From July 1 this year, 18 year old Victorians who were born using a donated egg or sperm may be contacted by their donor.
This worries many parents who haven’t told their kids they were conceived through the help of a donor. It’s estimated that only 30% of Australian children who are donor conceived know it.
So should donors have the right to contact their offspring, or should it be up to the kids?
The Victorian Law Reform Commission argues that it should be the child’s decision and has put forward interim recommendations to reform the legislation.
This situation raises a complex set of questions surrounding donor conception. How do parents tell their kids, and what effect will it have on them? And what rights should donors have when it comes to their offspring? In the eyes of the law, and more importantly the children, are donors parents or not?
At a time when infertility in Australia is on the rise, donor conception is increasingly becoming an option for prospective parents. But sperm donors are concerned about possible legal complications, and egg donations and surrogacy are rapidly becoming expensive commodities, with an international market now operating. Can we regulate the business of baby making when it’s happening elsewhere?
Coming soon to Insight we bring together donors, donor conceived children, parents, and fertility experts to discuss the increasingly complicated ways families are being formed.
JENNY BROCKIE: In Victoria, there is a heated discussion about a controversial law which means donor-conceived 18-year-olds could receive a letter out of the blue indicating their donor wants to make contact. It has opened the door on a huge ethical debate. Carol Ayoub has been talking to three parents who are grappling with the complexity.
STEWART CLARKE STORY:
REPORTER: Carol Ayoub
Stewart Clarke is a sperm donor and today he's meeting the parents of a child he helped conceive. Stuart has 13 other donor offspring somewhere in Victoria but so far Phil and Lauren are the only parents he has had contact with.
LAUREN: It was always our intention to meet our donor at some point before our son turned 18, and he was about 12 months old and we wanted to contact the donor just to personally say thank you for what he had done for us.
Phil and Lauren, not their real names, don't want to be identified. They're not ashamed of their choice to use donor sperm but believe that their 5-year-old son, Max, isn't ready to deal with questions about his conception.
PHIL: Right now it's just been a simple story to him that mummy and daddy had trouble having a baby and a kind person called a donor helped us have him and it's really been at that level.
From July this year, sperm donors in Victoria can request information and make contact with children they helped conceive if they were born after July 1, 1988. The Infertility Treatment Authority in Victoria facilitates this contact if both parties consent.
REPORTER: So how do you feel about this whole idea of donors being able to contact their donor-conceived children when they turn 18?
LAUREN: For me, I feel that, having met Stewart now too, I can see that there's a natural curiosity there, that they would want to meet them. But at the same time, I guess, being the parent, I sort of think that – especially if children haven't been told – I think there needs to be a little bit more than just a curiosity there.
STEWART CLARKE, DONOR: I strongly believe that as a donor I have that right and if I want to use it, I should be able to use it. It's part of the legislation here in Victoria. And I understand that everybody deals with situations differently, everybody's an individual and everybody has the right to discuss and to tell their own children about their conception but I also believe that it's important that everybody knows about their genetic inheritance.
REPORTER: How did you choose Stewart?
LAUREN: Well, we actually… Phil wasn't so interested in the physical characteristics that matched him, it was more the interests – he wanted somebody that had the same interests and hobbies as him more than physical characteristics.
Stewart's oldest donor-conceived child is five but he doesn't think he'll be using the legislation to make contact when the child turns 18. He has registered his details on the voluntary register in Victoria so that people like Lauren and Phil know he is open to contact.
REPORTER: What do you think you'll say to them, to these donor-conceived children if they ask you why you did it?
STEWART CLARKE: Why I did it? I would…I would tell them the truth. I would tell them I did it because I knew somebody that was having difficulties having children and it made me think about infertility and there were people out there who couldn't have children the way most of us have children, and that I did it for altruistic reasons. It was something…. It was a gift that I could give to people.
REPORTER: How would you feel if one of these children that you helped conceive wanted a relationship with you?
STEWART CLARKE: I have to be open to it because I've been willing to provide my identifying information to them. I would hope that we would take it slowly, that we would have a cautious relationship to start off with where it would be slow steps because there would be a few issues to cover, obviously, between us. But yeah, look, I am open to any form of relationships any of my donor-conceived children would want to have in the future. I think I have to be.
JENNY BROCKIE: Stewart, welcome and thanks for joining us. It sounds like you're a little worried about the idea of contact and what those relationships might be if that contact was made. Is that right? You kind of know what you want but you don't know what the child might want.
STEWART CLARKE: Well, yes. A little apprehensive only because it's the unknown. It's a situation that not many people have to deal with. So it's a little bit a fear of the unknown really more than… Yeah, it's the fear of the unknown.
JENNY BROCKIE: And did you think about that when you decided to be a sperm donor? Did you think about that kind of complexity?
