In a significant move, the UK is planning to revoke the right of anonymity for sperm, egg and embryo donors, from the moment a child is born. This expands 2005 legislation that removed anonymity for donors once the child turned 18. The proposed change is part of a broader set of reforms to UK fertility law that aims to reflect the rapid pace of technological advancement in assisted reproduction.
Types of sperm donation
Fertility clinics and sperm banks traditionally offer four types of donor arrangements: known, anonymous, semi open and open door. Each affords a level of information exchange, apart from an anonymous donation where personal details are not shared with the intended parents or donor conceived child.
Currently, seven countries (including Japan, France, Spain, Canada and Bulgaria) allow donors to remain fully anonymous. In the US, Belgium and Denmark it varies, while Portugal and Finland allow donor-conceived individuals to learn their donor’s identity on their 18th birthday.
That said, in reality, completely anonymous sperm donation is no longer possible. Widespread use of DNA technology has ended any guarantee of anonymity so major sperm banks, including in the US, are requiring donors to agree to disclose medical histories and reveal their identities when the child turns 18.
The proposed UK law comes amidst this environment, as well as continues to affirm the right of donor-conceived persons to learn about their genetic origins.
Sperm Donation Law in the UK
Currently, children conceived through donor-assisted conception from 2005 onwards can apply for details about their donor only once they reach the age of 18. Men who donated sperm between 1991 and March 2005 can choose to remove their anonymity by reregistering with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). However, there are cases where information is found independently of a clinic, bank or authority through at-home DNA kits and social media.
The HFEA, which is the UK’s fertility regulator, has presented a number of proposals to ‘future-proof’ fertility law and make it more flexible to advancements in treatment options. One of these is to abolish donor anonymity from the moment the child is born, rather than at 18 years of age. This would mean that children would have access to identifying information about their donors from birth. The HFEA notes that “not having information about your genetic origins has been shown in a number of studies to have a significant impact on donor conceived individuals”. The current system can be frustrating to those seeking information about their donors as they have to wait until the age of 18.
The donor’s perspective
A 2007 UK study found that the number of men registering as sperm donors increased by 6% despite the 2005 law removing anonymity once the child turned 18. Many had feared that the change in law would lead to a steep fall in donors. On the other hand, a 2019 Belgian study concluded that only one in five current donors would continue to donate when identifiable. It remains to be seen if the proposed law will affect donor numbers and thus make it more difficult for individuals building their family through donor conception.
The intended parents’ perspective
Many parents feel it’s one thing to choose transparency within the family, but another to enshrine it into law. For same sex female couples and single parents, the end of anonymity can pose a threat. Some of these families fear that these laws will open the way for biological donors to be recognized as parents. Others feel that lowering the age of when a donor-conceived child can find out their donor’s identity creates the possibility of conflicts between the child and their parents. Opinions on this issue are varied, and it depends on the parents’ openness on how their children were conceived.
Any changes to the UK’s 33-year old fertility laws would need to be passed by parliament, so this proposal is not yet law. If it passes, it is expected to come into force in 2024. The issue of donor anonymity is a complex one with significant implications for the donors themselves, and donor-conceived individuals and their families. It will likely remain the subject of much debate in the coming years, but addressing these issues also promotes open communication on donor conception.
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