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Past sperm and egg donors split on losing anonymity

By Shereen Jegtvig

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - People who donated sperm and eggs before 1998 in one Australian state were able to remain anonymous, but potential new laws could have changed that. A recent study found those donors were split on the idea of possible contact from their donor children.

Victoria, Australia introduced legislation to ban anonymous sperm and egg donation in 1998.

"This means that donor-conceived children who were born after 1998 have a legal right to access information about their donor," Karin Hammarberg told Reuters Health by email.

Hammarberg is a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Public Health and Preventative Medicine at Monash University in Melbourne.

It was also suggested that the government change the law to allow everyone conceived through sperm and egg donations to find information about their donor - including pre-1998 donors who thought they could stay anonymous, she said.

But before deciding, the government wanted to ask people who donated in the past how they would feel about no longer being anonymous, and reached out to Monash University researchers.

During early 2013, Hammarberg and her colleagues interviewed 42 people who had donated eggs or sperm anonymously before 1998.

Just under half of the donors supported the recommendation to retrospectively remove their anonymity. They emphasized the needs of donor-conceived people to understand who their biological parents are.

Some of those people also suggested donors should have access to identifying details about their donor offspring, according to findings published in Human Reproduction.

The rest of the donors rejected the recommendation, saying it would violate the terms of a contract and undermine trust in privacy and confidentiality guarantees. Many of them thought revealing their identities to donor children would harm them and their families.

About half of the donors who rejected the recommendation were themselves willing to supply information to their donor offspring. They suggested the compromise of persuading donors to voluntarily release information to donor-conceived people. Many of them also thought parents should be encouraged to tell their children about their donor conception, and some thought it should be required.

It's impossible to know if the views of these 42 donors represent the views of all Australians who donated eggs or sperm before 1998, the researchers noted.

In August 2013, the Victorian government considered the survey findings. Although acknowledging the right of donor-conceived people to have information about their donors, the government decided identifying information should only be released with a donor's consent.

"The balancing of donors' and donor-conceived people's rights requires utmost sensitivity. All over the world, increasing numbers of donor-conceived people are reaching adulthood. Of those who have been told that they were conceived with the help of a donor, some are likely to have a strong wish to know the identity of their donors," Hammarberg said.

"Legislators and policy-makers in jurisdictions where anonymous (egg and sperm) donations are permitted and practiced will need to respond when these desires are expressed," she added.

The United States doesn't regulate donor identity like Australia or other countries that have fairly high usage of reproductive technologies, Judith Daar told Reuters Health.

Daar is a member of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine Ethics Committee and has appointments at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, California and the University of California, Irvine School of Medicine. She was not involved in the new study.

"We don't have any federal laws that govern donor identity in any way and only one state, Washington, a few years ago enacted a law that permits donor-conceived offspring to have access to their donors when they reach 18," Daar said.

"But that law also permits donors to opt out of this disclosure," she said. So donors can still choose to remain anonymous.

The ethical considerations of egg and sperm donor anonymity are complicated, researchers said.

"Those in favor of non-anonymity or mandatory identification rules tend to argue from the perspective of the rights of the child that's born and talk about the right to know your genetic origin or right to have contact with the genetic parent," Glenn Cohen told Reuters Health.

Cohen is co-director of the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was not involved in the Australian study.

Occasionally people will talk about the interests of the egg or sperm donors or the egg or sperm recipients' parents, Cohen added.

But, he said, the U.S. has a robust network of donation banks that work under open identification principles. So anybody who wants to donate under non-anonymous conditions and parents who want to ensure their children have access can do so.

Cohen said there's evidence that requiring donor identification will lead to a reduction in the number of donors, resulting in longer waiting periods. On the other hand, his own research suggests doubling the compensation for donors can overcome their concerns for anonymity.

SOURCE: http://bit.ly/1cCNfyr Human Reproduction, online December 6, 2013.

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