STEWART CLARKE: Yeah, I did, it certainly crossed my mind and it was something I certainly did think about but I must admit it was something I thought I would have to deal with in the future. It wasn't something I thought I'd be dealing with today. Yeah, it did cross my mind.
JENNY BROCKIE: And what sort of feelings do you have about it now?
STEWART CLARKE: Well positive, actually, luckily I've, you know, started to form a friendship with the parents of one of my donor-conceived children. So for me that's enabled some of the curiosity to be satisfied. So to me it's been a positive experience.
JENNY BROCKIE: Kirsty, what about you? You're donor-conceived yourself. How would you feel if your donor made a request to get in contact with you?
KIRSTY TAIFALOS, DONOR CONCEIVED: I'd have to think really long and hard about it, I guess out of respect for my dad. My dad would be absolutely fine with it if I did decide to have a relationship but I'm really happy with the dad I've got. I love him very much and I don't think he would be annoyed but I guess the fact that I'm satisfied with who I've got as a dad would make me really think twice about if I would have a relationship with someone or not.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you haven't got some driving curiosity about it?
KIRSTY TAIFALOS: Not really. My mum was diagnosed with breast cancer in September and then it kind of came up, I decided to see if I could find my donor's records for health reasons and I was told that they have been destroyed. And it was disappointing just because it annoys me that that information could potentially save my life but someone up there decided that I didn't deserve to have that information but I can live with it. I've lived without it for 21 years so I can live without it again, I guess.
JENNY BROCKIE: We'll get on to that question of records a little bit later on. Louise Johnson, you're the CEO of the Infertility Treatment Authority which oversees this whole area in Victoria. Do you have any idea how many children who are donor-conceived actually know they're donor-conceived?
LOUISE JOHNSON, CEO, INFERTILITY TREATMENT AOUTHORITY: We know that there are over 3,000 donor-conceived children in Victoria. We also know that roughly only about 30% to 50% have been told that they were conceived using either donor eggs or donor sperm.
JENNY BROCKIE: So only one in three know?
LOUISE JOHNSON: Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: And how will this Victorian law that's coming into effect work?
LOUISE JOHNSON: It's interesting, Jenny. Over the last almost 18 years both donors and parents have had the rights under the legislation to apply for information about each other, and the ITA facilitates that provision of information, and at this stage donors have mostly chosen to provide information voluntarily just in case either parents or young people wish to apply for that information.
As at 1 July this year, the impact of the legislation has a different effect. Now 18-year-olds will be able to apply for information for the first time and information can be provided but only with mutual consent.
JENNY BROCKIE: But the donors are initiate contact now, can't they?
LOUISE JOHNSON: Yes.
JENNY BROCKIE: If they want to know about the child, they can initiate contact with the child as well as long as there's consent?
LOUISE JOHNSON: That's right.
JENNY BROCKIE: The child could find out – theoretically, though – that it's been donor-conceived through a letter from you, from the Treatment Authority, why are donors being given that right, why is the system being organised this way?
LOUISE JOHNSON: The thinking behind the legislation was to provide children who are born from either donor eggs or sperm to have information about their donor. We know that young donor-conceived people desperately want to know information about their history and have natural curiosity about their donor. And the legislation was set up in such a way that young people could have access to that information. And the interests and welfare of the child was paramount in the drafting of the legislation, as I understand it.
JENNY BROCKIE: We've got the welfare of the child being attended to right behind you there. Narelle Grech, you're donor-conceived and you live in Victoria. I wonder what you think about this new system or the system that's now in place for people to make contact. What do you think about that?
NARELLE GRECH, DONOR CONCEIVED: I think it's great. I think that everyone should be able to have contact with their biological parents and I think that receiving a letter is better than perhaps it coming out via an argument or in, you know, not nice kind of way. And I think, you know, if the person has reached 18 and their parents have still not told them, that they're then an adult, they're now an adult and they have the right, I believe, to know that they are donor-conceived and that is their true identity.
JENNY BROCKIE: However they find out? Even if they find out via a letter?
NARELLE GRECH: As I said, I think a letter's better than finding out, you know, than in a negative way. I think ultimately it would be best if parents were told.
JENNY BROCKIE: Ken Daniels, you're a social worker in New Zealand, you specialise in this area. What do you think about this law? Do you think it's a good idea?
PROFESSOR KEN DANIELS, SOCIAL WORK, UNIVERSITY OF CANTERBURY, NZ: I think what we're dealing with is the legacy from the past. I have no doubt in my mind that it's much better for children to learn when they are very young and to learn from their parents that their family was built in this particular kind of way. Not the parents saying, “You were born in this way,” but the parents saying, “This is how our family began, this is our family history.”
Unfortunately that wasn't the practice, that wasn't the policy 20 years ago and now we are having to cope with the legacy of that and it's going to create a number of difficulties, there's no two ways about that.
