Seeds of suspicion

What's driving the UK government's decision to ditch anonymity for sperm donors? Not the wishes of parents or donors, or the best interests of children.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

The UK government, well known for its fascination with our private lives, is now set to change the law on sperm donation. No longer will a man be able to fill a test-tube knowing that his responsibility begins and ends with helping some faraway couple to have a much-wanted child. Now he’ll have to be counselled through the possibility that, 18 years in the future, some stranger will turn up and call him ‘Daddy’.

The overhaul of the law on donor anonymity is the outcome of a detailed consultation process, which began in 2001 (1). Over the course of these years, the government has asked regulatory bodies, clinics and anybody else who might care to participate a number of questions related to the ins and outs of the law on fertility treatment. But three years on, one key question remains unanswered. Why is the government messing with this in the first place?

Who is calling for an end to donor anonymity? Nobody whom this principle actually affects. Even the odd campaigner who protests that the denial of information about his genetic father has damaged his self-identity will not have his grievances addressed by this change in the law – the new rules will not be applied retrospectively, and will impact upon future donors only.

Clinics that provide fertility treatment have shown little support for changing the law. Indeed, when the original consultation on ‘Donor information’ ended in January 2003, then health minister Hazel Blears complained about the clinics’ lack of interest in the anonymity question, and used this as the basis for extending the consultation. ‘I was concerned to note that only 18 out of 114 clinics responded to the consultation on identifying information’, she scolded. ‘On that basis, I want to do some further work over the next six months with clinics.’ (2) In other words, having not received the response that it wanted, the government intended to go on asking until it could claim support for the changes.

Back last year, Blears also stated the government’s intention to ‘look at experiences of other countries where donor anonymity has already been removed. I know this is not widespread, but we need to look at what happens to donor numbers’, she said. Perhaps she could have saved herself the bother by running a quick search on BBC News – which argues that in Sweden, where donors can be identified, ‘couples are becoming “fertility tourists”, and heading to countries which have retained anonymity for treatment’. The article reports that across Denmark in 2001, 336 Swedish women were given donor insemination, which resulted in 81 pregnancies – 30 pregnancies more than in Sweden (3).

Most importantly (or so one would think), the scrapping of anonymity has no apparent support among parents of children born as a consequence of donated sperm. Indeed, the research that exists indicates that most parents are reluctant to tell their children that they have been born as a result of donor sperm at all. ‘A large study of donor insemination families in the UK, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain found that, although just over half of mothers had told a friend or family member about the method of conception, not one of them had informed the child’, states the Department of Health’s (DoH) consultation document. ‘Only 12 per cent of the mothers planned to tell the child in the future, while 75 per cent had decided not to do so. By the time the children reached 11 or 12 years old, only 8.6 per cent of parents had told their child about the donor insemination.’ (4)

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the body that regulates fertility treatment in the UK, states that: ‘All studies found that a majority of parents, up to 90 per cent in some studies, had not disclosed to the child and some studies showed that there was no intention to disclose.’ The same goes for countries where donor anonymity does not apply: ‘…in Sweden, it has been found that the majority of parents (89 per cent) who had received treatment with donor sperm had not informed their children. In the US a similar trend was found.’ (5)

Given the trepidation with which most parents approach the inevitable discussion of the birds and the bees, their reluctance to sit their kids down and explain about daddy’s infertility, mummy’s injections and the fact that none of this really matters because ‘social’ daddies are more important than some bloke who wanked into a beaker is entirely understandable. Not to mention reasonable, and probably morally right.

The major benefit of having a child by fertility treatment, as opposed to, say, adoption, is that it appears a natural way to have a baby as a part of normal family life. What is a child supposed to gain from the knowledge that she has more genes in common with a stranger than with the father who has brought her up, and whom she loves and trusts? There may indeed be less ‘stigma’ attached to fertility treatment now than in the past, as the HFEA argues, but it’s still a pretty complex discussion to have with a child, for little discernible benefit.

As in so many other matters, however, the government thinks that it knows best. ‘This paper is not concerned with the question as to whether donor offspring should be told by their family about the means of their conception (which is a matter for the parents themselves to decide) but rather with the information that may be made available to them by the HFEA should they inquire’, stated the DoH’s original consultation paper (6). But the direction taken by the government makes it very clear what it thinks parents should do, and what information it thinks children have a right to have access to.

Despite the fact that most parents do not consider it necessary to tell their children that they were conceived as a result of donor sperm, the government had already decided a year ago to give such children access to a fairly extensive amount of ‘non-identifying’ information about their genetic parentage. The law already allows for children aged 18 to ask if they were conceived by donor, or for 16-year-olds to ask if they are related to someone who they intend to marry. In addition, as Hazel Blears explained in 2003, ‘[t]he type of standardised information that we envisage being collected and provided about donors are such things as height, weight, ethnic group, eye colour, hair colour, religion, occupational interests, and a pen portrait’ (7).

