Joan Bakewell: Do we have the right to know our parentage?

A birth certificate is not the place to make a matter that is personal and intimate into official diktat
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The calls for a public debate are on every hand. Almost as frequent as calls for a public inquiry. These two catch-alls are seen as the front end and the back end of political activity. Mess up about the shooting of an innocent traveller on the Underground, and even after several reports, there will still be calls for a public inquiry that, it is claimed, will finally bring all the facts out in the open.

The actual truth about public inquiries is that they are often constrained by their terms of reference, and thus tend to come to the conclusions those setting them up had hoped for. Witness the Hutton report, which delivered for the Government the judgement it wanted on the BBC.

Public debate is meant to precede major legislation and anticipate public objections. Just such a debate is being called for concerning proposals made by the joint committee on the Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill. This Bill will move on the situation from where we were in the 1990s, with the HFEA being replaced by Rate, the Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos, and controls relaxed over matters such as therapeutic cloning, stem cell research and the naming of sperm donors on their offspring's birth certificate.

From what I've been able to read (the evidence to the committee is on their website), the scientific community of individual scientists and outstanding institutions is virtually unanimous that as the science moves forward, the legislation should keep up. This means that things which 10 years ago had a high "ugh" factor among the public are being pressed forward by the scientific community.

Cloning, hybrid embryos, "saviour siblings" - created to help save the life of an existing child - all these have a chance to take their place in the panoply of treatments that are changing the nature of our lives and health. We are in the middle of a burst of scientific achievements which have human welfare as their purpose. Each of us, as we age and deteriorate will have reason to be grateful that such advances give us options that make life more bearable. Those with ethical objections do not have to take them.

So where did the committee look for its public debate? It called in a swathe of the country's leading science journalists and broadcasters who told how their readers and viewers react by letter and email to the stories they write. According to them, the public is more aware than it once was of the science behind these proposals, and more willing to perceive them as good.

There is one issue, however, that has proved contentious: the move towards putting details of conception on birth certificates. Back in the 1990s, I made a television programme with a woman virtually mad with grief that she couldn't know the identity of her father. She had been told he was an unknown sperm donor, and there was no record of his name or whereabouts.

Sperm donation in those days was made in confidence, so that no one need ever know. Often, students or young soldiers would be paid a sum for their contribution, and then walk away. Those students and soldiers did not want adults turning up on their doorstep in their middle years with cries of "Daddy!"

The woman I met spoke for many who had contacted her, suffering the same sense of deprivation. Her loving parents had never imagined it could matter so much, nor had they given any thought to her genetic inheritance. The law was changed and the identity of donors is now kept on record.

But parents can still keep the matter secret from their child, pretending they are biological parents when one of them is not. This is the adoption debate all over again, and the hazards are just as great. Children grew up to make sudden and shocking discoveries, their lives and stability thrown into confusion.

It hardly happens any more. How much better it has proved now that adopting parents almost always tell their children of their origins as they are growing up. Families with secrets can evolve into complex and unhappy relationships. Honesty is best. So it is with donor insemination.

The birth certificate, however, is not the place to make this explicit. It makes a matter that is intimate and personal into official diktat, taking the initiative from the family, and imposing formal and bureaucratic order. Such decisions need to come from within the family, and they should be encouraged to tell early. Any chance of dissembling would be quickly undone.

Children today learn all about genetics. Even at junior school they know how it comes about they have granny's nose, mum's fingernails, and dad's double-jointed thumbs. Sperm-donor children would soon identify differences between themselves and their supposed father. Besides, with so much divorce, inter-ethnic marriage, single-parenthood and lesbian mothers, the community in which children grow up is sufficiently varied for no one to feel their case is particularly different.

Infertility is not the shame it once was. Medical developments are of popular interest. Newspapers and magazines are full of graphic explanations and diagrams. We are not shy of our bodies and how they work. Science can add to our well-being, education can add to our knowledge. But the law should encourage honesty and trust at the heart of the family unit.