JENNY BROCKIE: Leonie, you're the secretary of the Donor Conception Support Group with three donor-conceived children of your own. Do your kids know who their donors are?
LEONIE HEWITT, DONOR CONCEPTION SUPPORT GROUP: Two of them know and the eldest one, Geraldine, they destroyed the records, the clinic.
JENNY BROCKIE: So they know two of the bio… Two of them know their biological parents…
LEONIE HEWITT: They know Paul and Grant.
JENNY BROCKIE: And do they have a relationship with those people?
LEONIE HEWITT: No, they don't. But they're able to communicate with Grant and Paul, if they wish, through the clinic.
JENNY BROCKIE: How did you tell those children? At what point did you tell them?
LEONIE HEWITT: I told them at very young that they were donor-conceived, that daddy had, you know, that daddy's sperm didn't work and we had to go to the clinic to get some healthy seed from a man at the clinic and Geraldine at the time said we should buy that man a gift.
JENNY BROCKIE: What do you think would happen if the kids didn't know? Let's just say for argument's sake your children didn't know and they found out through this new law or through this law that's now in place for the children turning 18 now?
LEONIE HEWITT: I think you need to go back a step. How would they be raised with parents that were hiding a big secret in their family? What would the mental health of that family be?
JENNY BROCKIE: According to Louise, two-thirds of these children don't know.
LEONIE HEWITT: And you know what it's like to grow up in a family where there's secrecy? I've had to listen to lots of stories of adult donor offspring who've been told in the scenarios we've just heard, you know, through family secrets being disclosed in inappropriate ways and it's horrific to listen to those donor offspring.
JENNY BROCKIE: Damian, you've been searching for your male donor. Why the search and how difficult has been it been?
DAMIAN ADAMS, DONOR CONCEIVED: It has been extremely difficult, basically I was conceived 33years ago which was a very early period in SA, and since that time all the records have been either destroyed or lost or they don't know where they are. These are all the different stories I get told. I'd like to complete the picture of who I am as well, that's probably been the main driving force.
JENNY BROCKIE: Did it affect how you felt about the father who had raised you?
DAMIAN ADAMS: No. My father who raised me passed away when I was 10 and I've had a stepfather since then and they have both been fantastic and I couldn't have loved my father who raised me any more.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you feel like there's this piece missing in your life?
DAMIAN ADAMS: Yes, it's like probably looking at a family reunion picture but half the faces are missing.
JENNY BROCKIE: Kirsty, do you relate to that?
KIRSTY TAIFALOS: Yeah, I go through fits and fads about how I feel about it. Most of the time I'm quite happy with my situation at the moment but yeah, I guess in the back of your mind there's always that gnawing little “Who am I?” I find myself looking for myself in other people all the time.
JENNY BROCKIE: How do you feel about all this mum?
ROBYN TAIFALOS: I'd like to help… Peter and I would like to help Kirsty on her search.
JENNY BROCKIE: Peter's your husband?
ROBYN TAIFALOS: Yeah. I understand it totally and I understood when the other man spoke about finding his children. My father walked out and left us when I was six, so it is like curiosity killed the cat, so I can understand, you know, Kirsty just wanting… It's not…it's probably just someone else in your life, because we don't feel threatened in any way and when she's ready to go, we're behind her 100%, we just don't know where to go to help her because where we've been it's always rejection and no records.
JENNY BROCKIE: Did you think about that at the time you were using donor sperm?
ROBYN TAIFALOS: I've got to be honest and say no. When we were told there was such secrecy that not even to tell any other part of the family. There was no… We were told on Melbourne Cup day '81, we remember the day, we couldn't have children. We had no help, just go home.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you kept it a secret within the broader community?
ROBYN TAIFALOS: In the broader community we did, but amongst our friends and family we didn't. Kirsty knew from ever, yeah, “You were from donor, you're so special,” and the extended family have, you know, supported that.
JENNY BROCKIE: Michael Linden, you were donating sperm in the 80’s..
MICHAEL LINDEN, DONOR: 77 actually.
JENNY BROCKIE: 77, did you think about any of this when you were donating sperm?
MICHAEL LINDEN: No, never gave it a thought. I wasn't…I wasn't given any counselling as is offered to donors now. I was…in fact I believe, frankly, I was misled in the sense that I was never…..it was never formally stated to me that my donations would be used to create children. I was left quite…
JENNY BROCKIE: So why did you do it? I'm interested in why you did it?
MICHAEL LINDEN: I had a young family, I was short of money.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you got paid?
MICHAEL LINDEN: Yeah, it wasn't much. But yeah, it was useful in that particular year.
JENNY BROCKIE: Gee. And two of the five children that were born as the result of your donations have found you, is that right?
MICHAEL LINDEN: Well, we found each other via a newspaper article.
JENNY BROCKIE: How was that?
MICHAEL LINDEN: That was quite amazing, quite astounding, very life changing, yeah, for me.
