Sperm donors no longer bank on anonymity
Should a child conceived by artificial insemination be able to learn the 'parent's' identity?
Nearly 20 years ago, when John Kilby became a sperm donor in England, all donors were promised anonymity. Since he already had a family of his own, the arrangement suited him.Skip to next paragraph
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But if Mr. Kilby were a donor today, he would find the legal landscape changing dramatically. Beginning Friday, sperm and egg donors in Britain will no longer have the shield of anonymity. Under a new law, any children conceived after that date will be able to learn their donor's identity when they turn 18. Currently they have access only to nonidentifying information, such as eye color, hair color, height, and medical history.
"The rights of the child come first in all this," says Hetty Crist, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health in London. "We thought children should have the right to this information."
That assumption is controversial, pitting a child's right to know against a donor's assumed right to privacy. Men who oppose the law fear that they might someday get a knock on the door from offspring they did not know existed, although donors bear no financial or legal responsibility to these children.
Supporters of the law point out that knowing who a parent is helps children answer questions about their genetic heritage.
Kilby, who lives near London, favors the new law. "I have always secretly hoped that my details could be released to anyone conceived by my donations," he says in an e-mail. "As the years have passed, I feel even more strongly that I don't want to be anonymous. I myself would hate not to know my own parentage. I cannot think of anything more exciting than to meet a child conceived as a result of my donation and to share my background with them."
In the United States, donors at some sperm banks have a choice: remain anonymous or allow their identities to be released when the child is 18. In general, the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine supports openness in disclosing a donor's identity.
"The way it started, so buried in secrecy, it was always about the protection of the intended father, the intended mother, and the medical establishment, with very little regard for these offspring who one day might inadvertently learn," says Dorothy Greenfeld, the lead author of a report by the ethics committee.
Yet the group's support comes with caveats. "We have concerns about a one-size-fits-all policy," says spokesman Sean Tipton. "Not all families are alike, and not all individuals are alike. Generally it's probably a better idea to disclose than not to disclose. But saying something is a better idea and saying something is mandatory are very different things."
A yoga instructor in the New York area who asks not to be named served as a sperm donor when he was a graduate student. He does not want any children he might have fathered to know his identity.
Explaining that he thinks about his donor experience "infrequently," he says, "There's a curiosity, but also a willingness to let it go. I don't necessarily think a connection with the biological parent would be helpful. It wasn't an emotional tie that precipitated them being brought into this world."
Calling sperm donation "a good thing," he adds, "I hope the law in Britain doesn't discourage anybody."
Yet fertility experts warn that the loss of anonymity will drive some potential donors away, depriving infertile couples of the opportunity to become parents. In Sweden and New Zealand, donations initially declined after new laws required donors to disclose their identities. But within a year, rates stabilized. Elsewhere, regulations vary. Switzerland accepts only donors who are willing to be identified. In France, anonymity is compulsory on the theory that it is in a child's best interest to have only one father. Italy does not allow donor insemination.
To encourage more donors, the Department of Health in London launched a publicity campaign using the theme "Give life, give hope." Although donors in Britain can be between the ages of 18 and 45, health officials are aiming their campaign at men between 28 and 45. "We're trying to get men to consider the implications," says Jeanette Wilburn of the National Gamete Donation Trust in London. "Older men are not in it for the money."