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Anonymous no more

IN THE NEWS | Donor conception rules in the United Kingdom and elsewhere move toward greater transparency


Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Anonymous no more
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For the thousands of Britons whose genetic parent was an anonymous egg or sperm donor, 2023 may be a year to remember. This is the 18th year since Britain barred parental anonymity for children conceived via gamete donation on or after April 1, 2005. That means 2023 is when the first children conceived under the 2005 legal change will reach their 18th birthdays. At that age, they’ll become legally eligible to access identifying information such as their donor’s name, date of birth, and last known address.

The legal trend in the U.K., along with similar reforms in Australia and some U.S. states, indicate a growing shift away from donor anonymity.

On Feb. 28, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, the country’s fertility regulator, began soliciting public input on government proposals to revise the 2005 law even further. Admitting “attitudes have changed” regarding donor anonymity, the regulator wants to allow children to obtain information on their donors even before adulthood—although only if their parents and donor have opted in.

Elizabeth Howard didn’t learn until age 15 that she had an anonymous father. Her mother disclosed the truth about her origins after Howard found a letter from the London medical clinic where she was conceived in 1971 by a sperm donor.

Howard used DNA testing to locate her genetic father, a doctor who shares her smile, nose, and “generous ear lobes,” as she described in a 2016 open letter published by the Conservative Woman website. In the letter, Howard calls him “Dad” and says he bears a striking resemblance to her third child.

[Children] should not be intentionally and commercially separated from them at conception, regardless of how much an adult believes they will be loved and wanted.

But now, seven years later, that man has never responded to her letters. Howard, who regrets the lost relationship, told WORLD that U.K. laws are “completely skewed towards people who want to have a baby, without any thought given to what the impact is on the child.”

More than 4,100 children were born in the U.K. in 2019 using donor sperm, eggs, or embryos, according to government statistics. U.K. authorities began tracking donor conception in 1991 but kept donor identities anonymous until the law changed in 2005.

Donor-conceived people born in the U.K. before 2005 still have no legal right to know their donor’s identity. Howard was one of a handful of donor-conceived adults in Britain to go public in the early 2000s. Their accounts shed light on the long-term consequences for children and adults left in the dark about their genetic ­origins: emotional and psychological distress, a loss of identity, concerns over accidental incest, and preventable ­medical harms since donor-conceived people often know nothing about their donor’s health history.

The doctor who facilitated Howard’s conception is deceased, and all his records were destroyed. So far, she has found six other donor-conceived half-siblings. They have a group chat and sometimes share medical information.

“To be given a name and some basic details at age 18 is crumbs ­compared to what a child’s birthright is,” Howard said. “The child that is ­produced is a stakeholder in the ­process … a person who is going to grow into an adult and have their own needs.”

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth Howard Handout

The reforms in the U.K. and elsewhere may seem to some ironic, since abortion is still legal in these places. In this way, the new laws accord rights to the unconceived, though the conceived have none.

In Australia, donor-conceived ­people are calling for a national sperm donation database amid growing ­concerns about “prolific donors” and accidental incest. In February, the government of Queensland, the country’s second-largest state, signaled its ­support for adopting a central donor conception registry and access for ­children to obtain information about their donor when they turn 18.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the fertility industry remains largely unregulated, with no official donor registry. California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Washington have laws allowing the release of donor identity to donor-conceived adults. But donors can still opt out. Colorado passed a more comprehensive law last May abolishing anonymous egg and sperm donation for children conceived on or after Jan. 1, 2025. The law also ensures permanent retention of donor records and limits conception by one donor to no more than 25 families.

Wendy Kramer runs Donor Sibling Registry, a social networking site that has helped nearly 24,000 donor-conceived people connect with half-siblings and genetic parents. She says DNA testing and sites like hers offer more immediate hope for such people than the new laws.

“We won’t even know if Colorado’s law did anything until the year 2042,” she said.

Katy Faust, president of the advocacy group Them Before Us, argues that laws chipping away at donor ­anonymity miss the point. She said many donor-conceived children feel like a commodity that was purchased, designed, bought, and sold.

“Children have a right to their mother and father,” she said. “They should not be intentionally and ­commercially separated from them at conception, regardless of how much an adult believes they will be loved and wanted.”

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