JENNY BROCKIE: In what sense?
MICHAEL LINDEN: Well, in the sense that I understood the full implications of what I'd done back then.
JENNY BROCKIE: How did that make you feel, Michael?
MICHAEL LINDEN: It made me feel that I'd given those children away to be raised by someone else.
JENNY BROCKIE: So it felt like they were your children?
MICHAEL LINDEN: There's no doubt about it that they're my children. There's an unmistakable biological fact.
JENNY BROCKIE: And do you have a relationship with them now?
MICHAEL LINDEN: Yes, an ongoing relationship with them.
JENNY BROCKIE: Lia, you're Michael's partner and you each had children when you started your relationship?
LIA VANDERSANDT: Not together.
JENNY BROCKIE: No, but you each had children that you brought to the relationship. How did you feel when these other offspring of Michael's turned up in your life?
LIA VANDERSANDT: I started off feeling quite jealous and quite invaded because the intensity of their relationship and the reality that suddenly he had… They were definitely his children, there was absolutely no denying it. And their neediness, they really needed to be together a lot. It was almost obsessive for a while. And this happens when adopted children meet their families as well, it's the same thing, it's exactly the same.
JENNY BROCKIE: How do you both feel about donor conception now?
LIA VANDERSANDT: I never thought… I would never have encouraged him to donate sperm. I really think it's giving away children and this experience I've had now, I just can't see it as anything else but giving away your children.
MICHAEL LINDEN: It's donated with the intention to create a child. You're giving your child away.
JENNY BROCKIE: So are you in favour of it?
MICHAEL LINDEN: I'm totally opposed to it now.
JENNY BROCKIE: Totally opposed to it now?
MICHAEL LINDEN: Yes. It's a violation of human rights of adults, you know, or the child or the adult eventually.
JENNY BROCKIE: Faith Haugh, you hold the record in Australia and in the UK I think, for the number of children born from your eggs – 17 babies.
FAITH HAUGH, DONOR: Yeah, we're waiting to see when the 18th is ready.
JENNY BROCKIE: And have you thought much about these kinds of issues, about the children at the other end of that process?
FAITH HAUGH: Absolutely, I respect your opinion but I disagree totally when you say it's giving away a baby. It's not giving away a baby. It's like…
MICHAEL LINDEN: You know a baby is going to be born from that egg.
FAITH HAUGH: Absolutely. You know what it's like? It's like donating blood.
MICHAEL LINDEN: No, it's not, it's not at all like donating blood.
FAITH HAUGH: You're passing on a cell, you want someone else to nourish and allow to grow and they're going to go through all the labour and they're going to be screaming their head off and they're going to bring it up.
LIA VANDERSANDT: What about the child how do you feel the child sees, you know, their mother gave them away. Like you look at the donor connections of people…
FAITH HAUGH: It's not like they were Aborigine and they were being taken from their parents, it’s not like your giving them up when they’re five.
JENNY BROCKIE: O K I'd like to let Faith just finish. Keep going Faith.
FAITH HAUGH: I disagree. I think it's an issue that when before you even donate, it's an issue that you deal with in counselling – because it's mandatory – and they do that to make sure that the parents to be, hopefully, are in the right frame of mind and they know where their donor's at.
JENNY BROCKIE: So how long does that procedure take for you? How long have you been involved in that procedure each time you do this?
FAITH HAUGH: From the very start to the very finish probably, including counselling and everything, probably about 2 months, 2.5 months because as a donor you have to be hormonally linked at the same time with your recipient. So, you know, if your menstrual cycle is this way and hers isn't matching, they've actually got to even you up so you're both in sync. So it's just like she's the oven and I'm the dough and you've got to make sure – sorry – but the oven is hot enough so the dough is actually going to be fine to use.
JENNY BROCKIE: Can I ask what motivates to you to have done this so many times? Why? Why do you do it? I mean, I'm sure a lot of people watching this might understand somebody doing it once or twice but why 17 babies?
FAITH HAUGH: Because I get a lot of joy out of giving a couple something that they desperately want. I mean, they don't want to be rich, they don't want to be famous, they just want to be mums and dads and why shouldn't they be? And if I've got something that I can give them for nothing, you know, that I'm quite happy to give them, why shouldn't I do that? This is not about the glory of it. It's bloody hard work.
JENNY BROCKIE: It sounds like it might be a bit easier for the blokes than it is for the women?
FAITH HAUGH: It's always easier for blokes.
JENNY BROCKIE: Jill, your response there?
JILL SINGER, AUTHOR: I think it is definitely much easier for men to make donations. I was wondering there, I'm curious about the 17 babies to Australian couples and also in the UK. Is this donor being paid?
JENNY BROCKIE: Are you being paid?
