A New Stolen Generation

While many adults applaud the new reproductive technologies, many children conceived by these means are far from thrilled with them. Many are left not knowing who their actual mother or father is. And many go through lifelong agony and grief as a result. They have become the new stolen generation, deprived of the most important people in their lives.

Consider a case just mentioned in the press yesterday. A Victorian woman is so desperate to find her biological father that she has resorted to legal action. The woman, who is now in her mid-twenties, was conceived with the aid of an anonymous sperm donor whom she knows nothing about.

When she was told about this in 2005 at age 21 she said it was a “shattering” experience, and she still suffers extensively because of it. She said, “I cannot fathom going through life never knowing where I have come from, my ancestry and my identity. Every day I look at the faces of people around me and wonder: ‘Could you be my father, my half sister, my half brother, my grandparent?’”

One press account describes the story this way: “In a case that could affect thousands of donor-conceived families, Kimberley Springfield has asked a tribunal to overturn a bureaucratic decision that no action be taken to help identify the donor.

“Her case comes as state and federal parliamentary inquiries due to report in the coming months consider donor conception and the rights of donor-conceived people to gain access to identifying information about their donors. In submissions to both inquiries, Ms Springfield, 26, whose sister and at least four half siblings were conceived with her biological father’s sperm, said she had suffered mentally, emotionally and physically from being denied knowledge about her family since she found out how she was conceived five years ago.”

The tragedy is, however, that she is far from alone in this. There is an entire generation of young people who are suffering in similar ways. But all of this should not be unexpected. New reproductive technologies such as IVF have always been of concern to bioethicists and others.

Indeed, of real concern are the possible adverse psychological effects on IVF children. How do they perceive their situation? What disadvantages, if any, do they experience? How is their sense of personal history and identity affected by their unique situation? Such questions could not be properly answered until recently. But now that some IVF children are in their twenties, we can begin to find out.

Studies have found that many people conceived through donor sperm or eggs have not been told the truth about their origins. The exact figure is not known, but a large number of the estimated 20,000 babies born through such donations since the 1970s in Australia are ignorant of their parentage.

Many children conceived by IVF have spoken of the loss and/or confusion of identity. In an age that emphasises knowing one’s roots and searching one’s genealogy, the dilemma of IVF children is greatly heightened. Many were conceived by donor sperm or egg. Some were housed in a surrogate mother. Indeed, for many, there is not a mother and a father, but a gaggle of “parents” and players. They have in effect been raised by a committee, not a mother and father.

Says one author, “As we know from studies of adopted children and the first testimonies of in vitro babies who are now reaching adulthood, questions of parental origin seem to have great psychic import; uncertainties about our identity on this primary level can have oddly troubling effects.”

Another case in point is that of Joanna Rose, an Australian woman who is still coming to terms with who she is and where she belongs, after learning she was fathered by an anonymous sperm donor. Since making the discovery, she has been desperately trying to discover who her father was.

In a moving interview on television some years ago, she spoke of her dilemma. She spoke of her frustration and despair, and how suicide seemed like the only option. It is worth quoting from the interview at length.

“I’m aware that there are huge aspects of my identity, my self-knowledge, my ancestry, my medical history that I don’t know. I’d rather answer these questions as soon as possible than live with unanswered questions for the rest of my life, and I’ll do whatever I can to answer them quickly so I can get on with the rest of my life without that vortex.

“It’s likely that I have between 100 and 200 brothers and sisters, half-brothers and sisters, and no way of identifying who they are and obviously that’s terribly badly thought out and irresponsible on behalf of the medical establishments and the Government to allow a situation like that to happen.

“I’ve always felt like a social guinea pig, an experimental guinea pig. . . . I am absolutely adamant from my experience and from the experience of other people like me that any form of anonymous donation is a violation of our human rights and our identities. As far as other arrangements are concerned, I have to question the idea of encouraging people to donate their paternity or their maternity under any circumstances, but at least if people had an ongoing relationship with their biological family, regardless of the arrangements, it’s less damage.

