Ethical questions raised over DNA tests used to track anonymous sperm donors
Thousands of Canadians use genetic testing kits to find out more about their ancestry and what it means for their health. But now some people who were conceived through sperm donation are using the testing services to track down their biological fathers – whether the fathers want to be found or not.
DNA testing companies, such as 23andme, AncestryDNA and My Heritage DNA promise to reveal information about a client’s ethnic heritage. But they can also help them learn about relatives they didn’t know they had simply by matching their DNA to the DNA records of all the major genetic testing companies.
But that’s causing problems for men who donated sperm years ago. Many are finding that the children they conceived are now adults and tracking them down directly or through their relatives who used these DNA services.
Toronto-based lawyer Sherry Levitan specializes in assisted reproductive technology law and says these donor-conceived children are finding their biological fathers through a little bit of “cybersleuthing” and Facebook groups such as “DNA Detectives.”
Levitan says these new genetic testing kits are undoing any promises made to sperm donors that their donations would remain private.
“When a man chooses to donate to a sperm bank, he’s very clearly told it’s anonymous and that his name and his identifying information is going to be protected. But you can’t promise that anymore. It’s folly. It’s complete folly to make that kind of a promise,” she told CTV’s Your Morning Monday.
One of the ethical issues in all this is the potential for donor-conceived children to find that they have dozens of half-siblings they didn’t know about.
Levitan explains that 95 per cent of donor sperm used in Canada comes from the U.S. because federal laws in Canada prohibit payment to sperm donors, which has drastically reduced the pool of Canadian donors.
But the U.S. has more of a “free-for-all” system when it comes to sperm donation, with no consistent rules, she says. That means each sperm bank can make decisions for itself about how often any donor can donate. In some cases, a man’s sperm can be used for up to 75 pregnancies, depending on how large a city he lives in.
The other ethical issue involves the rights of donor-conceived children to know more about where they came from, against the privacy rights of donors.
Levitan says when potential parents are desperately trying to achieve a pregnancy and are considering an anonymous sperm donor, they “tend to lose sight of the child in all this.”
But the children of these donors often want to know more about their biological fathers once they’re older, which is why Levitan suggests there should be simple ways for them to do that.
“We should be a lot more focused on these children and what they’re going to need and when they’re going to need it and how we can provide it to them,” she said.
Prospective parents can choose open ID sperm donation, in which donors give their consent to allow the release of their name and contact information if ever requested by a donor offspring. But Levitan says since not many donors choose this option, there aren’t many donors to choose from if parents prefer an open approach.
Fertility lawyers such as Levitan tend to encourage openness during donor conception, encouraging the use of contracts between all parties.
Although many fertility lawyers actively discourage those contracts, preferring everything to remain confidential, Levitan says in the age of simple DNA testing, the days of anonymous donations may be over.
“Now we can see that there is no promise of anonymity,” she said, “and it might be better for the people to get together and really talk about these issues and make some plans in advance, thinking about the child.”