Brave New World of IVF Is Growing Darker

Legal, Financial and Psychological Fallout Turning Nastier

TORONTO, FEB. 9, 2002 ( Spreading use of in vitro fertilization is giving rise to an ever-growing number of children isolated from one or more of their biological parents. The desire to have babies at any cost is failing to take into account the psychological and emotional consequences of the most vulnerable: the offspring brought into life by IVF clinics.

The Globe and Mail newspaper of Toronto on Feb. 2 reported that women are now having babies and selling them to couples not related to the infants. A Manitoba woman said she used an Ontario man´s sperm to have a child for a British couple, in return for a fee.

A Vancouver woman who advertised her availability to “produce” a baby was offered up to $50,000 to have a child with unrelated sperm for a Vietnamese couple. And a Globe and Mail reporter, posing as a surrogate offering to make babies with donor sperm for a fee, quickly received eight e-mails expressing interest.

A consequence of this is that children are left in the dark about who their biological parents really are. On Jan. 20 the Observer newspaper of London recounted the experiences of some of these children. One of them, Melissa, found out at age 32 that she was conceived through donor sperm. She now wants to find out who her real father was.

Christine, now 46, only found out a decade ago that her real father was someone else. Christine´s mother hinted about the secret but refused to give her any details, until five years ago. After Christine learned she was the result of an anonymous donor insemination program, she and her mother never spoke again. Her mother died six months ago.

According to the Observer, between 1940 and 1983, 483 children were conceived through anonymous donors at a private Exeter clinic. (Sperm donations were a precursor to modern IVF techniques.) Christine, and the others, have no way of tracking down the donors or their own half siblings. Christine has no access to records, if any survive, and no rights to know anything about the man who helped give her life.

The potential for problems of this kind is increasing. Almost 18,000 babies have been born through donated sperm and ova in the United Kingdom since the regulatory Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority was set up in 1991.

Donor insemination “robbed me of half my genetic history, and it robbed my children and grandchildren too,” says Christine. Her arguments for the right to know her parentage echo those put forward in the 1970s by adopted children campaigning for access to their birth records.

Since 1991, details about donors — name, place and date of birth, medical history, physical characteristics, religion, occupation and interests — have had to be registered with British authorities. But offspring have no rights of access. They may only check that they are not related to someone they intend to marry. When they reach age 18, they also can ask if they were the product of donated gametes or embryos.

Concern over donor anonymity also exists in Australia, as the Sydney Morning Herald noted Nov. 29. A 29-year-old Brisbane woman has even gone to Britain´s High Court in an attempt to force the Harley Street clinic, where she was conceived, to release her biological father´s file. In Sydney, children of sperm donors have formed the Donor Conception Support Group. They say they just want to find out who their parents were.

In Australia, sperm donors have fathered 10,000 to 15,000 children. Those men who donated anonymously were told they would have no legal or emotional responsibilities to any child and their confidentiality would be maintained.

“Are women´s lives improved and the status of women enhanced when the beginning of a baby, or a baby itself, becomes just another point-of-purchase item in a gene bank?” asked feminist Naomi Wolf in the Sunday Times of London last Oct. 28.

“Is motherhood strengthened when it becomes part of a market economy in which rich women utilise the bodies of the poor?” Wolf wrote. “Are women free by definition when they do not have to interact with men on the most intimate of levels in order to create a family?”

The well-known feminist argued that the new reproductive techniques, some of which even promise to do away with the need for men in the generation of new life, are a danger to family life and the concept of motherhood. She warned that the “breakthroughs” in technology create freedoms that are in fact a “devil´s bargain.”
Legal minefields

It´s not only children and women who suffer. Legal problems abound too. In January, a Swedish court confirmed a previous ruling that a 35-year-old man who had privately donated sperm to a lesbian couple is the legal father of the three children and must support them financially, the Associated Press reported Jan. 31.

Anna Bjurling, the mother of the children, asked Igor Lehnberg to pay child support after the relationship with her partner ended last year. In December a county administrative court ruled in her favor and ordered Lehnberg to pay child support of $280 a month.

Lehnberg challenged the decision by arguing in a district court that he wasn´t the legal father. But the court said a document Lehnberg had signed, stating that he was the biological father, was legally binding. Lehnberg claimed he signed the document only so the children would know their origin, not to accept any responsibility for them.

In a recent U.S. case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that children who are conceived with the frozen eggs or sperm of a deceased parent can be considered legal heirs, the Boston Globe reported Jan. 3.

The justices heard the case of 6-year-old twins born two years after their father, Warren Woodward of Beverly, died of leukemia. His sperm had been frozen while he was undergoing treatment for cancer and his widow was artificially inseminated with the sperm after his death.

The court listed three requirements that must be met for posthumously conceived children to be considered heirs: They must be genetically related to the dead parent; the parent must have agreed to the conception; and the parent must have agreed to support the children. The court did not specify what form such agreements must take.

Although problems created by IVF continue to multiply, clinics are racing ahead in a bid to attract clients, according to a Jan. 1 report in the New York Times. The fertility business is now a $1 billion-a-year industry, and doctors are more interested in getting a share of the pie than in looking after the best interests of their patients, the Times article contended.

For example, some clinics implant too many embryos, increasing the chance that a woman will end up with three or more fetuses, hazardous for both mother and babies.

The article noted that from 1995 to 1998, the most recent year for which national data are available, IVF procedures increased by 37%, to about 81,000 from about 59,000, and the number of clinics rose by 28%, to 360 from 281.

What will be the result of all this? Now that many have thrown away the ethical compass, they run the risk of being lost in a maze of moral and legal dilemmas.

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