A startling revelation in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera, HMS Pinafore, farcically unfolds when the motherly dockside vendor, Little Buttercup, confesses to a long-held secret.
Many years previously, when she “practised baby-farming”, she had cared for two babies, one “of low condition”, the other “a regular patrician”, and had switched the identities of the two.
The lower-class baby was eventually elevated above his station to become naval Captain Corcoran, while the aristocratic Ralph Rackstraw becomes a common sailor.
The Gilbert and Sullivan satire was not just to poke fun at the class-conscious English; it also revealed the dark side of 19th-century baby-farming, a practice whereby an infant was taken for a payment. Some baby farmers “adopted” children for payment; others merely provided foster care until the child reached a particular age.
Several notorious women were hanged for killing the child they had been paid to care for. Following a series of revelations in the British Medical Journal, the British parliament in 1872 began to regulate baby-farming. Over the next 70 years, a series of acts were passed that brought adoption and foster care under state regulation.
After Little Buttercup’s confession that she had switched two babies’ identities, Ralph Rackstraw appears on the deck of HMS Pinafore as the ship’s new captain, while Captain Corcoran is reduced to the rank of a humble sailor. Discovering their true identities is a cause of great merriment.
In the 21st century, however, it is no Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera for donor-conceived people trying to discover their true identities.
Recently, 26-year-old British donor-conceived paramedic Emma Cresswell won a six-year battle to have her adoptive father removed from her birth certificate. He was not her biological father.
Now, South Australian Damian Adams is asking the courts for his birth certificate to be changed to father “unknown”.
On his blog, Donated Generation, Adams says he needs “an accurate and factual record of my conception and birth. Apart from originally being instigated for taxation purposes, they are supposed to be a factual record of genealogy”.
He continues: “My dog has a more accurate birth certificate than I do, as do a lot of livestock. How is it that animals can have a more accurate birth record than a person? Now that is dehumanising and wrong.
“A birth certificate is not a certificate of ownership. We do not ‘own’ children.…
“As it currently stands, if any of my descendants do genealogy research of my family, they will be led down the wrong path.”
Although laws in some Australian states protect the anonymity of donors, new technology is making it easier for donor-conceived children to find their siblings.
Ancestry.com is offering $79 DNA tests. Using this inexpensive test and social media, donor-conceived children can find their half-siblings and possibly their donor parent(s).
Some estimates put the number of donor-conceived babies in the United States at 30,000 to 60,000 annually.
A 2011 Senate inquiry, Donor Conception Practices in Australia, said that, since the 1970s, there could be as many as 60,000 people of donor conception in this country.
The urge for a baby may be strong among those who turn to donor conception and surrogacy to satisfy their desires.
But a desire doesn’t establish a right to a child, as pointed out recently by Liz Bishop, lecturer in public health and human rights at Melbourne’s Monash University, and Bebe Loff, associate professor and director of the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human Rights at Monash University.
They said: “The strongest argument for recognition of these desires or interests is that of same-sex couples. A same-sex couple will always be incapable of creating a child without the involvement of a third party.
“But this lack of capacity doesn’t produce the right to a child, let alone the right to a child resulting from a contractual arrangement.
“Although the desire for a child may be great, desires are not rights.…
“A child should neither be thought of as a vegetable nor a puppy able to be acquired as the result of a commercial transaction.
“This violation of the dignity of the child says something about those who are content to return to historic understandings of a child as the property of its parents or, more correctly, its father.”
For today’s donor-conceived children who are searching for their identity, there is a great irony.
Over 140 years ago, parliaments began regulating adoption and fostering in order to protect the safety, and later the identity, of children. The first responsibility of the state is to protect children.
Yet today, many of the same legislatures have denied donor-conceived children the very protections they now provide to adopted and fostered children.
Recently, two Australian judges advocated what amounts to turning the clock back to the 19th century by legalising the taking of children for money.
Family Court Chief Justice Diana Bryant and Federal Circuit Court Chief Judge John Pascoe called for the legalisation of commercial surrogacy.
As the number of donor-conceived children grows, and as affordable genetic screenings allow them to discover their true identities, the pressure will build on governments to grant these children legal access to their genetic parent(s).
There will be pressure for governments to ensure future generations have the genetic truth recorded on their birth certificates — and also to apologise to the generations who have had their identities stolen from them.
Damian Adams’ call will eventually have to be heeded: “Birth certificates … should contain all of the biological parents as well as any legal parents (if different).
“That way parents will stop deceiving their children and the truth about their kinship will be available to them.”
Patrick J. Byrne is national vice-president of the National Civic Council.
 Lucy Crossley, “Woman, 26, wins six-year battle to have name of man she thought was her father removed from her birth certificate after he admits her real dad was a sperm donor”, Daily Mail (UK), July 21, 2014.
 Damian H. Adams, “I am attempting to change my birth certificate”, Donated Generation blog (Adelaide, South Australia), September 4, 2014.
 “Donor conception practices in Australia”, Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee, February 2011.
 Liz Bishop and Bebe Loff, “Making surrogacy legal would violate children’s rights”, The Conversation, August 21, 2014.
 “Surrogacy laws a sign Australia ‘has lost its moral compass’ ”, The Australian, August 21, 2014.