“I was the person who didn’t have a say in this whole arrangement in the first place. We are the people who can’t put our needs forward with a voice because we haven’t been conceived yet…”

A more recent story features another young woman with similar complaints. Myfanwy Walker was conceived through an anonymous sperm donor. In her twenties she finally found who the man was. It has been a harrowing experience for her. She is glad she finally discovered her genetic heritage. “But there was a massive amount of loss there for me. There were almost 20 years I could never reclaim, coupled with the realization that I could never have the genetic relationship with my own dad.”

She continues, “Basically my problem is with the ethics of the practice. It doesn’t protect the rights of the child. Once people understand the issues they probably wouldn’t choose to conceive via donor. . . . It should be a question of whether it’s in the interests of the child. You can’t negate that, you really can’t.”

Finally, problems can arise as have occurred in Sweden. A sperm donor there has been forced to pay child support for children he helped to father through his donor sperm. The children were raised by a lesbian couple, and the man played no role in their lives. But the lesbian couple split up, and the courts ordered him to pay the support.

And here in Australia similar problems have occurred. A lesbian couple has sued an IVF doctor because they ended up with twins instead of just the one child they were after. The couple is demanding financial payment for “wrongful birth”. Imagine how the children must feel, knowing that at least one of them is unwanted, and the subject of a “wrongful birth” case?

There are many more such tragic stories out there of children and young people who have been robbed of a mother or a father or both biological parents. We have allowed the ‘products’ of these new technologies to be used as guinea pigs, obviously not thinking through ahead of time the possible negative repercussions they would experience.

But this is always the case when we allow science and technology to race ahead of ethical considerations. We allow what we can do to outstrip what we should do. And as a result, we have all these young people who are now suffering by being part of a new stolen generation.


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13 Replies to “A New Stolen Generation”

  1. I have always been concerned about the current system – not only anonymous but also ‘known’ sperm donation – with children still not getting information about their origins until the age of 18. As a promoter of children’s rights I believe that they should be given information about their biological origins as early as possible – and that parents should receive professional help and support regarding how and when to tell children etc. What happens after the birth is far more important- and it seems that most are just then left to get on with it – as if their job is done. Offering parents and their children information about the donor can assist in helping them form a positive self-image and identity. This is – in part – why I created an alternative – a sperm donation connections web site where the focus is on what happens AFTER conception. Anonymous donations are not supported. Donors choose who to donate to – and often keep in touch – meeting the child is he or she wishes – with many playing an active role. It is early days – the site has only been operating for almost 8 years – however we are now starting to see the impact of children being able to know of – and often meet – their ‘donor dad’ – and how parenting a child created through sperm donation can work for all – including the child. Earlier this month the ‘Children Deserve to Know Where They Come From’ campaign was launched – educating and supporting families with donor conceived children – preventing the very issues described in this article. Even though many argue that what is most important are the parents who are raising the child- we are now more accurately understanding what these children (now adults) really feel about their conception – the way in which they were told- and what they wish would happen for other donor conceived children in the future. Regardless of how fantastic the parent/s – everyone needs- and deserves – to know where they come from. I do not believe this means abolishing sperm donations altogether – however we do need to find legal solutions that offer people the chance to be parents (if they are emotionally and financially ready and able to offer children a loving, stable and secure family life) that also allow for more information sharing with children, early in life when they are forming their identities. And as new parenting arrangements are being made many are finding ways to include the donor dad in the child’s life. This cannot happen when people use a clinic however – and I do feel that we need to address this.
    Emma Hartnell-Baker
    (I have not included the site name or details as I am making a point- not trying to promote the site. Hope that’s ok.)

  2. “In an age that emphasizes knowing one’s roots and searching one’s genealogy”

    Actually, I don’t think this is unique to our age at all. If anything, the modern west tends to emphasise individuality and independence from ones’ parents and ancestors. By contrast I think that many cultures in history — not least the Hebrew culture, as witnessed in the Bible — have taken genealogy very seriously.

    But that is just a small point I had to make, and I am absolutely with you Bill that IVF and reproductive technologies are very ethically questionable. I find it disappointing that evangelical Protestantism (unlike Catholicism) has by and large been too lazy to critique this technology.

