The End of Anonymity

I write this partly to follow up on my end-of-summer post from last time and partly to tie together a bunch of things that have been floating around.   It’s also been just about a year since there was a very extensive discussion around issues of provider anonymity here so it’s interesting to look at this again.   

The premise of the summer movie The Kids are All Right is (as I understand it–I haven’t seen it) that the kids tracked down the man who provided the sperm used to create them.  In a similar vein, last winter this article appeared in Slate, speculating that sperm donors (their term, not mine–I am trying to be consistent in the use of the word “providers” unless it really is an instance where sperm is given rather than sold) can readily be identified with a little on-line work.  And to the same effect was this story on Spin Doctor (though I think it is taken from a different source) a few months later.  

I suspect it is quite likely that we are heading for an end to anonymity for gamete providers, or at least and end to our ability to count on anonymity.    If that’s true, the question is what follows from this.  I see several different things.   

First, there are families out there that were created with assumptions about anonymity.   I think those families ought to recognize that they cannot count on what they had assumed would be the case.   To my mind, this means they need to plan for the eventual loss of anonymity.   (There’s a similar phenomenon with regard to adoption.)   

Second, there are people who have yet to create families who will be using third-party gametes.   As these people consider their options, perhaps they should acknowledge that choosing an anonymous provider–to the extent they are offered that choice– doesn’t ensure that the person will remain anonymous.   While there’s no guarantee that the unknown provider will in fact become known, there’s also no guarantee that the person will remain unknown.  Thus at best, choosing anonymity is choosing uncertainty. 

Third, there are institutional providers of third-party gametes–sperm banks, for example.   Many sperm banks offer  “anonymous donors” while others offer clients a choice between identity release and anonymous donors.     Once the guarantee of anonymity depended primarily on the procedures followed by the sperm banks, and thus was within the control of the sperm bank.   Now anonymity can be breached by means beyond the control of the sperm banks–web searches, Facebook, etc.   Thus, the promise of anonymity may be illusory.  

Finally, there are the individuals who provide their gametes for the use of others.   They, too, should acknowledge the possibility–perhaps the probability–that children conceived using their gametes may seek them out at some point in the future.   If they are not willing to accept this possibility perhaps they should not provide their gametes.  

Though I’m by no means an expert on the history of the ART industry in the US, I think it is fair to say that from the beginning the assumption has been that providers of gametes would be unknown, and those that were identified or identifiable were the exception rather than the rule.    This assumption isn’t sound anymore.  It’s probably best to think about the consequences of this now rather than just waiting to see what happens.


5 responses to “The End of Anonymity

  1. The law will always protect a person’s right to live a peaceful existence free of harassment and those fearing contact should rest easy knowing that they have the right to have the law place a a restraining order against offspring who, after being politely rejected, threaten and harass them and the people they live with.

    So really the fact that offspring can figure out who their parents are and initiate contact to introduce themselves poses no real threat to the privacy of the people they are contacting. They can’t just move in and start using their bank accounts or anything. People should not trip so much at worst those people may have to grapple with some unresolved feelings of shame and embarrassment but that is a private matter that does not require the government to interfere by trying to manage how much one person knows about the other.

    • This is true if the law is structured so that a provider of gametes isn’t a legal parent. In some places the law does that, but in other places it does not. Thus, in some places if you identify the provider, there might be an action for parentage. I’d say this is a good reason to ensure that the law is clear that the provider of gametes for ART is not a parent.

      • I don’t think its really possible to do that since it would be in direct conflict with other laws that hold men responsible for children based upon paternity and women responsible for children they gave birth to where there is a presumption of maternity. Those laws are in place to ensure that men and women don’t abandon their responsibilities without going through the proper legal channels where they are relieved of those responsibilities by relinquishing their parental authority to either the state or individuals wishing to assume those responsibilities for the parent or parents who is/are stepping down. The assignment of responsibility based on maternity and paternity ensures that millions of children receive financial support from absentee parents who still want to retain some legal authority over the lives of their offspring rather than have a stranger act on their behalf.

        Gamet providers are exercising their reproductive freedom by choosing to behave in ways that can reproduce their genes and result in the birth of offspring just the same as a guy who has sex with a girl he barely knows. I think its important for the law to continue to assign responsibility based upon maternity and paternity because a child born of that situation would be recognized as a member of both families and both people would be required to support the child. Gamete providers are just insulated from that reality because they are anonymous – which I guess is your point. And I guess my point is the industry already clearly acknowledges the parental rights of the people providing the gamete that is why they have them sign waivers of parental authority when they vend their eggs and sperm. I think those waivers would offer little protection if someone were to figure out the identity of a donor while the child was still a minor with the specific intent of obtaining an order of support. I think the gamete provider might be able to wiggle out of it if another man had originally said he was the father of the child and it could be proven that he lied and knew he was not the father, but a single woman might very well be able to get some cash and I think a few have. My recollection was that those men were friends of the women but they signed the same flimsy pre-birth waivers.

        I don’t think the end of anonymity means we say gamete providers are exempted from the responsibility that maternal and paternal relatedness brings. I just think it means that they have to be informed when their offspring are born and then they should go through the very same procedures that everyone else has to go through in order to be absolved of those responsibilities.

        Its also a great way to make ensure that nobody misrepresents themselves as being genetically related on any medical records. I’m not implying that such a misrepresentation is traumatic – it will encourage full disclosure

  2. You also have to think of the big roll those flimsy waivers play in the ART industry – without those waivers there would be very little to differentiate the gamete vendors from the patients who have gametes and embryos in storage for their own use. Those people have not implied that they wish to waive their parental rights to any offspring born of their stored gamets and embryos, nor have they granted the clinic the authority to determine the identity of the people they will share offspring with nor have they waived the right to be informed of the birth of any offspring born as the result of the clinics reproductive technologies. The clinic’s aknowledgement of authority over ones own genes and offspring is implicit within by virtue of the existence of those gamete provider waivers and the absence of waiver is what protects the patients in the event of a laboratory mistake or outright fraud by the clinic. Those people would be able to show that they had not given up their rights to their offspring if another woman ended up giving birth to their offspring. That’s just important to remember in all this.

  3. marilynn – I am inclined to agree that anonymity within the use of ART or even for one’s own use later does not absolve one’s responsibility for the offspring produced from those gametes. That is unless their parental rights are relinquished and an adoption were to occur, if needed. I say “if needed” because if a single woman gave birth using donor sperm, only the bio-father would be required to give up his parental rights, yet his name would appear on the original birth certificate. Thus the child would know who they came from. I still think this is an important right for a child to have and one they may never exercise, but at least it is their option to know who their bio-parents are.

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