Virginia Ironside: Every child, however conceived, should have the chance to say 'Hello, Dad'

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The Independent Online

You can't help wondering whether the Government's right hand has a clue about what the left hand is doing. First cannabis is downgraded by classification at the same time as the Government issues dire warnings about its effects: then it's revealed that while single and lesbian mothers can apply for artificial insemination without having to reassure doctors that they have a male present in their lives to take on the role of dad, the anonymity of sperm donors is no longer going to be permitted. On the left hand, dads are redundant. On the right, dads are very important. What's going on?

You can't help wondering whether the Government's right hand has a clue about what the left hand is doing. First cannabis is downgraded by classification at the same time as the Government issues dire warnings about its effects: then it's revealed that while single and lesbian mothers can apply for artificial insemination without having to reassure doctors that they have a male present in their lives to take on the role of dad, the anonymity of sperm donors is no longer going to be permitted. On the left hand, dads are redundant. On the right, dads are very important. What's going on?

The situation seems to reflect the complete confusion that society feels about fathers. The idea that dads are a crucial addition to the psychological health of a child is, according to Suzi Leather, the chair of Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, out-of-date. "Society's ideas have moved on," she says. But Baroness O'Cathain, a Conservative peer, claims: "Research does show that children do better when brought up with a mother and a father."

I have to say that I'm for dads - or perhaps I should say, to be more correct, two people of the opposite sex having a role in bringing up a child. I might, of course, be biased; as someone with an alcoholic mother dedicated to her career, I dread to think what my life would have been like without my father and his mother to bring me up. But deliberately to have a child without a father, or a male figure to play the role of dad is, I feel, just as irresponsible as it would be if a man were somehow able to have a child without a mother. Every child benefits from the presence of two sexes, each offering different things. Sexist as it may sound, research has shown that, on the whole, women provide nurturing at home, while men provide the lead into the outside world. Another parent also ensures another set of relations, such as loving grandparents and cousins.

Leather argues that it is "not fair" that single mothers and lesbian couples are treated differently from heterosexual couples but it "isn't fair" for children to find they've been born with an enormous disadvantage.

But the end of anonymous egg and sperm donors gets a big hooray. What kind of man or woman would do it, is what I wonder. Most women would no more give away an egg to a stranger than one of their children; and men would surely feel the same about reproducing themselves in the bodies of God-knows-who. It's not evenas if, at £15 a jerk-off, there's money in it.

Your view on whether it matters who a biological parent is, depends on how strongly you believe that genetic inheritance is a crucial factor in forming personalities. It does matter. About 80 per cent of adopted children who contact a biological parent find it an important experience, and one which answers questions about their past. Of course it's valuable. How can it not be a relief to recognise similar characteristics, physical and emotional, in someone else? Knowing that you have inherited many specific genetic traits can be enormously reassuring and can help us try to combat them, forgive ourselves for them, or nurture them. Good parenting begins long before a baby is born. No responsible mother would conceive in the knowledge that she carried a painful, disabling and inheritable disease. And, despite having single-parent friends, I don't think that having a child by any old person you meet in a club - or buying sperm from some anonymous internet donor - is that responsible either.

In the last 10 years around 25,000 children have been born either with help from egg or sperm donors. Children born this way in the future should have the right to the certain presence of two parents of different sexes, at least to start with, but also, if they are born with the help of donors, I think that they should know exactly who those donors are when they grow up. And not only should they have all their medical history but, also - not yet the case - they should have the right to meet them and be able to say: "Hello, Dad," Face to face.

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