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The Global Business of Donor Conceived Children: Who is Serving the Best Interests of the Child?

November 9, 2014

Image: Allan Foster, Flickr


Many of my readers will know that as a birth, foster and adoptive mother and professional in the field of children at risk for thirty years, I am passionate about children’s rights. My past newsletters and blogs have included the use of social devices by children, rights of child caregivers and smacking.  

It was the world interest in the story of little Gammy, a baby boy born with Down syndrome that promoted me to write about surrogacy in the August newsletter (The Booming International Surrogacy Business: Forming Loving Families or Unregulated Fertility Tourism?). Gammy and his twin sister were born to a Thai surrogate. While Gammy was left behind in Thailand, his sister was taken back to Australia by the commissioning parents (CPs). This event, more revelations concerning the CPs and another similar case in India, seem to be the ‘tip of the iceberg’ in the world of assisted conception.

As several states are reviewing their surrogacy laws, these issues continue to stimulate debate in Australia.  Recently, Karen Synesiou, the chief executive of the Centre for Surrogate Parenting (USA) was in Australia to speak to fertility experts and families. She suggested surrogates should be realistically compensated to the sum of about $30,000 to carry a child. "America has a totally different view, in that surrogate mums are not paid to relinquish a baby but are compensated for the pain and suffering of a pregnancy," she stated. Her agency helped Elton John and his partner David Furnish have two sons. Ms Synesiou said Australian laws needed to better protect children born from overseas surrogacy arrangements. (1)

In my state of Victoria (Australia) it is estimated that more than 6000 children have been conceived using a sperm, egg or embryo donor in the past 3 decades. (2)

Many donor conceived Victorians can learn about their origins with the Amendments to the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act, but only with donor consent.  Victorians born from sperm or eggs donation after 1998 are able to access information when they reach adulthood. The government believes that the rights of donors and donor conceived people are balanced. Are they? (3).

Mrs. Hewitt, the founder of the Donor Conception Support Group, suggests that Australia needs a national donor register.  Currently there is not one for people conceived through donor sperm, eggs or embryos. She states these Australians are therefore denied their basic human right to know their identity and medical history. Do you agree? (4)

As I began to explore various websites and articles regarding donor conceived children, I discovered the practice is huge and global. Medical clinics, hospitals and donor centers in India, Spain, UK, USA, Italy, Australia, France, Portugal and many other countries offer a range of procedures, including using donor eggs, sperm and embryos. Each key word resulted in between 500,000 to over 3 million hits!
Procedures for singles, same sex and heterosexual couples, gender selection, lists of costs and options, travel deals which include flights, hotel accommodation and car transfers, philanthropy programs for low income couples and workers in not-for-profit organisations, advertisements of short queues and  high success rates, and the availability of donors with high education levels, varying occupations and ethnicities. The picture was complete with photos of babies and glowing testimonials from joyful families extolling the agencies that completed their dream.


Image: Prescott Pym, Flickr


Donor Eggs

While pregnant ‘older’ film stars and other celebrities flood our television screens, in the USA the use of donor eggs is becoming more common, especially among women over 40. More than 75 percent of women who are over 45 use donor eggs or embryos to conceive a child. Each year, this method accounts for about 5,800 babies born in the United States. (5) And the technique enjoys the highest success rate of all fertility procedures. In fact, women using fresh embryos (not frozen), have a 43.4% chance of getting pregnant in each cycle. (6)

Numerous websites offer egg donation, with the donors providing information on their reasons for wanting to donate, nationality race, age, years of education, health including smoking status, weight and height, marriage status and number of children, and general physical features including a photograph.
Others advertise hundreds of donors of European, Korean, Chinese and Japanese origins, all college educated. One website suggests that all their donors possess ‘health, beauty, grace and intelligence and are waiting to assist couples and singles to complete their families’.

The highest egg and sperm donors are from India (50-80 clinics in Mumbai), followed by America. Donation is a thriving business, with women in need of cash willing to provide eggs. While a daily labourer earns around Rs 5,000 a month, a woman can earn up to Rs 30- 60,000 for two egg donations. Many centres divide their donors into regular and premium.  In addition to the characteristics listed above, those with fair skin, who are physically tall or are ‘foreign’ (especially from the ‘west’, Mexico, and Thailand) can earn more. Like many countries, in India there has been a large rise in couples seeking infertility treatment, corresponding with many egg donors donating every 8 or so weeks. Scouting for donors exists and many hospitals have ‘agents’ who bring interested women forward to the clinics. The agent receives Rs 10-15,000 from the clinic. Advertisement for egg donors are placed in newspapers and magazines.
Risks exist, include gaining excessive weight due to the taking of hormones, damage to the fallopian tubes, ureter or intestines, and it is known that at least two Indian women have died during procedures.

The Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) Bill although drafted in 2010, has failed to make it through parliament. It lists mandatory psychological counseling, including a partner, screening for infectious diseases and genetic disorders, and that just 8-12 eggs should be retrieved. However, it has been reported that up to 50 eggs per cycle are often retrieved and shared between recipients. In India, the commercial donation of eggs and sperm exists with complete anonymity. What does this mean for the many hundreds of children who are being born in India from donor eggs, sperm and embryo transfers? (7)



Image: Allan Foster, Flickr


Donor Sperm
In this procedure, the sperm is obtained from a sperm bank, often to correspond with the couple's physical characteristics. The acquired embryo will be transferred into the woman with a reported success rate of approximately 75 percent. 
Recently an Australian documentary showed a same sex couple who had used two egg donors, two surrogates, and their sperm to produce a child each. The male children were the same age but of course not identical.

Donor Embryo
A donor embryo is the combined sperm and eggs of either unrelated egg or sperm donors or a ‘surplus’ frozen embryo donated by a couple that have completed their family. This allows an infertile woman to conceive using assisted technology and to give birth. Although the laws vary from country to country, even state to state (USA), donors often sign away the rights to any children born as a result of the use of their eggs or sperm. (8)
Those who use donor embryo transfer include where the woman was born without a uterus, has premature menopause, poor quality eggs (due to age, cancer etc.), frequent miscarriage or has a genetic disease. Or perhaps there is a risk of the child having Huntington's chorea, Hemophilia and or chromosomal abnormalities. (9)

Many sites suggest that donor embryo transfer is the best option for infertile couples to have a child, due to its ‘uncomplicated nature and affordability’. Often this procedure is also called embryo adoption as the intended baby is not genetically related. There can be no legal challenges or problems, a website suggests, as the intended parents have the infants name on the birth certificate. One site explained that every female can achieve pregnancy, have the ‘nicest’ feeling of giving birth, breast feed and parent.
On several other websites, anonymity, privacy and secrecy are key features given for the desirability of embryo donation. There are no contacts between donors and intending parent/s, no records maintained, and it is a medical procedure, not a legal agreement.  What does this mean for the child? (10)

As an adoptive parent of five adult adoptees, I suggest that if singles and couples are building their family through donor conception, there are immediate and long term complex issues for themselves and most importantly the child conceived by these procedures.
These include:
When using donor procedures, who will be told? How will the intending parents be supported through the procedures if it is kept secret? When the child is born, who will know? Who will tell him/her? How and when? Does the child legally and morally have a right to all available information about the donor/s?  How will the parents prepare themselves for the questions? Is there a registry for the child to find the donor/s, including siblings, and what information is available? Is it non-identifying (E.g. physical appearance, ethnicity) or identifying? (E.g. name and date of birth). Are the parents prepared for a child who may be emotionally affected by donor conception? What are their supports?

To conclude, the vast majority of countries in the world are signatures of the Convention on The Rights of the Child (CRC). Article 4 (Protection of rights) states that governments have a responsibility and an obligation to make sure children’s rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. Further, Article 9 (Preservation of Identity) states that children have a right to an identity-an official record of who they are. I would add, and how they were conceived! (11)

While I also have experienced infertility over many years and consequently empathise with those wishing to build a family, I believe that if donor conceived children and adults are to be able to build a positive identity, they have a right and a need to information about their origins.

1. Leary, Cathy, ‘Pay surrogate mums more’, October 23, 2014.
2.  Victorian Assisted Reproduction Treatment Authority (VARTA: http://www.varta.org.au)
3. Lannen, D., Geelong Advertiser, ‘State to open books on donor parent identity’, Saturday August 23rd 2014.
4. Donor Conception Support Group. www.dcsg.org.au
5. http://www.babycenter.com
6. http://www.webmd.com
7. Chatterjee, P. and Janwalker, M., The Nation, ‘The great Indian egg bazaar’, Saturday October 18th 2014.
8. http://www.babycenter.com
9. http://cyprusivfcentre.co.uk
10. http://www.infertilityindia.com
11. http://www.unicef.org

Other Related Websites
National Gamete Donation Trust- www.ngdt.co.uk 
Infertility Network UK (INUK) - www.infertilitynetworkuk.com.
Victorian Assisted Reproduction Treatment Authority (VARTA) - http://www.varta.org.au
Donor Conception Network- www.dcnetwork.org
Donor Sibling Registry- www.donorsiblingregistry.com
Donor Offspring- www.amfor.net


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