17 May LONG READ: ON SPERM DONATION AND CONFIDENTIALITY- A DONOR’S RIGHT TO PRIVACY OR AN OFFSPRING’S RIGHT TO A FULL IDENTITY?
We all had quite a laugh when actor Vince Vaughn’s biggest achievement in the comedy-drama film, Delivery Man was fathering 533 children via 693 sperm donations during his student years . It was not as humorous though, when 142 of them filed a lawsuit to fish him out. Hidden under a pile of confidentiality contracts, Vaughn’s character, David Wozniak, had to win the battle with himself to face the responsibility that social and legal circumstances in his past had allowed him to shirk. Thankfully, the movie ends with him taking the high road but in reality, 533 odds would have been impossible to overcome, so something had to give. But that’s a movie; the happy ending is guaranteed. What about in real life? In such an instance, should such a man be allowed the freedom of choice? Whose rights should matter more- a donor’s right to privacy or an offspring’s right to a full identity?
The question above is a deep moral conundrum. Perhaps these donors should not be judged too harshly for their preference to anonymity. Donor services in the past (mostly donor inseminations in the 1880’s) were procured in utmost secrecy in a bid to prevent “irreparable harm” to the child and the parents. Couple recipients at the time who opted for these medical alternatives found it shameful and were more comfortable with the anonymity of the donor to protect their child and their marriage. Donors, on the other hand were spared the knowledge of their samples producing children for the donors’ peace of mind. They also are known to be wary of future financial demands or any type of responsibility from their offspring. Countries that may have considered these reasons too flimsy and consequently banned anonymity experienced an appalling rate of donor semen shortage. As laws do not exist to protect either donors or recipients in any situation that may be detrimental to either party, confidentiality was unanimously agreed upon as the safest course for all.
It did not matter that the donor might have a history of some illness in his family, such as schizophrenia, Huntington’s chorea disease, Type-1 diabetes, leukaemia, autism, congenital heart disease or any such which do not show in his appearance or tests. He may have lied in his medical history report or may simply have been careless. For most sperm donors the major incentive for a donation is monetary. They are concerned about making a few quick bucks by whatever means necessary. A sperm donor’s motives pale in comparison to the couple who come to the bank out of a serious yearning for a child to care for and call their own. However, the yearning parent’s motives also fall short when compared to the young adult, born by donor sample, looking to assert her individuality. The donor by those standards is not held accountable and even worse, the law aids him in his negligence. It should not be.
It might also be pertinent to note that sperm donors by design, are men. Men, being society’s revered and preferred are just always favoured by whatever social bias reigns supreme at the time. So little wonder that they are allowed, or rather, prohibited from taking any kind of responsibility for their actions. And so it continues, the subtle preference. The imbalance. The injustice.
Times are changing. People are too. Countries such as Austria and Sweden as well as a scant few stand staunchly with the offspring. Anonymity is banned in these places no matter how depleted their sperm banks are
All of this was way back when the world was still very sensitive to anything irregular. The fertility industry boom happened in the 1980’s and since then, things have taken a more practical turn. The fertility industry is currently estimated at $5.8billion and is projected to increase four times more over the course of the next five years. This huge industry growth rate, of course, prompts more serious questions and a more socially conscious ethic. If virile young men think they can just donate for money and avert the responsibility of procreation, who is to say that in twenty years, the world will not be littered with incestual offspring, unknowing in their erroneous habits? Many people correctly feel that there should be a reality check. Donors should know the gravity of what they are doing when they decide to donate their sperm. They simply cannot be allowed to stay oblivious to such a life-changing reality. They ought to know and be known. On a more pragmatic note, many instances arise of offspring developing psychological trauma and finding it difficult to create identities. These people yearn to know and identify with their biological, genetic roots. They want to be secure in the knowledge of who they really are. That should not be too much for anyone to ask.
Times are changing. People are too. Countries such as Austria and Sweden as well as a scant few stand staunchly with the offspring. Anonymity is banned in these places no matter how deplete their sperm banks are. In other places in Europe like Great Britain, Italy and Australia, disclosure laws that sanction the knowledge of an offspring when he/she has reached the age of 18 have been established. Others are gradually joining the bandwagon as their societies are coming to terms with the loopholes that exist in encouraging anonymous donors. On the other hand, it seems inevitable that the identity of the donor should no longer be a secret. With the introduction of social media, digital exposure, genetic matching/analysis websites (like Ancestry.com or 23andme.com), the illusion of anonymity is fast eroding. One click can unearth what several contracts and stipulations keep under wraps.
Current stipulated demographics of Sperm donors lie between the ages 18 – 40. They must, of course, be healthy as well. Statistics show that most people in the group by this year are tech-savvy and socially interactive. This certainly adds up as an advantage as they will be a far cry from their counterparts from years before. These sets of donors in the following years will more likely be willing to reveal themselves, make connections and share information about themselves. Counselling sessions have been put in place to ensure this and ABC News reported in December that 70% of sperm donors who visited the Sperm Bank of California, agreed to give up their anonymity after being properly counselled. Perhaps we should throw in a chip or two on other gender sensitive issues plaguing our society like gender equality, feminism and such. Who knows? Chances are the next decade will produce a more balanced and adjusted society, thanks to social media, interaction and enlightenment.
Even as things change, quite worrisome is the instance of multiple offspring occurring from one donor. Just like the aforementioned Vince Vaughn in the 2013 motion picture Delivery Man, any donor who finds out that he has fathered over 500 children would probably be terrified. It truly is a scary revelation. Unfortunately, currently there are no laws regulating the use of donor samples, as long as fertilisation has occurred, every attempt is considered successful. In retrospect, this practice is detrimental to the donor who may later be sought to face the music. Before, when anonymity was the order of the day, many must have escaped such realities, and accidental incest must have been quite common even though we remain blissfully unaware. Now that the majority is calling for a new approach to things, it is very important to carefully consider the future of the donor as well. Every donor is a potential father.
The dilemma inadvertently always comes down to the question of whose rights should prevail, the donor or the offspring. Should there be a right to privacy for the donor? Should it supersede the children’s right to the knowledge of their father’s identity?
It is as much a moral question as it is an ethical one. In a typical childbearing situation, the child will be given preference above the parent. This is because the parents made the decision (carefully or otherwise) to have that child and take responsibility for him. This should not be different because donor policies apply as the same principles exist; choices and responsibility. It seems timely to engage in proactive dialogues about the necessary steps to take in deciding if donor records will be made available to offspring who conclusively make up their minds that they would like to know the identity of the donor whose sperm initiated their conception (their true father). This is the first step. They should feel no different than their peers in society. They should have ample and equal opportunities to interact, socialise and grow. It is these offsprings’ fundamental human rights to explore and fully understand their origin and individuality. It is no massive leap to anticipate that in the future these issues will have an impact on children conceived through donor oocytes and embryos, which is all the more reason to take serious stock of our present policies and approaches. The child’s interests and future should matter most. The offspring, in this case, is king.
Photo Credit: Bogdan Glisik , Sai De Silva, DeliveryManMovie Instagram