Advances in reproductive science and medicine have raised troubling questions over the past 40 years—What is the meaning and definition of parenthood? What is the significance of biological connection between a child and her parents? What is the definition of infertility, and to whom may it apply? And how far may we go to secure “children of our own”? Couples declared to be infertile now have a range of reproductive options and combinations. Techniques such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) and artificial insemination may be combined with the use of donor gametes and/or gestational surrogates in various ways. These high-tech reproductive manipulations force us to contemplate the extent and scope to which we may manipulate procreation and remain both “in control” and a moral society. Alas, society and culture have failed to keep up with the steady stream of technological and scientific advances that have such notable ramifications for future generations.
Why should we be surprised? Society still has not grappled adequately with one of the first and most easily-accessible reproductive technologies: artificial insemination. Indeed, if the matter is considered at all, it is usually in the context of chuckling about the sperm donation process. But decades of experience with sperm donation demonstrates that even this seemingly innocuous sector of the infertility industry raises serious and culturally-important questions. For example, the anonymity of most sperm paternities creates serious genetic and biological questions for children sired by artificial insemination. There are also emotional consequences to the children born out of the process who are deprived of “roots” from their paternal lineage.
Sperm donation has received such little attention by society that few laws and only the barest legal regulations govern the field. For example, donors must be screened for HIV. Laws also exist—differing from jurisdiction to jurisdiction—about whether the sperm donor shall be deemed the legal father of his children.
In particular, anonymously-donated sperm—often used in artificial insemination or IVF procedures—presents potentially serious and long-term health consequences, not only to the children of the donor, but down the generations, both physical and psychological. Family medical history is crucial to a proper evaluation of a patient. Is there a propensity to cancer? Have close family members had heart disease? When patients are unable to trace their paternal lineage, it impedes their doctors’ ability to provide complete and proper care.
And yet, no laws require fertility clinics to track which children were created with the sperm of which donor. Neither are there legal requirements assuring that a donor’s complete medical history is either obtained or maintained if needed at a later date. With many children often born from sperm donated by the same donor, the potential exists for unintentional incest and resulting health consequences for the progeny.
Nor is much consideration given to the emotional and mental health impacts on children who have “anonymous fathers.” Rather, by focusing so intently on fulfilling the desires of the mother or a couple to have children, little, if any, thought is given to the future well-being of the child who are purposefully deprived of any connection with their biological fathers, many of whom later report that they desire contact with their biological father. When the issue is considered at all, it is usually dismissed with a wave of a hand and the rhetorical question, “Would they prefer that they had never been born?”
The Center for Bioethics and Culture advocates five significant legal reforms to regulate commercial reproduction using donated sperm:
1. Paying for sperm donations should be outlawed, because it reduces the careful consideration of children’s interests.
2. The number of children sired by donation should be strictly limited.
3. Records must be maintained identifying the names of donors/fathers and their children.
4. Complete health histories of sperm donors must be taken, maintained and provided to the family upon request.
5. A database tracking the use of sperm must be established, in order to begin collecting the data necessary for the interests of children to be placed at the forefront, including access to information regarding their medical history, as well as their interest in family connections with their biological fathers.
Treating infertility and providing reproductive services has become a multi-billion dollar industry. As such, the existing laissez-faire approach to regulating sperm donation in specific, and the reproductive industry generally, no longer serves society.
For your consideration, additional resources on human rights:
Think Again: A Study Guide on the Legal, Medical, and Ethical Questions of Third Party Reproduction is intended for a wide audience as we aim to meet the needs of high school groups, university students, law groups, church groups, and any other group interested in the issues of third party reproduction. Most importantly, the study guide is available for FREE in order to maximize distribution and use. You can download it here.