This is not the kind of information that can be justified on medical grounds – such as giving children of donated sperm knowledge of illnesses to which they might have a genetic predisposition. Rather, it indulges a presumed need for children of donated sperm to forge an emotional connection with their genetic father. This clearly signifies the importance the government attaches to knowing about one’s biological ‘roots’, despite the upheaval this is likely to cause one’s ‘social’ (real) family. Or to put it another way, it indicates the widespread official view that family relations should not be taken for granted, and that your parents’ relationship to you and influence over you should be open to question.

That the government should feel tempted to meddle in this most tricky and private process, of what you choose to tell your kids about the methods used in their conception, is driven partly by its inability not to meddle in matters of personal life: in particular, issues of parenting. One of the hallmarks of this government is the extent to which it gets panicked by the idea that people are best left to their own devices to make decisions about their lives, and their kids.

So when the HFEA last year recommended providing more information about sperm donors and more counselling to couples about how they disclose such information to their kids, this was justified on the basis that otherwise ‘many people tend to do nothing, even though this may not be in their own, or their child’s, best interests’ (8). The idea that parents do not know their own interests, and that in any case their interests clash with those of their child, sums up the degraded official view of parents that prevails today.

This suspicion of parents is compounded by an official suspicion of secrecy, and a dogmatic attachment to the principle of ‘transparency’ – even in areas of life where such a principle makes the least sense. As Dr KK Ahuja and Professor RG Edwards wrote in The Times (London) on 20 January 2004, ‘Transparency and openness are welcome but the benefits to society of a perceived openness in sperm and egg donation remain unclear’ (9). In fact, the very notion that one should treat the disclosure of biological origins to one’s child in the same way as one treats company accounts or parliamentary debates is nothing short of bizarre.

After all, this is not just about couples who use fertility treatment. If it is accepted that, for medical or other reasons, parents have a duty to disclose to their children ‘the truth’ about their biological origins, there is no reason not to apply this precedent to families who conceived their children naturally. What about the fact that it is generally impossible to tell whether a child is the product of donor sperm or dad getting lucky – should there be mandatory DNA testing just to make sure? What about the (reportedly quite high) number of children whose biological father is different to their dad – unbeknown to the child, the dad, or even the wishful-thinking mother? Is every parent to be compelled to disclose the details of their sex lives to their kids? The destructive consequences of applying abstract principles of ‘openness’ to the messy reality of family life are not hard to imagine.

For loving, spontaneous, secure family relationships to exist at all depends upon parents telling their children stories about family life that make sense to them – not that confuse and disorient them. Parents do not, and should not, talk to children as though they are adult strangers, formally stating the unvarnished truth regardless of what children may make of it. They negotiate such decisions according to instincts and real life, not according to the textbook advice and legal processes. This necessarily involves the capacity for secrets, narratives and basic common sense.

Yet the idea that parents may wish to hold secrets from their children terrifies today’s breed of meddlesome officials, to whom anything non-transparent is suspect. The idea that parents know better than a committee of trained professionals how to negotiate the process of child-rearing is anathema to a government that has made parental training schemes into a flagship policy and sees a key role for regulatory bodies that grill infertile couples about their suitability for parenthood. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that the government now thinks it should tell children where they come from, instead of letting families and children work out together who they are.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Donor information consultation: providing information about gamete or embryo donors, Department of Health, 19 December 2001

(2) Speech by Hazel Blears MP, parliamentary under secretary of state for public health, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority annual conference, 28 January 2003

(3) Sperm donors ‘want to keep anonymity’, BBC News, 15 October 2002

(4) Donor information consultation: providing information about gamete or embryo donors, Department of Health, 19 December 2001

(5) Response to the Department of Health’s consultation on ‘donor information: providing information about sperm, egg and embryo donors’ (.pdf 133 KB), Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, July 2002

(6) Donor information consultation: providing information about gamete or embryo donors, Department of Health, 19 December 2001

(7) Speech by Hazel Blears MP, parliamentary under secretary of state for public health, Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority annual conference, 28 January 2003

(8) Response to the Department of Health’s consultation on ‘donor information: providing information about sperm, egg and embryo donors’ (.pdf 133 KB), Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, July 2002

(9) ‘Proposals to end rights to anonymity for sperm donors’, letter from Dr KK Ahuja and Professor RG Edwards, The Times (London), 20 January 2004

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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