Children conceived by donor sperm or eggs deserve the right to know their genetic parents, an all-party Senate committee has recommended.
The committee, chaired by Tasmanian Liberal Senator Guy Barnett, has recommended sweeping changes to Australia’s laws on artificial reproductive technology – especially donor conception – to bring them into line with what is already law in New Zealand and many countries in Western Europe.
The committee tabled its unanimous report last month.
What is particularly noteworthy, however, is that the Attorney-General’s Department has effectively refused to co-operate with the Senate inquiry. This suggests that the present Government is not interested in dealing with the issue. It is now the responsibility of the Opposition in federal parliament to hold the Government to account on the issue.
The number of children born through assisted reproductive technology (ART) in Australia is relatively small, despite the massive publicity and substantial public funding it attracts. According to official figures, there were fewer than 700 ART births in Australia and New Zealand, compared to the total number of births in both countries of about 360,000.
While comprehensive statistics are unavailable, the report quotes evidence from one Victorian ART clinic that 60 per cent of its clients are heterosexual couples, 20 per cent are lesbians and 20 per cent single women. In other Victorian clinics, each group comprises about a third of the total.
The high level of single women and lesbians is a result of a Federal Court judgment, McBain v. State of Victoria and others, which ruled in 2000 that laws restricting access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to married couples were invalid. The judgment was confirmed by the High Court of Australia in 2002.
The Senate report found that the absence of laws regulating artificial reproduction in Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the ACT meant that there was no effective supervision of clinics performing IVF on women, and that children born as a result of these procedures were being denied their rights to know their genetic parents.
It recommended that children born through ART should be entitled to the same rights given to adopted children.
According to research done two years ago by Professor Gab Kovacs, national medical director of Monash IVF, two-thirds of couples who conceive children using donor insemination have not told their children about their biological origins. (The Australian, January 8, 2009).
The Senate inquiry also found that the widely varying laws in different states meant that children’s rights were not adequately protected. The report said, “During the course of the inquiry, a large number of submitters and witnesses expressed significant discontent with the current regulation of donor conception by the states and territories.”
The Senate heard harrowing accounts from children born through IVF of the consequences of their lacking knowledge of their genetic identity.
It said: “Mr Damian Adams described the issues he faces as a donor-conceived person, who is not able to find out if he has any half-siblings because he does not know the identity of his donor: ‘I am deeply traumatised that there could even be one half-sibling that I have never known and will never get to know, let alone the fact that there could easily be dozens. While never being able to know your own family is emotional enough, the fact that there may be numerous half-siblings is deeply disturbing on a level akin to being manufactured to appease the masses. We are human beings with biological and social families yet the ability to produce so many siblings is actually dehumanising’.”
Narelle Grech, another child born as a result of IVF, said, “As for my DC [donor-conceived] siblings, I often wonder about them, whether we have met or I have walked past them in the street. Do they know they are DC? Will their parents ever tell them? Will I ever have the chance to meet any of them? Recently, with the wonder of Facebook, I was pointed to a friend of a friend who, they said, reminded them of me.
“To anyone else they might laugh and go along their day (sic). For me it meant looking at this person’s profile and analysing everything about them. Looking for physical similarities and comparing interests, ages and so on. I think there might be something in this link, but what am I to do? Do I approach this person and potentially open up a Pandora’s box for them? Don’t they deserve to know the truth about their own identity if they are DC? And what about me? Shouldn’t I be able to know my own siblings?”
Ms Grech also said, “I cannot begin to describe how dehumanising and powerless I am to know that the name and details about my biological father and my entire paternal family sit somewhere in a filing cabinet … with no means to access it. Information about my own family, my roots, my identity, I am told I have no right to know.”
The report also quoted parents and donors who were unhappy with the absence of information available under current practices, which are not regulated by law.
The committee recommended the establishment of a national register to which people born through ART and their parents would have access, that all IVF clinics should be registered and their practices supervised.