Thursday 18 July 2019

The first generation of sperm donor babies is coming of age. And their voices are going to be heard...

Medb Ruane

Dr Kirk Maxey felt so sorry for childless people he became a sperm donor. The deal was total anonymity for him, with no responsibility.

Ten years later, Kirk and his wife began to wonder. What would happen if their child fell in love with a half-sibling? Hundreds had been born, most of them growing up relatively nearby.

"I've done the calculator math, which is all I can do in my position with how secretively this was done," he said. "I really never will know but I can calculate it. It's 200 to 400 and it all depends upon the assumptions you make. There may be 100 young women in our area that are basically my son's age that are his half-siblings." They knew nothing of each other.

Sharing information about genetic identity was not on the agenda this week when the High Court ruled that a lesbian couple living together in a long-term committed relationship with a child are regarded as a de facto family. Joyous, historic and important for same-sex couples, it was a difficult case on many levels, not least the emotional pain for the gay man who fathered his friend's child and was refused guardianship and access rights.

The child's welfare was paramount, according to Judge John Hedigan, which was as it should be. Unfortunately, that did nothing to promote the rights of the child because the ruling was based on notions of family under the European Convention, not on the child.

This little boy, happily, will know who his father is and what his genetic inheritance entails, yet that's not the usual path in assisted human reproduction (AHR). Although hailed as a victory for advancing the status of same-sex families -- hurrah for that -- the case is another sombre reminder of the perilous status of children's rights in this country, especially those conceived through AHR.

Let's be upfront. I believe each child has an absolute right to know who their biological mother and father are. It's part of their genetic identity, so it matters for health and biological welfare. It's vital too for their sense of themselves.

Irish society took years to acknowledge that adopted children had the right to information about their social and genetic background. The lesson wasn't learned with AHR; history will repeat itself, impacting within about five years.

Katrina Clark told The Washington Post about her experience of US regulations. "The children born of these transactions are people, too. Those of us in the first documented generation of donor babies -- conceived in the late 1980s and early '90s, when sperm banks became more common and donor insemination began to flourish -- are coming of age, and we have something to say.

"I'm here to tell you that emotionally, many of us are not keeping up. We didn't ask to be born into this situation, with its limitations and confusion."

Confusion there is chaos here. The worst of the Baby Ann case and of the Roche v. Roche frozen embryo saga falls on such a child.

The area is almost entirely unregulated, or self-regulated, because of Mary Harney and the Government's failure to act on the Report of the Committee on Assisted Human Reproduction, published three years ago.

The status of an AHR or other donor-conceived child is crushed between two of Ireland's most fraught debates -- constitutional articles on Family and continued avoidance of real life ethical dilemmas about zygotes, embryos, cloning and the like.

It's so easy to access AHR you can do it yourself. I searched online for a sperm donor -- a test tube donor -- and faced multiple choices within minutes about the ethnic, physical and intellectual attributes I'd like to mix with my eggs.

Tall Latinos, blue-eyed Aryans, handsome P Diddys, a weird self-promoter advertising his intellect (yeah?) on scientistdonor.com -- I could be a self-styled Dr Mengele carrying out my own breeding experiments without a worry for the child's rights.

Doubtless, I'd convince myself I was acting in the child's best interest because I'd love and cherish it. But under the mask of love, I'd be perpetrating a lethal paternalism, permitted by current Irish law.

The sheer difficulty of writing or speaking clearly about these issues shows how doing nothing is making things unnecessarily complicated as life and science race relentlessly on.

The Constitutional referendum on the rights of the child -- giving children a status of their own -- was sidelined. Officially, politicians didn't want to confuse voters by holding it on the same day as the Lisbon Treaty. Actually, this was a very convenient device to postpone it again because in truth God hadn't ordered it be held on the same day as Lisbon, had he?

Politicians don't make time because, fundamentally, dealing with the status of the child is a lesser priority than dealing with the status of, say, racehorses or pedigree cattle. Add on AHR and the response is 'freeze'.

I could conceive this P Diddy baby mixed with my west of Ireland genes, if I wished. I could love and cherish it, smack it, punch it and discreetly abuse it sexually without being prosecuted under Irish law. Denying it knowledge of its genetic identity, I could make it mine, all mine, just as the law provides.

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