FAITH HAUGH: Absolutely not, I don't even accept taxi fare home. I wouldn't. I would never ever do it for money and I'm a struggling single mother and I work 11 hours a day and I would never ever, ever take a cent because I think it should be something done by the heart. I understand in the US it's done for those reasons and that's their thing but I strongly disapprove of it.
JENNY BROCKIE: Martina, you're looking very pleased with what Faith's doing up the back here.
MARTINA KUHSE: I was going to disagree with Michael as well. But I need to speak on behalf of my egg donor who's my best friend. We went to primary school together and she sees it exactly the same way as Faith does.
JENNY BROCKIE: So your friend donated eggs so you can have babies.. You've had two babies.
MARTINA KUHSE: I've had two boys, yes, one's five weeks old, the one who was crying on set before.
MICHAEL LINDEN: I'm giving sperm, I gave sperm apparently so that someone could have a baby. That was the intention, that's the outcome. So what's the difference, why are you trying to make a distinction and trying to compare it to a blood donation or an organ donation when it's a living human being?
MARTINA KUHSE: I respect your feeling in that you really feel that you've given away a child but I just want to say on behalf of my egg donor that she does not feel as though she's given away a child. She's given me a cell. Her husband feels the same way, she has given me a cell and it's grown in my body.
JENNY BROCKIE: And the eldest of your children is two, are you going to tell your children?
MARTINA KUHSE: Absolutely.
JENNY BROCKIE: And what will you tell them?
MARTINA KUHSE: One of our counsellors in Melbourne has written a lovely book explaining donor conception to children. And we're going to base… I'd like to make a photo album, something like a scrapbook, including photographs of our primary school years together, my friend and I, and use her… What am I trying to say – her book, use the words in her book, the storyline I'm trying to say, yeah.
JENNY BROCKIE: Ken Daniels, I wonder from your research, what you've looked at, whether most people follow through on this desire to tell their children? We've heard from Louise earlier that two-thirds of donor-conceived children don't know they were donor-conceived. Do parents have the best intentions to tell them and then not follow through?
PROFESSOR KEN DANIELS: The figure's dramatically different in different jurisdictions. For example, in New Zealand one of our studies showed that 87% of parents were intending to tell. Now, there's always been a bit of a question mark as to whether parents say that they're going to tell but when they actually come to it they don't tell.
Well, it's a recent research I've been involved in has shown that in fact a number of parents who said they weren't going to tell when they had the treatment are in fact telling. So in fact it's the other way – rather than people sort of saying, because they think it's expected of them, that they will tell and then not telling.
And I think that in some countries the legislation that has been introduced, and Victoria is an example of this, but the most important one was Sweden where that was the first country in the world to introduce legislation to abolish the anonymity of the donor. Now, a recent study there showed that only 50% of parents had told or were intending to tell. But the thing is that they change the legislation but they didn't change the attitudes and that's the critical bit. Changing the law doesn't change the way people think about things and the way that they approach it.
JENNY BROCKIE: For many infertile couples egg or sperm donation is the only hope of having children. Carol Ayoub has been following one couple's search for a donor.
KAREN AND JEFF’S STORY:
REPORTER: Carol Ayoub
KAREN GILLES: I've always actually wanted to be a mother from a very young age. I grew up in a Catholic family, a large family, a family of eight children. In my childhood, as I grew up, I got the message that that would be what I would do, I would become a mother.
JEFF REID: About 1995 we decided to start trying to have a baby, just through natural methods. We fully anticipated that we wouldn't have any trouble at all conceiving. But that wasn't the case. Eventually we decided to undertake the IVF program and that was… that was probably a low point in the whole process of… It was 2.5 years of… it was a nightmare really and it was a real stress on our relationship too. And on the last cycle that ended without falling pregnant again and we just decided, well, look, this is really just too much, we've got to accept that perhaps the rest of our lives together we're not going to have children.
KAREN GILLES: I think I had built up a lot of resentment out of frustration, frustration of my lot in life, basically.
JEFF REID: Last year we did a personal growth course. We found, digging deep, that we still wanted… That need to be parents, the need to have a child was still there but we'd been masking it from each other.
KAREN GILLES: We had stopped being really honest about our feelings, not only to each other but to ourselves.
JEFF REID: It's hard for men to understand the yearning that women have to have a baby. It's not the same… Well, OK, I would like to be a father but it's not as intrinsic in my fibre as it is in Karen's. She's naturally maternal and there's a yearning there. So we thought, well, because of Karen's age at the moment, the only way forward would be to seek an egg donor.
KAREN GILLES: An ad in 'Sydney's Child' in March, originally, was our first advertisement and we actually did receive an offer from a lady who is very intelligent, very sensitive, very compassionate lady. We went down the track a little way until she actually got to the point of saying to her doctor, “Well, I'd like to donate an egg,” and her doctor said to her, “Well, actually remember when you went on the pill for a couple of weeks and all the skin on your face peeled off?” And so she realised “Well, that's not going to be an option for me because I have a reaction to hormones.”
