Sperm wars

Children who want to know 'where they came from' don't need to know the name of their mother's sperm donor.

Ray Crowley

Topics Science & Tech

‘It’s a grotesque degradation of what it means to create a new human being’, said David Gollancz, commenting on the anonymity of sperm donors (1). Conceived by sperm donation, Gollancz, now 49, describes the anguish he felt at being unable to trace his biological father.

Though the final decision by the UK government’s Department of Health has been delayed for six months, it looks as if the end of the anonymous donation of eggs and sperm is nigh. This decision, should it go ahead, will not bring people of Gollancz’s generation conceived using sperm or egg donation any closer to finding their biological parents, as records of sperm donations made pre-1990 were rarely kept by fertility clinics. It will, however, provide future sperm donor children with the opportunity to trace their genetic parents.

In the meantime, children conceived after 1990 will, once they reach 18, have the right to non-identifying summaries of their genetic parents, including their religion, interests and occupation. As three quarters of sperm donors are students, I can’t imagine these ‘pen portraits’ will be very interesting. ‘Ah, so my dad is a Wiccan Sports Science graduate with an interest in beer and women’s mud wrestling. Now I feel complete.’

What good will this ruling, should it go ahead, bring? After all, how important is it to know who your genetic parents are? I can understand the desire to ‘want to know where you came from’, in a time when there is much concern about the importance and nature of identity. But in the case of sperm or egg donation, the answer – as in natural conception – is a couple of cells.

The literature on parenting talks copiously about love, nurturing, positive role models, and the environment children are brought up in. Unless it dwells upon children with Down’s syndrome, sickle cell anaemia or a similar genetically inherited condition, the DNA of the parents is rarely mentioned as an influence on the behaviour or life of the resulting child. After all, the particular scramble of DNA a child receives has little to do with ‘who they are’ in later life.

For chickens who need to be nice and plump and lay large eggs, or for racehorses whose combination of stamina and speed is valuable, genetic parentage is paramount. But for human beings, who live far beyond the dictation of their biological instincts and think rationally, the parenting influence of the people who bring them up has far more to do with who they are than the identity of those who provided the raw materials.

Men who donate sperm for an easy few quid do not do so with the intention of becoming parents. And there is nothing sinister or amoral about that. It would be sinister to be called up 18 years later, by a teenager calling you Dad. Nor would this be much fun for the teenager, who probably has no more in common with his ‘Dad’ than a lazy eye or a prematurely receding hairline.

There’s an argument that if you do not want to be identified as a genetic parent, you shouldn’t donate sperm. Surely we are getting a little bit precious about these tiny swimming critters? By placing such grand importance on the sperm that make children, you are on a slimy, slippery slope. If sperm is so holy, where must we stand on masturbation?

Having kids and being a Mum or Dad, as any parenting book will gush at you, is about a whole lot more than just the act of conception. This is why lots of children ask their parents what their first word was or what they got up to during the terrible twos, but not many have enquired what position Mummy and Daddy were in when they were made.

Anyone who argues that anonymous sperm or egg donation is a ‘grotesque degradation’ of what it means to create a human life, is guilty of a grotesque degradation of what it means to be a parent and a human being.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Genetics

(1) ‘The anguish of not knowing’, Helen Rumbelow, The Times (London), 29 January 2003

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Topics Science & Tech


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