By Jennifer Lahl, CBC President
A landmark victory has just been won in Pratten v. British Columbia, a case that will undoubtedly set a significant legal precedent. On May 19, the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled against the practice of anonymous sperm (and egg) donation, instead arguing in favor of donor-conceived children and their right to have access to information about their biological parents. The court’s decision stems, at least in part, from the notion that, when it comes to children, biology and biological parents do, in fact, matter.
Olivia Pratten, a brave young woman from Toronto, was at the heart of this legal battle. At the age of five, Olivia’s parents told her that she was conceived using an anonymous sperm donor, and thus, that the man she called “dad” was not, in fact, her biological father. And as with many children created through anonymous sperm and egg donation, she had a lot of questions: Who was her biological father? What did he look like? What similarities did she share with this man? But because Olivia’s biological father donated his sperm anonymously, most of her questions had no answers.
Thousands of donor-conceived people have a deep longing to know who they belong to, where they come from, and who they look like. What is it like to grow up not knowing who your father is or if you have any siblings? What is it like to find out that the man you thought was your dad is not your biological father, that your true biological father donated his sperm and is known only by a number? How does it impact your self-perception, the choices you make, and your view of life and the world? Donor-conceived people are demanding answers to these basic questions about their origins, their lives, and their identities. And it is our opinion that they have a right to know this information.
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When Olivia turned nineteen, she visited the doctor who had inseminated her mother. But because the donor was anonymous, the doctor was only able to disclose a few facts about him: he was Caucasian and had blue eyes and brown hair. While this information did help to define a previously unknown figure for Olivia, ultimately, it was too vague to be of any real use in her search for her biological father. And the doctor had shredded all the medical records from the insemination, leaving no trail for Olivia to find her biological father.
Much like Barry Stevens, who is also a product of anonymous sperm donation and producer of two documentary films on the subject (Offspring and BioDad), Olivia experienced “genealogical bewilderment.” Barry borrows this phrase from psychologist H.J. Sants in an attempt to acknowledge and describe the feelings of people like Olivia and himself who have little or no information about one or both of their natural parents.
Olivia, Barry (who estimates that he has over 100 half-siblings), and thousands of others have a deep longing to know who they belong to, where they come from, and who they look like. They also rightly argue the need to know their medical history, which is passed to them, in part, through their biological parents. But they have been denied answers to these most basic questions. Not so in British Columbia anymore, thanks to Olivia’s case, where she sought to right this wrong, ensuring that records are maintained and information is openly available to offspring. In the wake of this decision, the court has given the province fifteen months to write a new adoption law that will recognize the rights of donor-conceived people to access this information about their biological parents.
Most of us have grown up in an era of open-adoption, a necessity in the age of genetic medicine, and these children have access to their biological information. Given this, many might wonder why this practice hasn’t been extended to donor-conceived children. Objections to the ruling in Canada have already been expressed loud and clear, mainly from the fertility industry itself. Sean Tipton of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine stated that the organization will strongly oppose any move to ban anonymous gamete donations in the U.S. because “We think people ought to be able to build their families the way they see fit…and we don’t want to change the rules in the middle of the game.” Those in the industry argue that donations will dry up if anonymity isn’t protected, and that protections need to be put into place to protect donors from children finding them and wanting money, or to be welcomed and added into their families.
Fortunately, brave people like Olivia Pratten are making their voices, their needs, and their rights known, and the courts are changing the game. Sorry, Dr. Tipton, it is not just about parents creating the families that they want; it’s also about these children and what they want, need, and have a right to know. And Olivia and other donor-conceived children have a right to satisfy their most basic human need for identity, which is intricately connected to their biological parents.
Jennifer Lahl is founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture Network.