If anything other than completely open embryo donation is wrong, can egg and sperm donation be far behind?

I belong to several Facebook groups where donor conceived people (DCP), potential or actual parents of DCP and donors offer their perspectives and experiences of donor conception. Recently Marna Gatlin, founder of Parents Via Egg Donation (PVED), wrote a long post on one group stating her beliefs around how embryo donation should be conducted in order to be ethical. She knew it would be controversial but felt that in the interests of children created this way it was necessary.

I have felt the same way as Marna for a long time – and I speak here as an individual and not as a spokesperson for DC Network. We both agree that embryo donation is only ethical if the donating and recipient couples agree to raise a child in full knowledge of their origins and deliberately set out to nurture a relationship between the families in full acknowledgement of the genetic connections between them. Anything else feels like a violation of the rights of all the children involved. There are places in the world where this happens. In New Zealand it is written in to the law and practice of assisted conception. In the USA there are agencies that bring together recipients and donors for this purpose, but some discriminate against those who do not fulfil their selective criteria. It is interesting that in the UK, domestic embryo donation is very rare. Clinics will say that this is because of the shortage of embryos for donation. But the reason for this lack of embryos is I believe at least partly due to the ending of anonymity for donors. The fact that the donors can become known when the child is 18 exposes the reality of what embryo donation means – full genetic siblings of same or similar age being raised in different families with only one of those sets of parents being fully genetically related to all the children. Most donors and recipients blanch at this prospect (which is usually revealed in counselling), but if the law allowed everyone to meet before the donation took place and make reciprocal arrangements in the interests of the children, then the potential for happy families and children could be realised. Sadly the unintentional result of donors becoming identifiable when a child is 18 and not before this time, is that those couples or individuals whose only chance of a family is via double or embryo donation, go abroad to countries where donors are fully anonymous and very little information is to be had.

The complete separation of the child from genetic relatives is at its most stark in embryo donation. To my mind, it is hard to know why or how anyone these days could contemplate such a method of family creation. But what about sperm or egg donation?In single donation parents have always comforted themselves with the knowledge that a child’s genetic make up will contain at least one known part and maybe it doesn’t matter that an unknown person makes up the other half of their child’s genetic heritage. For some, although fewer in these more enlightened times, the egg or sperm is ‘just a cell’ and nothing to do with another person with a history and family heritage of their own. The nature/nurture debate has swung different ways over the years and it has been relatively easy for parents to feel that early ‘telling’ and lots of love and security will be enough for their child. But, as I have written in previous recent blogs, it is becoming harder to ignore the spectrum of feelings, ranging from curiosity to terrible pain and distress, coming from donor conceived people; some told late but increasingly those who were early told but whose thoughts and feelings about their origins have changed over the years.

In the group in which I found Marna’s post, the consensus from donor conceived people is that known donation, where both biological parents are part of a child’s life from the beginning (alongside the parent(s) who are legally responsible and actively parenting a child) is the only ethical way to proceed with donor conception of any sort. Although there are many issues to address with known donation – not least the insecurities and fears of potential legal parents and the bases on which these relationships are made – my strong sense is that this is the future. DNA testing is certainly undermining both full anonymity and identifiable at 18 donorship, but there is a more important reason for moving to ‘known from the beginning’ third party parenting, and that is that everyone deserves the opportunity to have a relationship with all the people they are genetically related to. As children grow up they can decide for themselves how important genetic ties are to them. Relationships with the ‘extra parent’ or half-siblings may or may not survive – many families lose touch or have very loose relationships with members they have little in common with – but they may also become very meaningful and be valued highly. DCP are clear in their posts that raising parents, particularly if they are open and supportive, are their first attachment love and as such of vital emotional importance to their children. Other bio parents and half-siblings fill a different emotional space – often equally of value but different in type to the essential connectedness (no matter how toxic that connection sometimes is) of the first attachment parent(s).

I know from my own experience of parenting a DC daughter whose views have moved over the years that there is nothing to fear. We talk about her feelings and couldn’t be closer to her. She has our complete support in her search for genetic relatives and we are as delighted as she is that she has recently had confirmation, through DNA testing, that she does indeed have a strong link to the particular ethnic make-up that people were always assuming she had. But I say this as someone who is deeply involved in the DC world and probably most importantly as a parent of adults. I am no longer someone faced with the infertility of a partner and despairing at the prospect of never having a family. Very few people, and particularly couples, at this stage are likely to feel anything other than threatened by the idea of known ‘donation’. There is a huge amount of awareness raising and psycho-education that needs to happen before potential parents start to tell their clinic that only a known donor is acceptable. But it will only be when potential recipients of gametes from other people vote with their feet and their dollars/pounds sterling that clinics are likely to change their practices.

There is a lot of work to do. This change is unlikely to happen in my life-time but happen it must if we are to recognise and honour our children’s heritage and give it equal status to our own need to raise a family.

Marna Gatlin’s post is heartfelt and sets out clearly the many reasons why anything other than completely open and transparent embryo donation is unethical and also how the behaviour of some agencies in the US is equally unethical and sometimes discriminatory and exploitative as well. It is unlikely that the UK would allow similar behaviour from agencies or clinics as, unlike the US, we have a strong history of and belief in regulatory systems, but it could happen elsewhere. Changes to primary legislation would be needed in the UK for an open system of matching known donors to recipients to take the place of the current ‘identifiable at 18’ law. This change, legislated in 2004 and enacted in 2005 is I think still considered progressive, both in the UK and elsewhere and I suspect it will take a long time for this topic to return to Parliament, but return it must.

For those who have not seen it, I am reprinting Marna’s post below, having gained her permission to do so. Her arguments for ethical embryo donation are strong stuff, but I believe unchallengeable if a child-centred view is taken. Egg and sperm donation need also to be seen through this lens.