I'm aware that receiving an egg donation means, obviously, that the child won't necessarily… won't have my DNA. They'll have Jeff's DNA. And for me it's important that Jeff's DNA is passed on at least, if not mine.
JEFF REID: I guess they'll have something more important than your DNA, they'll have your input as a mother.
JENNY BROCKIE: Jill Singer, can you understand Jeff and Karen's yearning? You've been very critical of the kind of industry that's grown up around reproduction. Can you understand that kind of yearning being such a driving force for people that they are prepared to do something like seek out donor eggs?
JILL SINGER: Absolutely. The areas that I'm critical of are some of the commercial areas of egg donation, particularly that in the United States where they have closed programs. That's where children can never ever find out the identity of their donors. Records are kept in code – even if you get a private detective you could never find out. And I'm very critical of those programs, commercial egg donation programs where you find young girls, 18-year-old college students have…who have a lot of money dangled in front of them in order to help out other people. And that does bother me. Not when you've got altruistic arrangements which are open and loving. I entirely agree and understand why that is happening.
JENNY BROCKIE: Kim Bergman in Los Angeles, worth bringing you in at this stage. You run the largest agency in the US offering donor and surrogate service. What do you say to what Jill's just said – that you pay for eggs and sperm, that it's become an industry?
DR KIM BERGMAN, CLINICAL DIRECTOR, FERTILITY FUTURES: It is an industry in the United States. There are people who…that is the only way that they can conceive. Now, not everyone can be a sperm donor or an egg donor and not everybody should and I feel really sorry for the gentleman who regrets that he was a sperm donor and that he didn't get the kind of counselling that is available and certainly mandatory with my agency for… ..in order for someone to be a donor.
And although they are paid, it is not a huge amount of money, it's really not worth the money. They're actually paid mostly for their inconvenience, for the medical risk that they take and it is still quite an altruistic experience from their perspective.
JENNY BROCKIE: OK, but how much do you pay? How much do you pay an American woman for her eggs, for example, or American sperm?
DR KIM BERGMAN: In our agency egg donors are paid $8,000.
JENNY BROCKIE: And sperm donors?
DR KIM BERGMAN: Sperm donors are actually just paid a few hundred dollars. It's not really a motivating factor or men.
JENNY BROCKIE: And why the discrepancy or is that just too obvious?
DR KIM BERGMAN: Because what the payment reflects is the pain and suffering and inconvenience that the donor goes through and obviously, as you mentioned, the men don't really go through pain and suffering to donate their sperm, while the women do.
JENNY BROCKIE: Let's have a look at your website and an example of an egg donor called Jenny who's listed as available on your website. You provide her college score, you provide her IQ, her interests, her genetic and medical history. What's to stop anyone from lying when they give you those details, particularly the more sort of general things, like “I'm a warm and fuzzy person and get on with everybody and love people,” and, you know, that sort of thing.
DR KIM BERGMAN: Yes, well, we do a very extensive comprehensive interview, we also do check their school records. They undergo psychological, medical and genetic screening as well as a criminal background check. And you know the reality is that with egg donation, sperm donation, whether it's for pay in the United States or not for pay in Australia, there is a leap of faith involved and you are dealing with people who are people.
JENNY BROCKIE: But how much would a person pay altogether for this process? Say somebody came to you and they wanted to get to the point where they are pregnant, how much that are they paying together, all up for that?
DR KIM BERGMAN: Right, if they're just coming to our agency for an egg donor – and we also have surrogates available – but if they're just coming to our agency for an egg donor, the cost for the donor and the agency fee is under $10,000 and then the medical costs are just the real medical costs for the hormone treatment, for the procedure itself.
JENNY BROCKIE: Jill Singer, does that outline of the way it works in America reassure you at all?
JILL SINGER: It's not how it works in all of America. And I would point out there that Kim might not think US$8,000 is very much money. To an 18-year-old college student it is a huge amount of money. The other thing is that Fertility Futures takes on egg donors that have never had children. These are girls who are not going to know how they're going to feel in the future. Imagine if they ultimately end up in a relationship where they can't have children and they've donated eggs all the time through college, it's going to be quite appalling for them.
The other thing I'd like to ask Kim when she's talking about altruism here and the great need – and we know that there are many emotional and very sad cases of infertility – I wonder if at her clinic if a woman turns up who's 50 years old, who's gone through menopause, has had five children in the past, has a new young partner, would Kim sell her the eggs of an 18-year-old college student?
JENNY BROCKIE: Kim?
DR KIM BERGMAN: I'm glad you asked that. So just let me clarify – we aren't selling eggs, we are matching human beings who want to play a role in the conception of a child.
JENNY BROCKIE: You are selling eggs, you are selling eggs.
DR KIM BERGMAN: I'm sorry?
JILL SINGER: You're selling eggs. You are.
