There are plenty of problems associated with IVF and related forms of assisted reproductive technologies. I have written about them often, and it seems we keep learning of more drawbacks and difficulties with these procedures. But we often think only about the adults and their wants in these situations. Seldom do we consider the wellbeing of the children so conceived.
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 many IVF children are in their twenties, we can begin to find out.
We now have plenty of children conceived by IVF who 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.
There are now heaps of tragic stories to share in this regard. Let me offer a few recent ones. 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.”
Or consider an even more recent case. Here is how one press account relates the story:
A woman conceived with the help of a sperm donor has taken a rare legal step to find out the identity of her biological father. 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.
“I cannot fathom going through life never knowing where I have come from, my ancestry and my identity,” Ms Springfield wrote. “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?”’
Another more recent story about another such person also speaks to the heartache and misery one can experience. This young woman even went so far as to say she wished she had never been born. Gracie Crane was one of the first children conceived from donor embryo in the UK, and she does not even have a right to know who her biological parents are. A large article about this is worth quoting from at length:
Gracie, who is mixed race, was one of the first children in Britain conceived from a donor embryo, which means she has no genetic link to either of her parents. As she was born in 1998 – seven years before amendments were made to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act allowing children born through donor conception to trace their genetic parents – she has no right to find out who her biological parents are. Or even whether there are any hereditary conditions which may affect her in the future….
Having reached 16, and with the support of her clearly devoted parents, Gracie is speaking out because she wants anyone contemplating such a decision to understand just how difficult her life has been, despite being raised by a couple who adore her.
‘I would like to be a mother one day so I can finally have someone I’m genetically related to, but if I can’t have children naturally I would never have one through donor conception,’ says Gracie. ‘I wouldn’t put anybody else through what I’ve been through. Knowing that the two people I love most don’t look like me and that I am not biologically related to them has been really tough. There are times I’ve wished I’d never been born — as much as I love my parents, it’s just so sad not knowing who I am and where I came from’…
‘Anyone considering starting a life which has already been started somewhere else shouldn’t just think about their desire to have a baby and take the fastest option,’ she says. ‘They should be as selfless as possible and think about how the child will feel growing up — speak to people like me and my parents. If people are going to have a donor-conceived child, they need to match up the donors to the parents. But then embryos that can’t be matched will be thrown away, and that’s not right either,’ she adds, her huge brown eyes welling up again.
One more story concerns Sarah Dingle, who discovered in her young adult years that she was conceived by means of an anonymous sperm donor, and that she will never find out the name of her biological father. Here is part of her moving story:
What I now know is that my parents began going to the Human Reproduction Unit at the Royal North Shore Hospital (RNSH), a Sydney public hospital, in 1982. It was just before the AIDS scare fully broke. I started digging. I contacted the clinic for my medical records. The RNSH Human Reproduction Unit had been taken over by IVF Australia, part of the Australian Stock Exchange-listed Virtus Health, which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. IVF Australia keeps all records created by the public hospital.
I rang IVF Australia and was put onto a woman who handles these cases – people like me, the babies who come back to ask questions. I’ll call her Mary. Mary took my details, but said she probably wouldn’t be able to tell me my donor’s name because when I was conceived in 1982, the law was different. What I’ve found out since is that there was no law.
Australia’s assisted reproductive technology industry is today worth more than a billion dollars. It makes money out of human life. But crazily, there is no national legislation regulating the industry. Some states have acts governing the industry, but not all. My home state of NSW is one of the most enlightened for donor-conceived people, but even here, only children born after January 1, 2010 – that is, only toddlers – have the right to identifying information about their donors. The rest, like me, don’t have that right. Because the industry is unregulated nationally, no one knows exactly how many donor-conceived people exist, but the Donor Conception Support Group estimates that within Australia there are about 60,000.
Her concluding words are also worth sharing:
Let me be clear: I don’t need another parent. I couldn’t have asked for a better father than the man who brought me up. But I could do with some answers about why I am the way I am, who my family is, and what genetic time bombs I should watch out for. I would like to know who my biological father is, and to have an amicable relationship with him. You’d think that the former, at least, would be a legal right.
The reality is that I’ll live my entire life as an only child who probably has more brothers and sisters than most people I know. In the end, because Saunders’ clinic chose to destroy donor codes, I’ll never find my family. I’ve come to terms with this, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt. What happened to me in the 1980s could be happening right now. There is no national law keeping this industry’s practices in check or protecting the rights of the child. Without the right to the truth about our genetic origins, donor-conceived people will remain products of industry, not human beings.
This lack of roots and family identity is so severe that entire organisations have been established around the world by those conceived by the new biotechnologies. One such organisation is The Anonymous Us project. It features many heart-wrenching stories of those brought into the world in this way.
All the more reason to call a timeout here and have a major rethink about where all this is heading, and what harm it is actually causing to so many.