Paper: Canberra Times (Australia)
Title: Canberra Times: -
Legislation heats up sperm-donor debate
Date: December 9, 2007
WHAT race or ethnic group would you prohibit from using your sperm? If a lesbian couple wanted it, would you say no? Would you let a Christian have it, but reject a Muslim's request? Would the idea of your child contacting you once they turned 18 stop you donating it? Sperm donation is not the simple business it used to be. Back in the 1970s, poor students in need of cash could walk into a donor centre and get a quick buck for something they had in abundance. Not any more. Aside from the fact it is now illegal to donate sperm, eggs or embryos for payment, donors face a plethora of legal, social, genetic and moral issues. That has not stopped John Smith* from donating his sperm. The 40-year-old, who has lived in Canberra for just over a year, has been doing it for about 12 months. He donates for altruistic reasons, but also because he knows a lot of people who are trying to have children but can't. ''I've always wanted children myself, so I understand that desire and this is something I can do to help,'' he said. It is estimated that up to one in 10 couples will at some point need assistance to become pregnant. To date, more than 30,000 Australians have been conceived with the help of donor sperm. But supply is shrinking, and it's not hard to see why fewer men are coming to the party. In the wake of new tests for genetic disorders, donors are now subjected to health checks, procedures and counselling. The psychological impact of being a donor-conceived child has also changed the way donation is legislated. Last month, NSW joined Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia in having specific legislation relating to the clinical practice of assisted reproductive technologies, saying it was in the ''best interests of the child''.
The ACT is yet to follow suit, and fertility clinics here are currently self-regulated. Health Minister Katy Gallagher said until she discussed the issue with cabinet she was unable to say what the ACT Government's position was on the matter. ACT Health had suggested the territory watch what happened in NSW, but the Government would ''probably have to be more proactive than that''. Ms Gallagher also conceded there were some ''difficult'' issues and ''ethical questions'' raised by the legislation. If history is anything to go by, as sperm and egg donation becomes more regulated, supply drops. There has been a huge shortage of sperm in NSW since licensing guidelines were introduced there in January last year, forbidding clinics to use anonymous donors. Similar laws passed in Western Australia in 2004 have seen donations also dry up there. NSW has since gone further. Last month, it passed the Assisted Reproductive Technologies Bill, under which sperm donors will have to register their names, making it possible for their children to contact them once they turn 18. The child will be guaranteed access to the donor's name, date of birth and education, as well as important medical information. Mr Smith said he did not have a problem with his name being on a register, but he could see why some men might. ''I can understand why some guys might baulk at the idea of someone contacting them in 20 years and saying, 'Hey, I think you're my dad','' he said. ''But it's not that big a deal. If you're not up for meeting then you let them know and that's the end of it. ''This register gives you the option of one day speaking to them should they choose and maybe by the time they do, your attitudes may have changed and it could have become something really important and change your life for the better. ''Not only will you have done your bit to help create a life, you might also get to know that person too.'' Canberra Fertility Clinic scientific director Chris Copeland is not so optimistic. ''We already have a situation where we don't have enough sperm donors and now they've gone and made it worse,'' Dr Copeland said. ''Would you want to be on a register in some government department? Would you want you and your child's details on it if your husband donated sperm? ''In every other state where this type of legislation has been introduced they've basically closed the donation system down.
''They may as well have said they don't want any more sperm donors.'' Dr Copeland is also opposed to the part of NSW legislation that permits sperm and egg donors to choose what kind of person will receive their genetic material. Donors can now choose recipients based on gender, religious beliefs, sexual orientation or race.
The move has the backing of religious groups as well as some in the legal and medical community. Those in favour argue that it is in the best interests of the child for the genetic parent to have given consent to the circumstances surrounding the child's birth and upbringing. NSW Health Minister Reba Meagher told Parliament last month, ''To put this another way, it will not be in the child's best interests to discover later in life that their genetic parent has a fundamental objection to their existence or the social and cultural circumstances in which they were raised.'' Mr Smith said he would not have any issues with the background of whoever received his sperm. ''I wouldn't mind if someone was Catholic or Muslim or a Jehovah's Witnesses or anything else, all I care about is whether or not they are good parents,'' he said. ''That's what I would hope for above anything else, and you can't base that on race, religion or sexual preferences. It comes down to the individuals and how they deal with the stresses of being a parent.'' Medical ethicist Leslie Cannold said the legislation reinforced discrimination and prejudice and seemed to be attaching ''disturbing strings''. It also seemed to give weight to the ''somewhat dangerous view'' that genetics were what made a parent, she said. ''Donation is a gift and most men make it in an open-hearted way with an appreciation that they're helping someone to have a child when they otherwise couldn't, and that is a wonderful thing.
''But if they have to attach strings to that gift, as to who should get it, I'd hope instead that they chose not to give it.'' * Name changed for privacy reasons
And having spoken to the journalist from The Australian, it looks like she'll be coming to Canberra in a couple of weeks to interview me about sperm donation, and it sounds like she wants to talk to Sharon as well! Exciting times!