    Another point that often isn’t mentioned is that the process of IVF often involves freezing embryos for later use. These are human beings that we are putting in deep freeze, and my understanding is that many embryos do not survive this. Would you put your son, or daughter, or aunt, or mother, or sister into deep freeze for storage? Even if you could be sure that they would come through on the other side??

    Jereth Kok

  3. The troubled predicament of children conceived by IVF and other artificial means is one of the unintended but inexorable consequences of the “rights” culture.

    Doesn’t everyone have a “right” to have children if they want them? This right trumps the cards that Nature may have dealt in making some women infertile etc. It also “amends” the traditional understanding that the union of one man with one woman is a necessary legal and moral condition on which to raise a family.

    As we have been taught for at least a couple of decades now, the nuclear family is just one option among many. Besides which, marriage is an oppressive institution. Far better, for example, that single women in their sixties should become mothers (by one means or another) than they should be deprived of the happiness to which they are entitled. Consideration of adverse effects on the children’s future is thrown out of the window in this pandering to this selfishness.

    If we probe deep enough, the rights culture itself can be seen as a payoff from democracy.

    Alex Anderson

  4. Good for Kimberley Springfield. Her human rights and those of a generation of children, have been trampled over roughshod due to a lack of emotional intelligence by their true parents and government authorities. When these young people overcome their confusion and loss of self esteem and take the wool from their eyes, they are going to realise the enormity of the selfishness of adults they had looked up to. The law needs to be changed to protect humans born by artificial means and awareness of the psychological and emotional harm done needs to be acknowledged and raised to deter people from seeking this treatment.
    The following is the sales pitch of the artificial insemination business:

    “Will I get paid for my sperm donation? We reimburse reasonable expenses, including travel and loss of earnings, in accordance with HFEA guidelines. Looking for a sperm donor? Once you have chosen the donor with the most appealing characteristics, just add it to your cart and complete the ‘shopping’ process. Once we receive your order, one of our dedicated team will contact you by phone to arrange a visit to one of our clinics and discuss your treatment with us. It is during this telephone call that payment for your choice of donor sperm must be made. We charge £850 for each treatment cycle with the sperm, and you are able to reserve the stock for one treatment cycle. As with any other treatment options at the LWC, the initial consultation fee is £295. You will be reimbursed all charges for the sperm (minus a £150 administration fee) if you are unable to visit the clinic for your initial consultation within four weeks of its purchase. The sperm will then be released back in to the catalogue.”

    Someone is making a lot of money from sperm donation. We should cut out the middle man and leave it to the biological mother and father to make their baby, as nature intended. If a couple is unable to conceive, adoption will help an orphaned child and that couple will be giving and helping instead of taking and harming.

    Rachel Smith, UK

  5. No doubt, many before me would have raised the possibility of someone eventually marrying their half brother or half sister and have no idea of the situation, as a result of these confidential donors. It must be devastating not knowing who you really are, or what national blend you are descended from. There is a common theme running through all these “bright” ideas of the medical profession. As is the case with the proliferation of abortion in the community, it all reeks of selfishness and a complete lack of consideration for the most important person involved – the child.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld

  6. Jereth, you said: “I find it disappointing that evangelical Protestantism (unlike Catholicism) has by and large been too lazy to critique this technology.”

    The roots of this problem go back to the early days of planned parenthood, when Protestant churches (if I recall what I have read) failed to raise theological and moral objections to “playing God” because they could not see down the slippery slope to what we are saddled with today.

