The “murky world of sperm donation”

The “murky world of sperm donation”

“I wanted to scream, to rip the tablecloth off, to smash something, to go to the bathroom and cry.” Such was the intensity of emotion experienced by Sarah Dingle when her mother disclosed to her at lunch one day that she’d been donor conceived.

An article published in Marie Claire magazine about the experience of journalist Sarah Dingle’s finding out (almost by accident) at age 27, that she was conceived by way of a sperm donor, provides a new insight into the phenomenon of sperm donation and its impact upon the resultant children, decades later. Sarah’s book about her experience, Brave New Humans: the Dirty Reality of Donor Conception, documents “her own journey to unpack the secrets and lies around her own conception, but [is] also an examination of the ethics and complexities of donor conception in Australia generally.”

Sarah describes her reaction to her mother’s assurances that the most important thing was to know that she was loved and that her (non-biological) father (who had passed away 12 years earlier) considered her as his own child:

“This was my first lesson in what it’s like to be donor conceived: your feelings about the whole business come last.”

Up until recently, information about sperm donors was kept deliberately anonymous. This policy was borne of a view that donating eggs or sperm was no different to other medical procedures such as donating blood or tissue. As Xavier Symons, Research Associate at the Institute for Ethics and Society at University of Notre Dame Australia expresses it: “There was limited recognition of the social and existential significance of the genetic connection between donors and their biological children.”

And yet, as more donor conceived children come of age and begin to speak up on this issue, it is clear that biological heritage and identity are powerful forces that go to the heart of what it means to be human.  

This phenomenon (that donor conceived children feel disconnected from their biological roots and want answers about their origins) was examined in a 2012 Victorian Law Reform Committee Inquiry into Access by Donor Conceived People to Information about Donors. It found that:

“Many donor-conceived people who are unable to obtain information about their donors experience considerable distress and anguish. They are denied information about their identity, which is a right that most of us take for granted. Their ability to access information is constrained as a result of decisions made by adults – their parents, the donor, and medical professionals – before they were conceived.”

There have been some attempts at regulating the industry, and it is now illegal to donate sperm anonymously in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. Once a donor-conceived child turns 18, they are legally entitled to discover the donor’s identifying details.

However, these attempts at regulation are being frustrated somewhat with the rise in new online trading services:

“…a new complication is emerging that threatens to throw everything into unregulated chaos again – private gamete trading on social media, which is now so common that it may even overtake IVF clinics as a primary means of infertile couples or singles conceiving a child.”

“Adam Hooper runs one such group, Sperm Donation Australia, and says he believes more donor conceived babies were born from activity in his group in 2020 than from all the IVF clinics combined.”

“There are no limits placed on how many times a man can donate his sperm – whereas most clinics cap the number of donor recipient families to either five or 10 to minimise the chance of siblings meeting and perhaps unknowingly entering into sexual relationships.”

Legal impediments aside, as Sarah discovered, the process of tracking down one’s donor parent can be exhausting:

“Once Dingle realised half her genetic material was a complete mystery (“Looking in a mirror and not recognising half your face is incredibly trippy – and not in a good way”), she spent years trying to track down her donor, a process that involved countless dead ends, unsympathetic IVF clinic staff and the horror of realising that records had been actively destroyed to protect donors.”

“The process, Dingle says, was almost as troubling as being told she’d been donor conceived. The experience became all the more disturbing when she discovered the man had been donating sperm once a week for two years. The extent of Dingle’s potential siblings (to date she is aware of six) is vast. ‘None of this, it has to be said, leaves me feeling particularly good about my existence’, says Dingle. ‘But the baby business has never cared about its children.’”

Discovering one’s own biological origins is not only important from an identity/self-knowledge perspective; there are important practical and health considerations also. Sydney nurse, Geraldine Hewitt, spent years trying to uncover her biological heritage, only to find her American father had passed away before she could contact him. She notes however, that making that connection with her biological father from an existential perspective was only “one part of the puzzle”:

“Hewitt also recently discovered she has a potentially dangerous blood clotting condition, which tests show she inherited from both her parents. The medical advice is that people who have this condition should alert their relatives. Hewitt informed the relatives she knew, but when she contacted the clinic where she was conceived, asking that they alert any half-siblings that she’s not aware of, they refused.”

Sarah is circumspect about donor conception not going away anytime soon, but wants prospective sperm donors and recipients to be truthful with any prospective children:

“You need to tell them the truth. And if they want you to, you need to give them every assistance to find their biological parent and siblings.”

“I understand that people will always want children. But I want those people to do everything they can to ensure the welfare of that child is paramount.”