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.