Sperm donors have duties to their kids, too

Twenty years ago, before they came to stand for a terrifying virus, the letters AID meant artificial insemination by donor
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This was a method of becoming pregnant for women whose husbands were infertile or who did not have partners at all.

This was a method of becoming pregnant for women whose husbands were infertile or who did not have partners at all.

A woman who conceived by this method in the 1980s told me that the whole business was surprisingly casual, involving a saucer of sperm and a pile of dog-eared magazines - presumably not the ones the donors were offered to stimulate their part in the transaction - which she was advised to read to pass the time while conception was taking place.

Children born by this method have very few rights to information about their biological fathers, a state of affairs that has been exercising the Government for some time. Ministers are considering various reforms, including allowing the child details of his or her father's occupation, as well as fuller information about his medical history. Some conditions run in families, and it is clearly wrong to deny adults knowledge that might affect their own health in later life or influence their decision on whether or not to have children. In that sense, advances in medicine have changed the context of donor insemination, and the present rules are clearly out of date.

Yet ministers are reluctant to consider the reform that some grown-up children of sperm donors would like, which is access to the names of their biological fathers. They are worried that donors, faced with the prospect of being traced by their offspring, would stop coming forward. This might well be the case, but what seems extraordinary now is that men were ever encouraged to become fathers so lightly. It is a striking anomaly that a man who conceives a child during a one-night stand is liable for its support - assuming that the mother is willing to reveal his name to the Child Support Agency - while a donor has no such responsibility, even though he provided his sperm knowing how it was going to be used.

It also goes against current thinking about children's rights. All over the world, human rights organisations are trying to redress the wrongs done to young people who were taken from their families and brought up in an alien culture - the "stolen children" of Aboriginal families in Australia, and native American children who were removed to church boarding schools in Canada, for instance. These are extreme cases, yet the motive behind attempts to familiarise them with the culture of their biological parents is a recognition that people need to know as much as possible about their backgrounds. Germaine Greer has written an intensely moving book about her search for the truth about her father, a con man who created his own mythology, testifying to the importance even of disturbing facts to an individual's sense of identity.

The principle that children should have access to information about their parents is already recognised in English law, in so far as adopted children are allowed access, with certain safeguards, to their original birth certificates. So why should the children of sperm donors be an exception?

One explanation lies in the past, and is a product of confused and contradictory ideas about the father's role. For centuries, men went to astonishing lengths to ensure their children were their own, from locking their partners into chastity belts to the elevation of wives, in the Victorian period, into the sexless "angel in the house".

Yet the suspicion that this obsession was to do with the notion of children as property, and inheritors of property, is supported by the fact that many fathers were remarkably cavalier about their illegitimate offspring. It was only towards the end of the 20th century that this unpleasant distinction between babies conceived in different circumstances was abolished, culturally as well as legally - a belated acknowledgement that paternity, whatever the circumstances, is more than a mechanical act with no further consequences.

Yet children's rights are a relatively recent concept, especially in societies where adults have noisily asserted their conviction that they are entitled to have babies by any means available, including surrogacy, donor sperm and in vitro fertilisation.

Indeed it is becoming clear that the rights of parents and children sometimes clash, with donor insemination a case in point; there is a genuine conflict between children who want to know the identity of their fathers, and men who supplied sperm but who do not wish to meet a grown-up son or daughter two decades later.

This is a tricky area for the Government, which does not want to deny women what might be their only chance of having a baby. But children need more protection than adults, and in the modern world the insistence by donors on lifelong anonymity looks increasingly like an evasion of responsibility.