May 15, 2013 | Posted By Tara Bernardino

Mary Shanley argues against anonymous gamete donation on the basis of what she describes as the right of children conceived using donated gametes to “learn the identity of one’s genetic forebear.” Shanley believes this right stems from “some people’s desire to connect themselves to human history concretely as embodied beings…” I challenge Shanley’s viewpoint as being “progeny-centric,” because while it acknowledges the potential desire of the children created from gametes to learn information about the gamete donor, it fails to consider the rights or interests of that donor, both at the time of the donation, and later, when a child exists.  While I agree with Shanley that some children of gamete donors may desire identifying information about the donor, I disagree that those children have a right to access information about the donor beyond that which the donor agreed to provide or which was required at the time of donation such as genetic and medical history.  Instead I would propose a system where anonymity is optional, akin to the policy of open and closed adoption.  This approach recognizes the interests of the donor, respecting their right to privacy and medical confidentiality, while leaving open the possibility for any future children to inquire about their genetic origins and donor information.  

When an individual decides to donate gametes, whether sperm or eggs, they should be permitted to choose whether or not they want any children resulting from their gametes to be able to obtain any identifying information about them, and the level of detail.  They should also be given the right to adjust their decision at any time during the process of donation or afterwards.  This flexibility protects the donor’s rights to privacy and autonomy regarding their genetic and personal information thus upholding the interests of the donor which are paramount at the time of the donation.  

Preserving donors’ right to remain anonymous also serves a larger social goal by not discouraging gamete donation in a market where ART is in increasing demand.  Prohibiting donor anonymity could dissuade individuals from donating out of concern that they will be pressured to have a role in the life of any resulting children.  A popular argument is that granting a child the right to obtain identifying information about the gamete donor does not necessitate donor responsibility (legal, financial or emotional) for the child. I think this assumption is false.  Despite protections that can be established to prevent the donor from fiscal obligation, there is no safeguard from the emotional burden that may befall a donor faced with a child seeking an undesired connection.  Shanley would likely counter-argue that the child should be protected from psychological conflict stemming from an inability to link to a genetic legacy.  This argument overemphasizes the importance of a genetic legacy and reinforces traditional expectations that lineage has a central role in developing one’s identity.  Furthermore, even if we entertain the idea that knowing one’s genetic legacy is a right and contributes to an individual’s sense of belonging to human history, anonymous gamete donation is compatible with this view. It still permits disclosure of genetic and medical information, representing a connection to the past and future.

Allowing the option of either anonymous or non-anonymous donation is a more flexible approach than Shanley’s proposal that takes into account the interests of both the donor and any resulting children.  Though perhaps an imperfect solution, it acknowledges that children may have an interest in knowing the identity of their donor and attempts to balance this interest with the donor’s rights to privacy and autonomy.

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BIOETHICS TODAY is the blog of the Alden March Bioethics Institute, presenting topical and timely commentary on issues, trends, and breaking news in the broad arena of bioethics. BIOETHICS TODAY presents interviews, opinion pieces, and ongoing articles on health care policy, end-of-life decision making, emerging issues in genetics and genomics, procreative liberty and reproductive health, ethics in clinical trials, medicine and the media, distributive justice and health care delivery in developing nations, and the intersection of environmental conservation and bioethics.