News from the UK:New Rights for Donor Siblings

There’s much coverage in UK papers of some new provisions of the law governing ART that just took effect.  (I’ve linked to a couple of different accounts and with a little work, you could find many more.)   These provisions make it possible for people conceived using the same donor’s sperm to locate each other.   They are generally referred to here as either half-siblings or donor siblings.  

It’s worth thinking about donor siblings for a moment.   Siblings generally are minor players in the law–they don’t have  a lot of rights vis-a-vis each other.   This makes recognition of donor siblings more strictly a social/cultural concern and less a legal one.  It also makes it a less complicated issue, since identifying a sibling doesn’t raise autonomy issues that identifying a donor might.  

It’s easy for me to understand people’s interest in locating lost siblings.   Not long ago the story about some siblings in Maine who rediscovered each other after being separately adopted decades before got quite a bit of media play. 

While I assume that adopted children are in a somewhat different position than donor conceived children, I can also see the commonality.   Even if people are raised in completely different households, they effect of the shared genetic heritage is doubtless intriguing. 

Still, being a legal academic and all, I cannot help but think about the legal aspects of this.   One place I can think of that siblings do matter is intestate succession–that is, the distribution of your estate if you die without a will.   The idea of intestate succession is that it provides a rule that accomplishes what we think most people would want if they had gotten around to making a choice.  

So typically first to inherit is a spouse, if there is one.  If no spouse, then children.  If no children then parents.  If no parents then–right–here we are–siblings.  

I’m sure there’s law on who counts as a sibling, but I do not know what it says.   I would guess, though, that if two children have been adopted by the same parents, then those children are legally siblings.   

 If that’s right then it might very well be that the genetically related but separated siblings,  like the Maine siblings separated by adoption,  would not be recognized as legally siblings.    And if that’s true, then surely donor siblings (or half-siblings) wouldn’t be either.   Does that seem wrong?   (Keep in mind that a person could write a will and direct property as they choose.)

This also leads me to think about the inverse question.  Are the siblings you are raised with any less siblings if you discover you are not fully genetic siblings, but ony half-siblings?  Or perhaps not genetically siblings at all?   To me, the answer here has to be “no.”  Two children raised from birth as siblings by the same set of parents are siblings, whether genetically related or not.   But again, I wonder what those who place primacy on genetics would say.  

Finally, really as a reminder, not long ago the UK barred the use of anonymous gamete donors.   All donors are to be identified, although they are not given parental rights and they are not identified until the child reaches 18.   The UK currently is experiencing a sperm shortage, and it is said by some that the ban on anonymous donation has caused the decline in the number of donors.


12 responses to “News from the UK:New Rights for Donor Siblings

  1. From the International Donor Offspring Alliance:
    There have been repeated assertions from those opposed to the abolition of donor anonymity that abolition has lead to a diminution in supplies of donor sperm. These assertions have been marked by an almost complete lack of evidence. The HFEA’s own figures, which must be seen as authoritative, are:
    All new donors registered
    Year Sperm donors Egg donors
    1992 331 447
    1993 415 522
    1994 416 731
    1995 412 745
    1996 417 805
    1997 341 913
    1998 255 946
    1999 297 1,120
    2000 310 1,219
    2001 313 1,281
    2002 275 1,146
    2003 247 1,029
    2004 224 1,029
    2005 250 923
    2006 285 783
    2007 364 956
    2008 384 1,084
    These figures show that in every year since the Regulations were made, the number of sperm donors has increased. The numbers of egg donors show a fall of around 24% between 2004 and 2006, recovering in 2008 to a level higher than that in the two years prior to the coming into force of the Regulations. IDOA believes that a great many different factors contribute to the numbers of donors of both gametes. Whatever the case, what the figures disclose most clearly is that there is no objective basis to suggest a causative link between the Regulations and donor numbers.

    • Thanks for posting that. It’s very interesting.

      Here’s a clip from some of the news coverage I linked to:

      “The changes come as the number of children conceived by donor sperm plunged to a new low, of 472 babies in 2007, from a record low number of donor insemination treatments of 1,779”

      Read more:

      It’s interesting to think about how to fit these together. Also interesting to figure out why the media keeps saying there’s a decline in the number of donors. I wonder what they are looking at that leads them to say this?