DR KIM BERGMAN: We're not selling eggs, I understand..
JILL SINGER: You're not ashamed of what you're doing, why don't you just state what you are doing?
DR KIM BERGMAN: I'm not at all ashamed of what we're doing. I'm incredibly proud of what we're doing. We have over 400 babies born as a result of egg donation and surrogacy who would not be on the planet if not for the altruism of the donors.
JENNY BROCKIE: But you emphasise the altruism but this is a business, in America, this is a business, this is a business you're running.
DR KIM BERGMAN: It is a business and I agree with you. And it is a business, like many other businesses, that have many facets to them. And well, there is money involved that doesn't negate the aspects of intention on the part of donor.
JENNY BROCKIE: Let's get back to Jill's question of 50-year-old. Would you allow the egg from an 18-year-old college student to be used with a 50-year-old woman?
DR KIM BERGMAN: We don't discriminate against people who want to be parents but there are many factors that go into the decision. Donors do have a say as to who gets their genetic material and the donor would have a say in that. Also the medical doctors would have a say in that.
JENNY BROCKIE: Joel Bernstein, you work in IVF and donor insemination here in Australia. How easy is it to get an egg donor in Australia?
DR JOEL BERNSTEIN, IVF SPECIALIST: Extremely difficult and I think with known donation it's becoming harder all the time.
JENNY BROCKIE: You think that's the reason why, because of this disclosure?
DR JOEL BERNSTEIN: It's one of the reasons why. And I think the other reason is a general lack of knowledge by the public. And I hope that it's something this program addresses – that women can donate eggs, and it's something that's not well known. Overseas many programs are far better known and in fact people come forward far more readily and I'm sure that many women in Australia if they knew about it would do so.
JENNY BROCKIE: Denyse, you're Joel's wife and you run a service that connects people with the Greek system. And how does the system work in Greece?
DENYSE ASHER, IVF SCIENTIST: Greece has an egg sharing program where patients who are going through IVF themselves, mainly for male infertility reasons, who will agree to keep the majority of their eggs for themselves but they give up a few and donate to another couple.
JENNY BROCKIE: And that's an anonymous program?
DENYSE ASHER: It is. And they're not paid for it. And anonymity is the law in Greece.
JENNY BROCKIE: Narelle, what do you think about that idea, as a donor-conceived child, when you hear this?
NARELLE GRECH: It's quite upsetting for me to hear in that day and age people are creating other human beings who will not know their true identity. I think it's a real discrimination of human rights and I would give anything in the world to meet my biological father. And I think there's also the issue of separating the siblings. I have seven half-siblings as a result of my father's donations who I may never meet and it's not only a loss for my father, it's a loss for my paternal family and for my half-siblings. And the fact that I won't be able to meet them and that people are still doing this. even with all of the knowledge from adoption and people like myself, it upsets me because I could never do that to anyone else myself.
JENNY BROCKIE: Derek Morgan, can I ask you about the legal position here. You're a lawyer who specialises in this whole area. It's legal, presumably, for somebody to go to another country and take advantage of their services and come back pregnant? Yes, they can do that even if that system is not legal in Australia?
PROFESSOR DEREK MORGAN, HEALTH LAW, QUT: Yes, it is.
JENNY BROCKIE: And what about the legal rights that those children have? What about the testing of those rights? Have we seen the rights of these children, who are now becoming adults, tested yet in Australia?
PROFESSOR DEREK MORGAN: People's attitudes in this area of fertility treatments, of infertility are moving at an enormously rapid rate and it's an issue that the law has great difficulty in trying to keep up with. We've got procreative tourism that we've just hearing about – people just going to…
JENNY BROCKIE: Procreative tourism is that what you call it?
PROFESSOR DEREK MORGAN: People going from one jurisdiction to another, even within Australia itself.
JENNY BROCKIE: People moving from State to State because laws are different.
PROFESSOR DEREK MORGAN: And there are quite significant differences between the law in Victoria and the law in SA, about the information that people can in fact get. Even though there are supposed to be in place NH and MRC and RTAK guidelines about what information should be collected, there's no uniformity at all. And so what we are beginning to see are attempts by both donors and by children born of donation to discover something about the genetic origins that they are keen or, in some cases, desperate or, in other cases, angry to try and uncover.
Where records don't exist, we're not going to be able to manufacture them.
JENNY BROCKIE: Lia.
LIA VANDERSANDT: I just want to say that my son and I moved through our jealousy and his kids are now fully integrated into our family and so are her parents and her family as well. And every time they come and visit, every time, the first thing they do is walk through the door and talk about similarities they have with Michael. It's so important to them in their identity. It hasn't affected or ruined their relationships with their family who they love, but it is so important for those people to know who their family is. It should be on the birth certificate and it should be treated like adoption.
JENNY BROCKIE: You absolutely disagree that it should be on birth certificates.