“Here’s my PSA (ed.public service announcement) for the day – I am sincerely not here to make friends and this post may upset intended/recipient parents – and that’s okay. I am however, here to hopefully aid, help, and give accurate resources, and support to intended/recipient parents who have children via third party reproduction with respect to egg donation/embryo donation.To begin with embryo donation is just that *embryo donation*. It is not adoption. It never has been adoption. It will never be adoption. Embryos have special significance compared with gametes because of their potential to become persons, but they should not be afforded the same status as persons. Adoption refers to a specific legal procedure that establishes or transfers parentage of existing children. Application of the term‘‘adoption’’to embryos is inaccurate, is misleading, and could place burdens upon recipients and should be avoided. (as per ASRM https://www.asrm.org/…/defining_embryo_donation…

Open embryo donation from my perspective should be the only way donating parents and intended/recipient parents participate in embryo donation. I feel strongly that it’s not okay, unhealthy, and horrible to separate siblings, especially when *YOU* know as a parent where they are in the world.· Donating embryos anonymously is mindfully discarding your child’s *potential* full sibling. It’s also mindfully denying that potential child of their biological/genetic connections and original parents, as well as denying that potential child the knowledge, access, and potential relationship with their full siblings.· Open embryo donation is about creating, building, and nurturing relationships between families. Both parties (Donating and Receiving) work together to create a safe, healthy, and open environment for their respective children to know about their donor conception origins/stories. Where their biology/genetics arrive from, who their siblings, and genetic family as well as the option for a relationship with that family if they should so choose as they grown up. That’s considered being good stewards in regards to family building and growing/adding to your family and parenting.· This process is child-led. This means we set and build the stage, environment, or foundation for the above. When these kids are ready to meet in person they will already know about one another. They will know about their origins. And we follow their lead, answering their questions, being transparent, and treating embryo donation and *THEM* with the integrity, love, and respect they deserve.

Not all embryo donation groups (regardless where) or organizations are created alike. Personally, I would not participate or be a part of an embryo donation group who ascribed to or practiced the in following practices:

Discriminates against people of color, sexual orientation, gender, and ethnicity, religious or non-religious or political affiliations.

Does not advocate a legal contract created by a licensed attorney specializing in third party reproduction between the donating family and the recipient family that spells out clearly the intent of both parties, what continued contact looks like, and what happens to left over embryos, which is super important. INTERNET CONTRACTS ARE NOT ALWAYS LEGAL. Groups that tell you it’s okay not to have a legal contract and a handshake is fine. It’s not.

Does not advocate both parties meeting with a licensed mental health professional who specialize in third party reproduction. (LIFE COACHES ARE NOT MENTAL HEALTH PROFESSIONALS) Groups that tell you the mental health piece is not important. It is. Groups that tell you they can provide their own mental health support within the group even if they are not mental health professionals. They can’t.

Groups or organizations that charge patients for embryos. Agency fee’s administrative fee’s are appropriate. Charging patients / clients for embryos is not. ***There should be no monies exchanged between donating parents and recipient parents for embryos.*** The only monies exchanged between donating and recipient parents is for reimbursements for things like – Legal contract, medical visits or testing, reimbursement for cryopreservation storage, visit with mental health professional.

Groups that do not advocate or support telling children of their donor conception origins. Groups that state telling a child their story is not important. Groups that say telling children about their origins is unhealthy and potentially harmful to the child.

Groups that do not allow YOU as the donating parent to choose who you donate your embryos to.Groups that do not allow YOU as the intended parent to freely communicate, or choose the donating family you might receive embryos from.

I am sure I have forgotten something, and you all will remind me. Open embryo donation is a passion of mine. We are talking about potential future children. We need to give them their best start REGARDLESS of how uncomfortable the donating parent or intended/recipient parents might be regarding being open, transparent, or continued contact.That’s why it is important we all approach and embrace open embryo donation the right way, thoughtfully, mindfully, legally, healthily, always placing the child first.”

About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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3 Responses to If anything other than completely open embryo donation is wrong, can egg and sperm donation be far behind?

  1. Pauline Ley says:

    Yes!!! Anything less in embryo/egg/sperm donation is acting in the best interests of adults without respect/regard for human rights of children/adults. Your compelling message requires immediate recognition and action. Already there are millions of children/adults whose best interests have been ignored/compromised. There will be heartbreaking, tragic consequences.

  2. Jean Haase says:

    Thanks for that thoughtful post about Embryo donation, Olivia. I was not aware of the possible reasons there is so little embryo donation in the UK.
    I’m happy to be affiliated with a wonderful open, Embryo donation programme here in Ontario. It’s very similar to the New Zealand model.
    I interview the donors, who usually express their motivations as both a genuine desire to help others create a family and a reluctance to dispose of the embryos it took so much effort to create. They are relieved to find out they can donate openly and help choose and to meet the recipients. If their clinic- which will have been charging annual fees to store the embryos- only offers anonymous donation, they are not interested. Many just keep paying these fees because they don’t know what else to do. Most of them find out about our program through their own online search (not the clinic!).
    I’m sure there must be many people in the UK who are struggling with decisions about surplus embryos. It’s too bad this donation model seems less available than ‘made to order’ embryos at a foreign clinic.
    Jean

  3. oliviasview says:

    Jean – how lovely to hear from you and to know about your open embryo donation programme in Ontario. Do you know if there are others like it in Canada? It would be good to have more models of good practice to be able to offer to the HFEA and others who question open embryo/gamete donation. Places that are doing the right thing – by the child, the donors and the recipients – should be shouting more loudly!

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