      • I’ve just spent a little bit of time poking around the HFEA website. It appears to me that while the number of donors dipped a few years ago, it has now rising again and is fairly high compared to historical numbers. At the same time, the number of births attributable to IVF fell 25% in 2006 (which is the most recent year for which I found figures.) I don’t see any particular explanation for this.

        There are also consistent stories in the press about UK couples who become fertility tourists, assertedly because of shortages of sperm or eggs.

        Perhaps someone from the UK can shed some light on how all this fits together.

        • This was forwarded to me by another ‘donor’ offspring (from the UK) to help answer your question but she notes that this is not a definitive list to fully explain the reasoning behind the figures on the HFEA website:

          1) The number of available UK sperm donors is currently more than enough to satisfy demand for the circumvention of genuine, clinical male infertility in heterosexual couples (particularly as demand in this area has fallen due to ICSI) but since the revised HFE Act which has allowed full access to donor sperm by single women and lesbian couples to address their lifestyle choice, there is generally considered to be a shortfall (at least in the NHS, rather than private sector) in the amount of sperm required to meet the unprecedented demand.

          2) The apparent fall in the number of births from IVF (which may be donor IVF or own gamete IVF … the HFEA oversees both and the figures may not distinguish this clearly) may be due to a combination of factors, including:

          The introduction of guidelines which limit the number of embryos implanted to prevent so many multiple births (twins / triplets) means that younger women may now only have one embryo implanted at a time while older women are allowed two. Less babies are born as a result but more of them are likely to be healthy.

          Many women who have been serial IVF users over a number of years in the private sector, to no avail, may now have given up trying.

          3) Assertions of infertility tourism because of a shortage of sperm and eggs are entirely spurious. The reasons why people access ART in foreign countries are various and include:

          Laws in the UK prevent post menopausal geriatrics from using donor eggs so women over the age of 50 go to countries where this is allowed.

          The same applies to gender selection for “family balancing” reasons because sex selection in the UK is restricted to valid medical reasons.

          People who have been refused IVF in the UK (few are, but some are refused on medical grounds or, in at least one case, because one of the applicants had a history of pedophilia) are at liberty to purchase services elsewhere.

          Cost is a major consideration for those using the private sector clinics and many major European cities now offer IVF at much lower rates than in the UK. Similarly, surrogates in third world countries are dirt cheap compared to the UK and poor foreign mothers are less likely to want to keep the child after gestation.

          Certain ethnic minority groups living in the UK find it difficult to get donor eggs and sperm to match their own so find it expedient to return to their home countries for ART.

          UK clinics are required to provide 2 sessions of counselling which some people (particularly those using donor gametes) find intimidating as they would rather not have to address the issues they are forced to confront in the counselling process.

          Donor anonymity has been outlawed in the UK since 2005 so those who would prefer an anonymous donor for their own personal satisfaction can opt to go abroad to a country where this is still available.

          All ART births from licensed UK clinics are held on record so those who have issues with “personal privacy” can opt to go abroad.

  2. Hi Julie,

    This is not a new concept.

    We have helped more than 7,000 donor siblings connect (around the world) since 2000. We currently have 25,250 parents, donors and offspring on our site who are interested in making connections. And I suppose that in the UK we will continue to hep people connect, especially for those under the age of 18 who wish to connect with half siblings and donors.

    Asking the question about whether full siblings raised together are more “siblings” than the half siblings that connect – each donor conceived person feels differently about this and it’s they who should get to define this relationship. Some on our site call themselves brother and sister and bond as such, while some feel like more distant relatives. Same for donor to offspring connections- some DC people call their donors “dad” when they meet, others could never imagine doing so and are only curious about their medical, genetic and ancestral roots. Each person making a connection on our site needs to figure out how to define these connections. ( I was referring to my son’s half sister as a “half-sister”, while they were calling each other brother and sister).

    None of these people are legally related- none are looking for that, they are looking for that DNA connection. For half-siblings, many times they are looking to share that “invisible” side of themselves that they also share with a donor they may never meet.

