Father's day of truth

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The Independent Online
LET ME call him Felix, because he is good-natured and likes to make other people happy. He is young, healthy, handsome, bright, energetic and poor. Like a lot of young men in similar circumstances, he earns pounds 15 from time to time by donating his sperm.

He is perfectly honest about his motives. First, he needs the money; and second, he likes to think that he may have helped to make a childless couple happy. The one motive that certainly never enters his head is any desire for fatherhood.

When he initially went to the clinic, Felix was checked to ensure that he was free from genetic disorders, not HIV-positive, and so on. But on his latest visit, he was, for the first time, also asked to give the kind of personal details, which, it occurred to him later, would enable 'his' children, if they so wished, to trace him in future.

Over the past couple of years Felix has donated sperm between a dozen and 15 times. Earlier this year he married and now he and his wife are delighted by her pregnancy. They pore over baby books, admire the gradually increasing bulge, speculate about the baby's sex and discuss names . . . the usual rituals of first-time parenthood.

But since then, Felix has worried. To him, there is all the difference in the world between what he brutally calls 'a two-minute wank' and a nine-month pregnancy, let alone a planned and wanted baby.

Surrogate mothers, he thinks, have a far harder task. They carry the growing infant, give birth and, in all probability, have to see and hold their child before giving it up, albeit in return for money.

It had never occurred to Felix that donating sperm was surrogate fatherhood. Had he known from the outset that 'his' children might one day be able to trace him, he says he would never have done it.

The last time he went to the sperm bank, he said he would not be donating again. Babies have suddenly become real to him in a way they were not before, and a combination of easier financial circumstances and this changed awareness have led to the decision that enough is enough.

In any case, donors are used a limited number of times, partly because of the remote possibility that their offspring, if they became too numerous, might unknowingly commit incest.

The recent Act of Parliament on embryology and fertilisation contains assurances that the anonymity of donors will be protected, other than in certain special circumstances: for example, where a sperm donor has deliberately misled a clinic or hospital by withholding relevant or damaging facts about his medical or family history.

In such a situation he could eventually be sued by the aggrieved family; and it is apparently for this reason that donors are asked for their details.

Parliament promised that no retrospective legislation would be enacted which might affect confidentiality. In Sweden, where the law was changed to allow children of sperm donors to trace their fathers, the supply of donors did not just plummet; it stopped completely. The law was repealed.

There are two possible lines of argument here. One is that any man selfish enough to chuck his genes around for pounds 15 a go has only himself to blame if he gets his comeuppance a couple of decades later. Whether or not he intended it, the effect of his 'quick wank' was to give life. That consequence is too immense to be ignored, however inconvenient.

Ideologically I could not be further from the pro-lifers; but I have always had a reverence for life so absolute as to be almost eccentric. Even at the risk of being stung, I would remove a wasp rather than kill it. I could not drown a kitten.

I cannot help feeling that giving sperm is not quite like giving blood; it is engaging in the act of procreation.

The other line of argument is that fatherhood has always been different in kind from motherhood (as many systems of inheritance acknowledge) because only the mother carries the foetus for nine months' lodging in the womb, and only she can be absolutely certain of parenthood.

In a perfect world, all mothers and fathers would welcome the birth of their child. A baby whose father needed pounds 15 to buy a few textbooks or a couple of cinema tickets does not quite fit this bill.

It may comfort itself with the certainty that it has been engendered from potent and healthy stock. And, if Felix is any guide, any child of his will grow up with the equanimity and good sense to ignore the less than ideal circumstances surrounding its conception.