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.
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."
Mr. Tipton sees the new British law as a reflection of changing intellectual fashion. Currently, openness is in fashion, he says, pointing to a trend toward greater disclosure in adoption. Twenty to 30 years ago, that was not the case. "I don't think these changes are made on the basis of any empirical evidence," he says. "That evidence is hard to get."
Last year the Sperm Bank of California studied 29 teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 who had been conceived using a donorwho had signed an identity-release form. "All [the teens] said they felt loved and felt wanted by their family," says Dr. Greenfeld, an associate professor at Yale Medical School.
Asked what information they would like about their donor father, 96 percent said they wanted a photograph, and 89 percent were interested in his current circumstances. Nearly 70 percent wanted to know about his health, and 65 percent wanted to learn about his family history. Eighty-six percent reported that they were likely to request his identity release. Two-thirds thought they would want a relationship with their donor, says Greenfeld.
Not all donor offspring want to know who their father is. Cynthia Semon of Sherman Oaks, Calif., was 12 when her parents explained that she and her sister were both conceived through anonymous sperm donors.
Only twice did she think she might like to know her biological father's identity. The first time came in a seventh-grade history class, when students had to write about their family tree. "I felt a bit of a dilemma about not having that genetic information," Ms. Semon says. "But ... I went with my [nonbiological] father's family tree."
The second time came when she was about 20 and dating older men. "It did dawn on me, perhaps I'm dating the donor," she recalls. Today she has no interest in knowing him.
"My [nonbiological] father is my father," Semon says. "So many things I hold dear in my life come from him and what he has shared with me."
Cheryl Stein of Brighton, Mass., whose 14-year-old son was conceived through a sperm donor, also favors anonymity. "Having a third party out there who is identified, how does this person fit within the context of your family constellation?" she asks. "It does in some way potentially interfere with the existing relationship."
At the Xytex Sperm Bank in Atlanta, donors have the option of being identified. Among 110 current donors, 20 have agreed to have their identities released. Among women receiving sperm donations, half are interested in knowing the father's identity and half are not.
"There are a lot of couples who want an ID-release donor," says Holly Fowler, a spokeswoman. "It's not so much that they want their child to meet the donor. That's not the objective of the program. The objective is so that when the child reaches 18, he can get the most updated medical information. But there are also people who select an ID-release donor so their child can meet the donor."
Pacific Reproductive Services, a sperm bank in San Francisco, pays higher fees to donors who are willing to be known than it does to those who remain anonymous. Sherron Mills, executive director, supports openness. But she does not think it should be required by law. "Donors have a right to their privacy," she says. "Maybe their wife or their partner will object. Maybe it will cause problems in their marriage. The law could be intrusive for people who don't want to identify themselves."
In the US, where anonymity is still an option, Tipton emphasizes the importance of maintaining existing contracts. "The worst-case scenario would be forcing the identification of someone who donated saying they wanted to be anonymous," he says. "We are very concerned that agreements in effect stay in effect, unless all the parties concerned agree to the change."
Studies have shown that children who are told about their conception through sperm donation are well adjusted. Yet Ms. Fowler notes that some may have unrealistic expectations about how their donor is going to react when contacted. She offers a word of caution.
"We tell parents [of donor children], don't set your child up for something that may not happen," she says. "These donors are great guys. They're smart and wonderful people, but you don't know what their life circumstances are going to be 18 years from now."