    I do know of a couple of cases where a donor or a donor grandmother has added the donor child to their Will, and also where a donor added his name to the children’s birth certificates.).

    Kudos to the UK for acknowledging the importance of these types of connections. And for us here in the US…I guess I’m, still it!

  3. IVF rates are dipping in the UK for various reasons. The primary reason is that far fewer NHS Trusts are agreeing to pay for cycles of IVF and so most IVF now has to be paid by the patients. This being the case far fewer people choose to do IVF especially in a recession when money and credit is tight. Another thing is that IVF is getting more successful in general necessitating fewer attempts. Also in the UK doctors will not perform continuously repeat IVF procedures on women who are unsuccessful as in the USA. Because of fears of cancer stimulation women are usually not allowed more than a handful of attempts.

    • The stats I was looking at are for donor insemination, not IVF. It looks like IVF usage rose for the same year. But it is 2006 and that’s before the economic downturn. I bet you’re right about costs being a factor now, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see a downturn in IVF.

  4. “Anonymity in sperm donation: what do the numbers say?”

  5. Julie, You say “It also makes it a less complicated issue, since identifying a sibling doesn’t raise autonomy issues that identifying a donor might”

    Identifying a half-sibling makes it a lot easier to identify the donor himself. The sperm banks are fully aware of this fact, and they are fighting against this trend of “donor sibling reunions” because they see it as a threat to their business. DNA, donor information and facial recognition on the internet are part of it. In the more distant future donor siblings can find “legitimate” half-siblings and thereby the donor. In at least one American town this has happened already. The sperm donors “legitimate” children and his “illegitimate” donor son found each other this way and are playing together.

    Doesn’t this sound a bit like a return to the “good old days” of procreative freedom for the privileged males?

  6. I do not understand the “good old days” crack. I do, however, appreciate that egg donation is a robust industry. Additionally, technology is now available to bank unfertilized eggs for future use.

    The problems associated with half-siblings, be they anonymity, legal relationships or ethics necessarily includes female donors.

  7. I think it is very worthwhile considering the source of the assertions giving rise to this discussion. The Daily Mail, which appears to be the principal source, is a paper which depends amost entirely on scare stories, aimed not at the least educated but at the reactionary middle class. Recently a science journalist, Ben Goldacre, tracked the Mail’s treatment of stories about things that cause or cure cancer. The former included coffee, carrots, ecstasy, vaccinations….often the same substance would, within months, be cited as both the cause and the cure for cancer. At one point the Mail in the UK was campaigning against something (I don;t remember what) because it caused cancer and simultaneously campaigning for it in the Republic of Ireland as a cure.
    It is worth considering the Mail for its influence on large numbers of voters and hence on politicians but it is not worth consulting it for any sort of factual information. The fact is – and this is apparent to a moment’s reflection – that it would be impossible without a very expensive study, extended in time and geographical scope, to determine how many “fertility tourists” there are, and one would not then nevessarly have discovered their motives – they might be like a number of people I know who go abroad for dentistry or cosmetic surgery, because it’s much cheaper and they can have a holiday at the same time.
    From the point of view of the campaign for honesty towards donor offspring all this is irrelevant. Whether or not donor numbers would increase if anonymity were restored, whether or not they will decline when we get birth certification reformed, is not to the point. No doubt if we allowed child labour, goods would get cheaper and if we abolished the state old age pension we would save taxes. You can usually sell people’s rights for a material gain. Doesn’t make it right.

  8. Robert, I would like to explain my “good old days” crack.

    It happened recently in an American town that the offspring of a sperm donor was reunited with the donors own two “real sons”. I read an article about how the “donor boy” felt about his position, relative to his two half-siblings.

    It reminded me about 1-200 years ago, when you still divided the children of the nobility into “legitimate” and illegitimate” ones. Children with rights and children without rights. At the moment donor anonymity is protecting us from facing this problem. But as it becomes more common for donor children to reunite, not only with their donor half-siblings, but also with their “legitimate” half-siblings, we will have to face this problem.

    That was what I meant with my “crack” about returning to the “good old days” of free procreation for privileged males.

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