Dr Leah Gilman, Research Associate, and Dr Petra Nordqvist, Senior Lecturer, work in Sociology at The University of Manchester and are members of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives. In this blog, they explore the oversights of current donor conception policy.
- Within the current policy, donors give their consent for any children born using their donated egg or sperm to contact them when they reach the age of 18.
- Under this model, only the donor-conceived child has the right to initiate contact.
- A different policy could allow parents, donors, donor-conceived children and the wider family to develop contact and relationships.
Anonymous egg and sperm donation was stopped in UK clinics in 2005, in a move designed to recognise the growing importance of openness and transparency in personal relationships. It was replaced with an identity-release system, in which donors give their consent for any children born using their donated gametes to contact them when they reach the age of 18.
It is now 13 years since this change in the law, and still five years before the donor-conceived children born in 2005 can attempt to make contact with their donors. Our new research suggests that we need to look again at how policy and practice are shaping these relationships created by donor conception.
We reviewed all the available policy documentation around identity-release donation to see how the law was being implemented. We found that policy is often too narrowly focused on the donor-conceived child accessing information about the donor. Although such a focus is important, it ignores the interests of other people involved, especially the recipient parents and the donor, but also wider family networks.
Bearing in mind how policy shapes how families, donors, counsellors and other medical professionals think about donor conception, we think it is now time to open a much wider consultation of those affected. In particular, we propose that it is important to:
- think of relationships created by donor conception as embedded in wider family networks, and invite feedback from all these people on what, how, and when information might be shared;
- think beyond basing donor conception policy on adoption policy, and consider other models, such as policy around other kinds of bodily donation, or experiences of families with ‘known’ donors.
A move towards openness: identity-release donation
The decision to move to identity-release gamete donation in 2005 was meant to acknowledge that children conceived using a donor’s egg or sperm might want to know ‘where they came from’. Knowing one’s genetic background has come to be seen, culturally speaking, as an important part of knowing your ‘real’ self (think of the popularity of ‘Who do you think you are?’ and DNA paternity testing).
In this context, anonymous donation was seen as problematic or even potentially damaging, and identity-release donation offered the chance for more openness and transparency. Policymakers spotted parallels with adoption law, where adopted children might want to find their birth parents, and this model seems to have been the template for the current policy on identity-release egg and sperm donation.
Current policy on information sharing
Under identity-release gamete donation, information sharing is limited. Any attempt to make contact is embargoed until the child is 18, and only the donor-conceived child has the right to initiate contact.
Parents can access non-identifying information about their donor including ‘ethnic group’, height, weight, hair, eye and skin colour, religion, occupation, interests, skills, reasons for donating, and an optional ‘goodwill message’. Parents are encouraged to share this information with their children whilst they are growing up.
At 16, children conceived using donor gametes can access the same non-identifying information about their donor as above. They can also access non-identifying information about any ‘donor siblings’ ie other children born using donated sperm or eggs from the same donor.
At 18, donor-conceived children can access their donor’s name and last known address. They can also register with Donor Sibling Link, which shares information and can facilitate contact between donor siblings. (Note that this option is not available to a donor’s own children if they would like to trace their genetic half-siblings.)
Donors are allowed to know the number, sex and age of children born using their donated eggs or sperm.
Using the adoption model had led to policy being focused only on the perspective of the donor-conceived child. Nobody would argue that this is not an important perspective, but it risks casting donors in the ‘absent birth parent’ role, which may be unhelpful, and of writing other family members out of policy altogether. We know from our research that although egg and sperm donors may view their donation as a form of ‘passing on’ their genes, or creating a genetic link, they do not think of themselves as the parent of their donor offspring.
Exploring other models: bodily donation model and known donor model
We think it could be very useful to also remember that donating eggs or sperm could have much more in common with other kinds of bodily donation. Regardless of whether they donate their gametes, bone marrow or a kidney, donors are usually motivated by a real desire to help others. This bodily donation model could also be a way of recognising the interest that recipient parents have in their donor.
We know, from our previous research, that this model could be of real interest to egg and sperm donors and recipient parents, to allow them to develop donor-recipient family relationships as the child grows.
Practical examples of information sharing from other kinds of donation would be the chance to send a thank you note to the donor or to swap occasional updates or birthday messages. This can be done through a mediating organisation if both parties prefer to remain anonymous, but it is possible that, if all parties agree, they may want to work up to face-to-face contact.
After all, these are not untested waters. Many families with donor-conceived children do know their donor, for example, if a woman has used eggs donated by a sister or cousin, or if a lesbian couple have conceived using donated sperm without going through a fertility clinic. Indeed, some families prefer non-clinic sperm donation partly because it allows the family to know their donor before the child is 18.) By bringing these experiences into the policy discussion we could find models that could support the interests of donors, parents and their wider family networks.
We need to recognise that current policy only improves openness in certain ways, and for certain people. It encourages a way of thinking about these relationships which – although it may suit some families – does not suit others. To allow all families involved in donor conception to flourish, we need to expand our thinking and our policy.
Leah Gilman, Petra Nordqvist. Organizing Openness: How UK Policy Defines the Significance of Information and Information Sharing about Gamete Donation (full article): https://doi.org/10.1093/lawfam/eby014