Children born from donated sperm, eggs and embryos are to be given the right to trace their biological parents, the Government said yesterday.
After a review of fertility legislation, the Government has decided to remove donors' right to anonymity from next year, concluding that it is outweighed by a child's right to know details of his or her genetic inheritance.
The move, announced by Melanie Johnson, the Public Health minister, was welcomed by groups working with donor-assisted families, but doctors warned it could lead to a national shortage of sperm. Supporters argue that knowledge of a person's genetic background could help provide an early warning of conditions such as cancer or heart disease.
Speaking in London at the annual conference of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Ms Johnson said: "I firmly believe that donor-conceived people have a right to information about their genetic origins that is currently denied them, including the identity of their donor."
"There is a growing body of opinion, which I agree with, that donor-conceived people should not be treated so differently from adopted people," Ms Johnson said.
She said countries, including Austria and Sweden, that provided donor-conceived children with information about their donor had seen the benefits.
"There are strong opinions on all sides of this issue but in making my decision one thing was always clear. The interests of the child are paramount."
Ms Johnson added that, as now, future donors would have no financial or legal obligations towards the child and the change would not apply to those who had already made donations. The change will come into force in April 2005.
Progar, which represents groups including the British Association of Adoption and Fostering and the Children's Society, welcomed the "forward-looking decision".
Elizabeth Wincott, its chairwoman, said: "Removing donor anonymity means donor-conceived people are no longer the only group of people from whom the state withholds biographical information held on official records."
Olivia Montuschi, of the Donor Conception Network, said: "We have long argued that donor conception should no longer be surrounded by secrecy."
But fertility experts said that the move would exacerbate the national shortage of sperm that has led some clinics to import supplies from countries such as Denmark.
Alan Pacey, of the British Fertility Society, said: "There is a danger that if we cannot recruit donors we may find that many infertile couples will be unable to receive treatment. We are concerned that if this happens, some couples may seek treatment overseas."
Professor Ian Craft, director of the London Fertility Centre, said: "What we need to know is what the Department of Health is going to suggest to recruit more donors. There is already a shortage of sperm and egg donors and this is likely to affect that further."
Sheena Young, head of business development at Infertility Network UK, said: "Any further drop in the number of donors would be catastrophic for patients." The Government is planning a campaign, including the establishment of a national advice line, to raise awareness of the need for sperm and egg donations to offset the expected decline in donors.
Ms Johnson also announced a review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1991, which regulates assisted conception. She said that no matter how successful the Act had been, it needed to be viewed again in light of new techniques and advances.
Ms Johnson's predecessor, Hazel Blears, had been due to present the plans at the HFEA conference last year, but they were withdrawn amid protests from doctors that they had not been properly consulted. Welcoming the announcement, an HFEA spokeswoman said: "It is important for children to know where they come from." At present, donor-assisted children can only ask if they are related to someone they wish to marry once they turn 18.
About three-quarters of sperm donors are students looking to supplement their income. In 1985 Sweden became the first country in the world to introduce legislation on donor identity, stipulating that a child has the right to be told a donor's identity "when sufficiently mature".
It has been followed by Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Australia and Finland are in the process of changing the law to enable donors to be identified. Most of the 100 or so sperm banks in the United States guarantee the anonymity of donors, although a court may decide to reveal the donor's identity, if it is in the interest of the child.
Evan Harris, a former Liberal Democrat health spokesman, said that removing the right to anonymity could prove counterproductive and damaging for fertility treatment. He said: "The idea that children or indeed adults have the human right to know their genetic identity is a fallacy, based on an obsession on finding new human rights, without any proof of real harm or the impact on others.
"There is little evidence that people actually suffer significant harm from not being able to trace their biological father in this setting."
Change to the law wins support from both sides
Christine Whipp was told the truth about her origins seven years ago. Her mother explained she was the product of anonymously donated sperm at a pioneering clinic in Exeter.
"The immediate response to being told you are not who you thought you were, is to strive to find out your real origins," she says.
However, back in 1948 records of donors were not kept. Mrs Whipp has reconciled herself with the fact that her search for her biological father will probably be fruitless. "It is sad to think that I will never know him, and will probably never get to know who he was," she said.
But she is happy about the change in law as sperm donors lose the right to anonymity. "Donor offspring will know their history," she says. "I think this is wonderful, a change I have wanted to see since I heard of my origins. Sperm donation is not the same as giving blood. The act of donation carries ongoing moral responsibility. It is an injustice that sperm donors have been campaigning for anonymity, thinking we want their money. All we want is a little time and respect. After all, they made us. To ask some questions, to understand; such as did my grandad have a big nose and is that why I have one? Were you good at woodwork and do you like doughnuts?"
Mrs Whipp believes people have realised their actions have implications. She says: "I think donors have already been put off. They are starting to realise that this is not just a blob of sperm at £12 a shot."
James Whitely donated his sperm 31 times whilst he was a student at Oxford University. He earned £5 a shot, and although he did not want to be paid for his efforts, the hospital insisted for legal reasons.
He was questioned extensively about his medical background, and asked how he would feel about his sperm being donated to lesbian couples or single women, before he was allowed to donate.
He is pleased with the change in law, as long as enough donors continue to offer their services. He says: "I think the change is positive, although it is better to have an anonymous donor than no donor at all." Mr Whitely would have no qualms with a donor child getting in touch with him and has posted his details on the internet in case there is someone looking for him.
When Mr Whitely (not his real name) had children of his own, now aged three, two and one, his curiosity about his donor offspring grew.
He says: "As far as I am concerned my first daughter was my first child. I don't feel that I'm the father of these donors because I haven't changed their nappies or got up in the middle of the night when they were crying. However, I am curious and would love to know whether they look like me and share character traits."
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