News and Noteworthy

Donor conception: a modern day slavery

Posted on Monday, February 22, 2016

An adult speaks out about the anguish caused by her lack of a biological father.

by Elizabeth Howard

This article was first published at on February 22, 2016.


Hernan Pinera/Flickr


The anguish of infertility is well known. Most people know someone who has struggled to have children, and no one would deny the pain people endure when they know they cannot have children of their own.

This desire to have children is so strong, so fundamental, that scientists seem to acknowledge almost no limits to the quest to cure infertility, and give infertile couples that which they most desire: a child.

So it is that the desire to have a child of one’s own has become a de facto right, or so it seems. Yet this “right”, when it uses so-called “donors” in order to be achieved, tramples over the rights of the children who are born in this way. Because if a child is born of “donor” gametes, he or she will be deprived of the chance to know and be brought up by his or her biological parent or parents.

There is no legal right to have children. But there is a legal right (under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to a family life. The full enjoyment of this is denied to donor-conceived children. There is also an outright ban on slavery. But when gametes and even embryos are bought and sold, what is this but slavery? People sell their own children—or their gametes, with the express intention of creating children that they will never know. This is strong language, I know, but people who do this can’t really be blamed. The donors are told that they are doing something altruistic, and the would-be parents are told that this is a perfectly acceptable way to overcome infertility.

The fact remains, however, that society condones the primacy of the older, stronger and richer party over the younger, smaller and voiceless party.

I feel this not just intellectually but viscerally, since I am one such product. My mother’s husband was infertile, so she went to a London clinic and paid for artificial insemination using donor sperm. The donor was anonymous, possibly a medical student earning beer money—but no records remain of who he was, and donor-conceived adults like me have no legal right to learn about their real parentage.

The iniquity of this situation was officially recognised in 2005, when, after a legal challenge by a donor-conceived adult, the Department of Health was forced to end donor anonymity. All donor-conceived people born after that date in the UK have the right, once they turn 18, to learn their genetic parents’ identity, and the last known contact details for them.

This hard-fought right is obviously very limited. It relies on the social parents of the child disclosing the truth of the child’s origins. For very many people (including me) this simply does not happen—at least not intentionally. The deception involved gives the lie—literally—to the research that claims that “the kids are ok”, since “the kids” are often kept in a state of ignorance. Not only that, but it is likely to be very difficult to track down a donor using contact information that is 18 years out of date. And finally, a “reunion” at 18 hardly compensates for spending one’s entire childhood cut off from any contact with a genetic mother or father.

For the people born before 2005, the situation remains that we have no right to learn anything at all about our genetic parents. It is hard to describe how strange and unsettling it is not to know half of where you come from. I do not know my father’s name, so I do not really know mine. I do not know where my features and characteristics come from, or those of my children. And crucially, I do not know half my medical history, so when my baby daughter was diagnosed with cancer, I could not answer many of the doctors’ questions about my family history. Those who say that DNA does not matter do not know what they are talking about.

Apologists for assisted human reproduction argue that “only love matters”, and that genes are irrelevant as long as the family is loving. Much of the research on which this is based focuses on very young children who are bound to defend the family they know. None has been carried out on the effects of donor conception on adults, particularly when they become parents themselves.

The fertility industry is big business. There is a lot of money to be made out of the misery of infertility, and the industry is adept at doing so. From the posters of dewy babies on the Underground, to the glossy expos which seem more akin to the Ideal Home Exhibition than to a consideration of the creation of human beings, the message is clearly geared to “fixing” infertility with no regard to the effects of the procedure on the children involved.

Sadly, the promise is a lie. An infertile couple using donor gametes remains infertile. They have simply given birth to someone else’s child. But the lie becomes truth when it is written on a birth certificate. The birth certificates of donor-conceived children reflect the adults’ desires, rather than biological reality. (It is bizarre to note that the product of a one-night stand is legally recognised as the legal child of his father, who is obliged by law to provide for him; but the child of a sperm donor is deemed to be legally the child of someone else altogether.)

My own childhood was not happy, and my social father ended up in prison for child abuse. I know that not all donor-conceived adults are so unlucky. I also know that not all biological families are happy—far from it. It is true that some donor-conceived adults are untroubled by their origins, and incurious about their genetic background. However, many of us—even those who were blessed with a happy childhood—feel a disconnection from our parents, and a deep longing to know where we come from.

Science divorced from ethics created the problems I outline here. But science may also provide donor-conceived adults with a crumb of comfort. DNA testing sites are now available to anyone who is curious about his or her origins. These sites give details of other family members who have tested—usually not close family, but cousins of varying degrees. With some luck, persistence, and the help of web-based support groups, many people have traced their biological origins using DNA. Donor-conceived adults may not get family life as others know it, but they may at least get a family tree.


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