Support and Respect Gives IVF Parents Time to Tell

It’s Time to Tell. The slogan is back, along with the second phase of the Infertility Treatment Authority’s campaign to inform parents of how Victoria’s infertility laws may affect their lives, and parenting choices.

We’ve learned a lot since the Telling Campaign got under way last year. Then, the panic was about the legal rights of Victorian donors to identifying information about any child born from their sperm or less eggs. The problem was – and remains – that the majority of donor-conceived kids don’t know the truth about their conception. One Victorian study found only 37% of parents had told their kids, while international figures suggest that somewhere between 43% and 82% of parents never intend to tell. As the first batch of kids affected by the legislation turned 18, donors choosing to pursue their rights under the law could have been the first to break the news to offspring that they were donor-conceived.

As it turns out, much of that panic may have been misplaced. The truth is that very little was – and still is – known about the motivations of sperm donors. When modern infertility treatment methods were in their infancy, donors tended to be young men motivated by money, and appreciative of the anonymity that has long surrounded donation. But as donor-conceived children began asserting a “right to know,” donor recruitment strategies began to change and with them, the motivational profiles of donors.

A recent analysis of such changes suggests that when it comes to sperm donors, you get what you pay for. If infertility treatment services offer men a fee for service (something not allowed in Australia) and guarantee them anonymity, they wind up with a pool of donors primarily motivated by money and anxious to preserve their anonymity. If services don’t pay and require all donors to consent to being identified, they tend to recruit older “family men” with altruistic motivations and a commitment to disclosure and openness.

So far, altruistic, respectful and compassionate appear to be good descriptors of the pool of donors affected by Victoria’s 1984 Infertility (Medical Procedures) Act. Descriptions that should perhaps not be all that surprising given that since the middle of 1988, men donating sperm in this state have known not just about their legal rights to seek identifying information about resulting children, but their obligations to disclose identifying information about themselves, too.

The Infertility Treatment Authority has been evaluating the effectiveness of the Time to Tell Campaign in informing parents of donor-conceived children about what the legislation means for them. Their data, made public for the first time today, suggests that the approximately 58 donors who gained a right to seek identifying information about just over 100 young adult in 2006 – a request that might have disclosed to the donor-conceived adult time that they were donor-conceived – were pretty swell guys.

Yes, these men had the right to apply for the identifying information that Victoria’s laws – unique in this respect – granted them. And they could have pursued this entitlement with little concern about the potential impact their voyage to knowledge might have had on the family their donation helped create.

But they didn’t. Instead, the twenty-seven donors that contacted the ITA in search of information and support, many went away satisfied with an application for non-identifying information about their offspring, or the contribution of their details to the Authority’s voluntary register for ready access by offspring or parents seeking information.

The few who did chose to exercise their lawful entitlement to identifying information had offspring that had not yet reached the age of 18, meaning the child’s parents retained the right to give – or refuse – consent for its release. To date, according to the Victorian Law Reform Commission, the majority of donors have respected “…the privacy of the recipient families and have no intention of applying for information about the person conceived with their gametes. Instead, they are willing to make themselves available should the child or young adult wish to make contact in the future.” In summary, says the ITA’s CEO Louise Johnson, “Donors have been very sensitive to the needs of families formed from their donation.”

It is early days yet. Two hundred more Victorians conceived by donation pass through the portal to adulthood this year, and accompanying them will be another lot of donors with unknown ideas about identity, family, genes and privacy, to name just a few. Such unknowns should hasten the state government’s implementation of the Victorian Law Reform Commission’s recent recommendation that the right of donors to apply for identifying information be repealed. It should also ensure support for the Infertility Treatment Authority’s decision to accede to the requests of parents to place a note on the register informing information-seekers that the child is not aware she is donor-conceived.

None of this is to say parents shouldn’t tell. They should, and as early in a child’s life as possible, in accordance with a growing body of research suggesting that children told before age ten find it easy to integrate their non-conventional conception story into their evolving identity. But coercion must be taken out of the mix and replaced with facilitative interventions like the Time to Tell Campaign – supportive, respectful, information-rich – that enable parents to find their own time to tell.

Publication history

Support and Respect - Not Coercion Gives - Parents the Time to Tell  The Age