sperm and egg donors.

The children themselves and their supporters say that people born through donor-assisted conception have the right to know who their real parents are.

The debate raises some difficult questions. Is the right of an individual to know their parentage greater than a donor's right to anonymity? And does everybody really have a right to have a child, regardless of whether or not they are able to conceive?

Doctors at Edinburgh's fertility clinic say the long-feared move will consign countless infertile couples to a future without children by sparking a donor shortfall, as donors fear that their "unknown children" may track them down in later life.

Doctors at the ERI-based clinic have already blamed the long-feared change in the law for increasing donor shortages to such an extent that they have been unable to recruit donors for two years.

Last April, sperm donor shortages were so bad that doctors had to buy in sperm from London, at a cost of 75 to each desperate couple.

ERI consultant Dr Stewart Irvine claims that if the ban is lifted as expected it will be so damaging to donor numbers that it will become pointless, as eventually no children will be born through donor-assisted techniques to enforce their rights. He says: "If you accept my position that removing anonymity will dramatically reduce donor numbers, which will reduce our ability to treat couples, then these children will not exist in the first place, therefore they will not be able to enforce this right because they won't be there."

He also points out that children born naturally do not have the right to confirm who their biological parents are. "The right to know who your biological father is is not a right which most of the population has," he argues. "Estimates of uncertain parentage vary widely from one or two per cent to as much as 15 per cent of the general population.

"These children do not have the right to find out who their genetic father is. The name on their birth certificate is their social father. If a child conceived through donor insemination is to have the right to know who their genetic parents are, we should have a discussion about these children too."

And Irvine claims that removing anonymity for donors in other countries, such as Sweden, has increased secrecy, rather than reducing it, with the number of parents telling their children that they had been conceived through donor techniques dropping "dramatically" after the anonymity protection for donors was lifted - again suggesting the change in law will not improve children's rights in practice.

Many infertile couples would agree with Irvine and are understandably scared that the expected move will make it impossible for them to have a family. However, one mother, who has conceived two children through sperm donation, believes that such fears are groundless and that lifting the ban is in the best interests of both children and couples. Olivia Montuschi, a 50-something London campaigner on the issue, who has a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old through donor insemination due to her husband's infertility, says: "Fertility clinics are very keen on producing babies, but they don't think much about their future. This is not about supply and demand of sperm; this is to do with making families. There will be a drop in donor numbers to start with. That has happened in all countries where they have changed. But with effort numbers will come up again."

And on the crucial question of whether a donor's right to anonymity is greater than a child' s right to know who their parents are, she says children's rights are "paramount".

"My children have no rights at the moment," she says. "If you are using donated gametes [sperm or eggs], I think that means not being secret about it. It is about being willing to share that information with the child and preferably that child being able to have information about or contact with the donor when they are older."

Montuschi and her husband told their children about their origins when they were about four and had asked where babies come from.

She adds: "My children think lifting the ban on anonymity would be fantastic. My daughter said: ‘I know it' s not going to help me [because it will only apply to future donors], but this is what they' ve got to do for the future' ."

At present, the 18,000-plus people born as a result of treatment with donated sperm, eggs or embryos since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority set up a register of such births in 1991 have very limited information about their biological parents. Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, a person under 18 may ask the HFEA whether they are, or may be, related to a named person they intend to marry.

A person aged 18 and over may ask the HFEA whether he or she was born as a result of treatment using donated sperm, eggs or embryos. Clinics may also sometimes give parents very limited, non-identifying information about a donor.

The aim of the legislation was to protect donors_- many of whom in Britain are students making some extra cash - who years later are frightened that an "unknown child" will turn up on their doorstep, demanding love, money, or both. But lifting the ban on their anonymity is not expected to give their "unknown children" any right to demand financial support.

And, even if the ban on anonymity of donors is lifted it will be, to a certain extent at least, meaningless because parents do not have to tell their children that they were conceived through donor fertility treatment. So if they do not know that their biological father or mother is not the father or mother who brought them up, these children will not go looking for them - perhaps reassuring for donors. But it is something that Montuschi wants to see changed, although crucially not through further legislation.

She says: "It is difficult to find the words at first. Parents should be supported, encouraged and educated, but not coerced. There is room for an educational campaign to remove the stigma."

For the time being, the estimated 12,000 people like the Montuschis' two children who were conceived with donor sperm or eggs before 1990 will still be unable to find out about their biological families, because the move to lift anonymity is only aimed at post-1990 births.

However, a pilot voluntary register - ukdonorlink - is being launched next month to give those people conceived before the 1990 Act came into force, and their donors, half brothers and sisters, the chance to make contact with each other if they wish.

Co-ordinators of the register, After Adoption Yorkshire, say they have had "dozens" of people - donors and children born through donor-assisted techniques - showing an interest in the register, which will involve DNA testing to establish donor links.

Register project manager Lyndsey Marshall says: "There is a great deal of interest on both sides", suggesting not all donors are against revealing their identities.

Meanwhile, leading sociologist and author of Paranoid Parenting, Dr Frank Furedi, believes the move is a symptom of misplaced emphasis on the importance of children knowing their "real" parents. "I think we are continually inciting children to be obsessed with their biological origin, rather than to think that who they are is Read More ..out what they have achieved and the community they are in," he says.

He does not think everyone has the right to have a child, but he says that infertility is "a state of existence which we should not put up with if we can address it. We should do more to make it possible for people to be mothers and fathers rather than stigmatising them".

The announcement is expected to be made by a government minister at the HFEA' s annual conference tomorrow. A Department of Health spokesman confirmed that an announcement following consultation on plans to lift anonymity was due "shortly", although he described the expectation that the announcement would be for life anonymity, and would be made tomorrow, as "speculation".

But whether or not an individual' s right to know the identity of their biological parents outweighs a donor' s right to anonymity, the move looks set to cause major heartache for thousands of infertile couples - although adoption would still be an option.