The sight of an adopted son or daughter turning up on the doorstep
of their birth parents is a scene often played out on our
television screens. But such situations could take on a new twist
after last week’s government announcement that children conceived
from donated sperm, eggs or embryos will be able to trace their
While those who have already made donations were thrown into a
brief panic, it soon became clear that the rules would only apply
to people who donate after 1 April 2005.
Much of the debate has focused on what this means for the donors,
rather than addressing whether children have a fundamental right to
know where they come from.
Under the new regulations, children conceived as a result of sperm,
egg or embryo donations will be able to find out the identity of
their donor once they reach 18. Donors, as is the case now, will
not have any financial or legal obligations towards the
For many, the polarisation of the debate that followed the
announcement was somewhat of a mystery.
“Nobody now considers it abnormal that someone who is adopted may
want to find out their origins. If it’s normal for adopted people
how can it be any different for someone conceived by donor eggs,
sperm or embryo?” asks Eric Blyth, professor of social work at the
University of Huddersfield.
Knowing this information helps donor-conceived people to develop a
proper sense of identity and to fill in what would otherwise be
missing parts of the jigsaw, he adds. And being able to access
their biological records would also allow people to find out
whether they have any half-siblings or other blood relatives.
Donor-assisted conception is still shrouded in secrecy, and even
shame, and parents tend not to tell their children if they were
conceived in this way. Blyth believes that ending donor anonymity
could encourage more parents to be open.
For those who work in the adoption field, the parallels are
obvious. Yet although it is easy to see how some of the arguments
around donor-assisted conception and adoption are similar, the
processes that prospective parents must go through are
Julia Feast, policy, research and development consultant for Baaf
Adoption and Fostering, says prospective adoptive parents are
required to go though assessment, preparation and training before
they adopt and checks are carried out with their GP and the police.
Of course, with donor-assisted conception there are few such
arrangements. Although fertility clinics have to offer counselling
to people considering treatment, the offer does not have to be
taken up, and there is no expectation, unlike in adoption, that the
parents will tell their child where they came from.
“The checks are not as stringent as in adoption, but we know that
parenting a child who is unrelated genetically poses additional
challenges for parents,” says Feast.
2023 will be the first year when donor-conceived people will be
able to access information about their donor. The individual will
be able to contact the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority
(HFEA) and find out the name of the donor as well as their address
at the date of donation and at the date of the child’s birth. It is
expected that the HFEA will then act as a bridging agency and
notify the donor.
Counselling and intermediary services will be fundamental, and
those who work in adoption have a lot to offer. “Social workers
with a background in adoption and family placement will be well
placed to provide services because they are au fait with the
issues,” says Feast.
It is not just in the search and reunion phase that social workers
have a role to play. Elizabeth Wincott, chairperson of the
multidisciplinary Project Group on Assisted Reproduction (Progar),
says social workers are ideally suited to carrying out vital
counselling with people considering donor assistance. She supports
the government’s decision.
“From an ethical and professional social work base the right of any
person born as a result of assisted conception must be paramount. A
donor can choose whether to donate, but the person born as a result
of assisted conception has no rights at all. Those who donate
post-2005 will have full knowledge that they could be contacted,”
It is precisely the knowledge that donors could be contacted that
is fuelling concern. Will people really want to donate knowing that
their offspring could contact them in the future when their lives
may have changed in all sorts of ways?
For some, the answer will be a resounding no, raising concerns that
it could make prospective donors more reluctant to come forward.
Richard Fleming, consultant scientist in the assisted conception
unit at the Royal Infirmary in Glasgow, explains how his service
has had to shut down before because of a lack of sperm.
When the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 came into
force in 1991 and sperm donors had to go onto a national database,
there was an immediate drop in donors despite the fact that they
remained anonymous, he says. By the end of the 1990s there was not
enough supply and his sperm insemination programme had to close.
However, permission was sought to bulk import sperm from Denmark
and the programme was re-established. It now depends almost
entirely from sperm bought overseas, but this may no longer be
possible. Tissue donation in Denmark is anonymous. Even if that
were to change, there would still be the issue that donors’ sperm
might result in as many as 300 children.
“That’s not acceptable to an identifiable donor,” says Fleming.
“The price of sperm would be 10 times the rate for anonymous donors
and that would put it out of our bracket. We suspect that that
there will be a return to the situation at the end of the nineties
where there were patients who wanted donor insemination but who
couldn’t have it.”
While the new regulations will mean that in the future
donor-conceived children will be able to trace their origins, there
is still a generation who will not have access to their records.
Olivia Montuschi, joint founder of the Donor Conception Network, a
self-help organisation for families with children conceived through
donation, believes that there may be legal challenges ahead.
“If the government is now saying we were wrong – donors never
should have been anonymous and that it was wrong for the children –
can it be right that the HFEA continues to hold information in its
secret files about 20,000 children?,” she asks.
The Department of Health has promised to raise awareness of the
need for donors. Laura Spoelstra, chairperson of the National
Gamete Donation Trust, says this is very much needed as some people
still view donation as “smutty”.
“People need reminding that this is all about giving people the
gift of life and enabling couples to conceive a child which
otherwise they could not have. People don’t realise there are
waiting lists and haven’t thought about doing it themselves,” she
It may be that the publicity surrounding the announcement itself
will have done some good. Overnight Spoelstra, who has donated 12
eggs herself, received 24 e-mails asking for information about
donating – the number she usually receives in a whole month.
Many believe the government has taken a brave decision to end donor
anonymity, and one that supports children’s rights. However, it
must be hoped that potential donors are not put off. Otherwise the
argument that has been won in favour of the child’s right to know
their genetic history will be a pyrrhic victory.