BOSTON — Anonymity has its virtues. Think of the friend who performs a thoughtful deed in secret, or the benefactor who insists that his name not appear on the building he funded.
But anonymity also comes with a darker side. Just ask the children who can't identify one parent, either because their biological father was a nameless donor at a sperm bank or because their genetic mother donated an egg to a surrogate-parenting program. For these offspring the haunting question, Who is my parent? produces another anguished query: Who am I?
"Reproductive foundlings" is the phrase one British woman uses for those like herself whose donor fathers remain unknown.
So serious is the issue that three weeks from today, on Nov. 18, a children's charity in Britain, Barnardo's, will hold a seminar in London to discuss the implications of donor-assisted pregnancies. Its title: "Are we just creating children for parents? Are we ignoring the child's identity and genetic needs?" Tessa Jowell, the British health minister, wants a position paper by Christmas, outlining the pros and cons of ending donors' rights to anonymity.
The debate is long overdue. In Britain, about 2,000 births result from donor-assisted pregnancies each year. In the United States, estimates put the figure above 30,000, but in an unregulated industry, no one knows for sure.
Donor identity also ranks as a fledgling issue in the US. One sperm bank in California, founded in 1983, is looking ahead to 2001, when the first babies born from its services will come of age and perhaps begin seeking information about their fathers. The facility has formed an "identity-release task force" to create guidelines so the experience will "be respectful for all involved." It claims it is the first sperm bank in the world to be doing this.
Selecting a potential father can be alarmingly simple - as easy as logging onto the Internet and scrolling through listings of sperm donors. One sample description: "Caucasian/Irish, German, Slavic, fair skin, blond wavy hair, blue eyes, 5 ft. 11 in., 168 pounds, O positive blood type." Yet only 21 of the 44 donors listed on this Web page are willing to have their identity released.
Another Web site offers similar information on potential mothers. It reads: "We are proud to announce the arrival of our new Egg Donor Database on the Internet! Our database has color photos and profiles of over 300 available Egg Donors." It adds that "you can select specific criteria such as eye color, educational background, and ethnic origin." What could be simpler?
No one can minimize or trivialize the deep yearning for a child and the desire to create a family by any means necessary. Yet reproductive technology represents a slippery slope. Caught up in the "miracle" of being able to produce babies who otherwise would not have been born, well-meaning fertility specialists sometimes appear to forget that what is medically possible may not always be ethically wise.
The genie is out of the bottle. For better or worse, surrogate parenting is here to stay. The only prudent solution lies in carefully regulating every phase.
In the same way that adoption, once shrouded in secrecy, is becoming an open subject, surrogate arrangements must become more honest. Individuals are entitled to know their true background - knowledge that, when lovingly conveyed, need not diminish their relationship with the parents who raise them.