    John Angelico

  7. In this current “demo”cratic world a person can commit the most horrendous of crimes against another human including torture, rape, perversions and finally death by some form often slow and painful. However besides all this and even if caught in the act or linked to the crime by irrefutable evidence or even by confession. That person has the right to claim a fair trial and generally pleads not guilty blaming upbringing, drugs or booze for their deeds.
    Through all this the one person who never gets to put their personal case to say I’ve lived a good life, never harmed anyone, loved and trusted people why have I been tortured and had my life destroyed? Either way the trial is often very one sided because great pains are made to illustrate and create sympathy for the offender.
    We never know the achievements or the future life that might have been for the bright young person or the right to a safe retirement for those that have given freely in their lives. A trial rarely gets to understand the humanity of the victim or the trust that person gave to those around them. In this case the victim is dead and will be forgotten by most. The offender has been jailed for a few years and will live freely one day.
    Has justice been done? I think not.
    IVF in a sense is also a one sided trial where the victim gets no choice and no hearing until in maturity when old enough to put their case and their suffering they fight to have their say and demand to know who allowed them to be parentally sterile?
    Adoption on the other hand is not quite the same but changes are needed. The new parent adopting the child must know that information concerning the biological parents will be available, and not just the mothers, then the new parent with the love that urged them into the arrangement can inform the child at a given time. Often it is a quest that must be answered to give life meaning or sometimes a simple need to know who they are. In most cases once adoptee’s know their biological parents they still choose to stay and love those that raised them as their own.
    Anonymous donor-ship in an IVF arrangement is a very selfish thing and can even be for financial gain for the donor. Similarly parents who cut off their unwanted children also have a degree of selfishness albeit some degree of compassion does avert them from abortion. That small part of conscience that turns them away from that gruesome act should also include biological identification for the child at a later stage.
    We do not need more victims nor one sided trials where those affected get no say. There can be no justification for giving the innocent victim a life sentence.

    Dennis Newland

  8. When “the pill” became available the pope of that era predicted every consequence that we see today:

    -Breakdown of marriage and family,
    -Increased promiscuity,
    -Objectification of women,
    -Increased abortion, etc.

    Exactly the opposite of what was predicted by the planned parenthood brigade.

    Sadly, we see now where wisdom lay.

    Anna Cook

  9. Yes, just one of the horrors of IVF and surrogacy is the possibility and even celebration of incest. This can happen tragically even with adoption where two brothers and sisters separated at birth meet in later life, not knowing who they are, have children and then are forced to break up their family when the authorities discover who they are.


    David Skinner, UK

  10. Its all too easy to lay the blame for this tragic situation at the door of the medical profession, politicians, sperm donors, selfish parents, etc. However, the common denominator is surely the abandonment of Biblical standards, known by all and acknowledged and practised by all. In short the two great commandments: love God, and your neighbour as yourself. We reap what we sow.
    Dunstan Hartley

  11. It would be more helpful if the distinction between IVF and donor-assisted conception (with or without IVF) could be maintained, because they raise different issues for people.
    Regarding the appeal to Biblical standards: I thought that there was a strong theme in it that childlessness was a lifelong crisis for women? The drive to reproduce is very strong in many people and is reinforced by societies which consider childless men and women as second class citizens or even without rights at all. Faith groups could do much much more to make childless people feel valued just for themselves.
    Jennifer Speirs

  12. Thanks Jennifer

    Of course in one sense all IVF and similar technologies are donor-based, as something is being donated, be it sperm, eggs, womb, etc. But yes, some are less ethically problematic than others, such as husband donated sperm, eg.

    As to biblical concerns, fertility is viewed in a positive manner in Scripture, but it is not seen as some inalienable right. Children are a gift of God, but sometimes God’s gifts include childlessness as well. Sometimes learning to live with what God (or nature) has dealt us – or hasn’t dealt us – is preferable to taking radical measures and in some ways playing God.

    In the same way, living a prosperous life is often God’s blessing for us. But poverty too can be a gift, and how one becomes wealthy also needs to be ethically and biblically tested. We can become wealthy by robbing a bank, but in this case the end does not justify the means.

    And the idea that various medical and health benefits are to be seen as absolute, and striven for at any cost is also problematic. I have dealt with this elsewhere, eg:
    And here:

    And as I say in this article, adult desires should not trump the well-being of children, and in many of these assisted reproductive technologies children certainly are the big losers. Nothing biblical or ethical about that.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  13. To Bill Muehlenberg,
    Thank you for your article, you have conveyed the real issues of donor conception. In a society where the rights of donor conceived children’s voices struggle to be heard, the support of those such as yourself and others on this forum are crucial.
    God Bless,
    Kim Springfield

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