Donor conception is often shrouded in secrecy. At age 7, only about half of children know that they were conceived with donor eggs; the figure for donor sperm is only about one-quarter. Legislation forcing IVF clinics to give access to the identity of the donors is spreading. In Sweden, Austria, the Australian state of Victoria, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, anonymous donation has been banned.
But is this necessary? Writing in The Hastings Center Report, bioethicist Inmaculada De Melo-Martín says No. There is no desperate need for children to connect with their genetic parents. In fact, she says, a policy of non-anonymity may even be socially harmful.
She attacks supporters of the right to genetic information on three counts.
It is argued that secrecy could harm family relationships. But, she counters, the empirical evidence is ambiguous. “It is not clear that secrets are prima facie wrong or even that all secrets are in need of justification. Secrets can protect important aspects of human life, even when they can also invite abuse. Indeed, rights proponents are not proposing an end to all family secrets, or even to all secrets that relate to mode of conception.”
It is argued that children need to know their genetic origins for the sake of their health. But says Melo-Martín, this overstates the role of genetics and biology in a person’s life. Clinics screen donors for genetic diseases, so the process should be safe. In any case, “Even if people had accurate information about their genetic relatives, there is not sufficient evidence to conclude that access to family history improves risk prediction, changes people's risk perceptions, and leads to better health outcomes.”
It is argued that we have a natural need to know our genetic forebears and that people who do not know their genetic parents suffer from “genealogical bewilderment”. But, Melo-Martín, argues, there is no robust empirical evidence for this. In any case,
“even if many donor-conceived people had a very strong interest in knowing their genetic origins and suffered when they lacked that knowledge, depriving children of such information would still not be shown wrong. People have all kinds of interests that we would be reluctant to say must be satisfied. Unless one presupposes—problematically—that knowledge about genetic parentage is necessary to develop healthy identities, then it does not seem that the legitimate interest of donor-conceived people in identity formation is thwarted by lacking such knowledge.”
Furthermore, mandating non-anonymity could be socially harmful. People who do not know their genetic parents could be stigmatised. Such a policy could promote “genetic essentialism”, the controversial notion that we are determined by our genes. Worst of all, perhaps, says Melo-Martín, “Emphasizing the importance of genetic relationships might also encourage problematic beliefs about the superiority of biological families”. Non-biological families formed by gay and lesbian couples could be treated as “pathological deviations”.