Do donor-conceived offspring have a right to know their origins?

I spent a really interesting afternoon yesterday at the launch of a report on donor conception from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which looked at the ethical aspects of information sharing. Although the report considered a range of issues, the most contentious subject proved to be whether parents who had used donor eggs, sperm or embryos had a right to withhold information from their offspring about their genetic origins.

This has long been a thorny subject.  It is clear that telling children that they were conceived using donor gametes early in their lives is to be recommended as it means that they are able to grow up feeling comfortable with this knowledge.  It is also clear that finding out later in life is often very difficult – those who only discover the truth when they are in their teens or are adults are far more likely to have problems with this.

The working group had been careful to consider the needs of the family, and stated that they had not wished to put the interests of any individual above those of the family as a whole – however, their conclusions have been widely interpreted as putting the interests of parents above those of their children because they don’t conclude that donor-conceived children have an absolute right to know their origins.

It’s quite interesting when we compare this with adoption, where it would be considered completely unacceptable to lie to a child about being adopted.  However, it is equally true that there are many children conceived as a result of affairs or flings who never know the truth of their genetic origins.

Perhaps what troubles those who question the conclusions of the working group is the fact that parents who opt not to tell are living with deception at the heart of their families, and that one big lie often leads to many smaller ones. Donor-conceived adults have sometimes only found out the truth during a family row, or by mistake due to some slip or unfortunate comment – and the effects of finding out in this way can be utterly devastating. Was it relevant that there was no donor-conceived adult or parent of a donor-conceived child on the working group?

We shouldn’t forget that telling can be daunting for parents.  Some are worried about how to go about this, fearing that it may affect their children’s relationships with the non-genetic parent – even though experience shows that this is rarely the case and research has found that parents’ fears about telling are generally unfounded.  For anyone who wants information about this, the Donor Conception Network can offer some fantastic leaflets and runs workshops too.

So, was the working group right to conclude that it is up to parents to decide what to do?  Is it time to insist on more openness?  Or should parents have a right not to tell? What do you think?

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