DR JOEL BERNSTEIN: I don't think we've reached a point of development in our sort of mental and emotional status where an ideal, which I do agree with, can become a reality. I think we have to see this as a dynamic process. I think we know where the goals are but one still has to deal with past problems, which I think have to be dealt with in a different way and therefore I disagree with the Victorian law as it affects people who were born when this was not available.
LIA VANDERSANDT: It should be made retrospective for all donor-conceived people.
DR JOEL BERNSTEIN: I absolutely disagree. I think that children and adults and families are forgotten and I think that the parents of these children definitely have to have a say.
JENNY BROCKIE: So what are you saying, we should do nothing?
DR JOEL BERNSTEIN: No, I think we should try our best to educate the public, which is what we're doing this evening. I think we should try and mount as effective a study as we can aimed at known donors. Try and correct it but equally don't jump in and with one movement of the pen, wipe out what has been done and affect children who are born and families that could be destroyed.
LEONIE HEWITT: You keep talking about children here, they don't stay children, they become independent adults that have separate needs to their parents needs. We're talking about people who are going to be grandparents, you know. My children, one of my children has 29 half-siblings. What are the risks for one of my children that they marry a half-sibling?
WOMAN: What concerns me is if the child can't access its donor parents, certain genetic diseases that are hard to screen for, like, anxiety disorder, personalities disorders.
JENNY BROCKIE: So you're concerned about that genetic heritage. Kim Bergman, this is interesting this whole point about genetic heritage because there are some cases – there's been a case we heard just last week in the United States where five donor-conceived children had inherited a potentially life-threatening blood disorder which is now being a legal case, a legal suit. Now, doesn't this highlight the possible dangers of all of this, that if we just do let it keep running out of control. You're never going to screen for everything and these kids are not going to necessarily know that they may be able to inherit some kind of disease or disorder?
DR KIM BERGMAN: Well, I do, you know, I do agree with the last gentleman that we do need to move to a system of more disclosure. In the United States we are actually, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine is gradually moving in that direction of disclosure for offspring so that they do have access to the genetic information on the donors that were involved in their conception and I think that that is a very good idea.
I just think that we want to be mindful that there are complex issues.
JENNY BROCKIE: How do the donor-conceived children feel when they hear all this talk about all of this? Kirsty, how do you feel?
KIRSTY TAIFALOS: I don't know.
JENNY BROCKIE: About your rights?
KIRSTY TAIFALOS: I suppose about my rights…
JENNY BROCKIE: What do you feel your rights are?
KIRSTY TAIFALOS: I think that right now, even though I don't feel a need to find out who my donor was, even if I don't want to know, I still have a right to know. I guess it's become even more prominent to me since mum had breast cancer, like that information could save my life.
JENNY BROCKIE: Knowing that genetic part of your history?
KIRSTY TAIFALOS: Yes, that could save my life. And someone up there, the power-that-be decided that I don't deserve that and that makes me really angry. Really angry.
PROFESSOR DEREK MORGAN: From the introduction of the legislation that Ken Daniel was talking about, early on in 1985, more and more jurisdictions internationally have been moving towards the ability of people – and they don't just remain children as somebody said earlier on, they become adults and sometimes very angry adults too – have been moving towards greater ability for people born from donation to have access to identifying information about their donor.
I think it's probably not widely understood that Victoria is the only jurisdiction in the world that actually permits the donor the right to find out information – identifying information as it may well be too – about children born from their donations. That's quite unique.
JENNY BROCKIE: Which is where we started this discussion, of course. And you think that's appropriate or inappropriate that legislation?
PROFESSOR DEREK MORGAN: It was a judgment that was made in 1984 when Victoria became one of the first legislatures in the world to pass a statute on this basis, that was then brought into effect in 1988. And it's a legacy with which Louise and her team at the Infertility Treatment Authority are now left to work.
JENNY BROCKIE: Damian.
DAMIAN ADAMS: On the point of laws and regulations, Australia as a whole nation is a signatory on the UN Conventions on the Rights of Child and this convention states that the child has a right to their family history and in which case if a State – SA, Victoria – unlawfully removes this right of the child – and let's all be honest here, that the children are not consulted about whether they want to know about who their father or mother is, their genetic one that is – and if this right is then removed from them, then the State should do all means within its power to rectify the situation.
JENNY BROCKIE: One of the things that strikes me about this whole debate is that we talk about regulation and about how to regulate this area but the truth is that in many ways you can't regulate people having children. If people want to go out and find donor sperm, for example, it's a much easier process than finding a donor egg. But it is possible for people to go off and have children in all manner of ways the society as a whole might think is inappropriate.
Leonie, what do you think is the answer is to all of this? Is it possible to regulate this area effectively or are we always going to see problems because of what we can do now technology?
LEONIE HEWITT: I think when we're using the taxpayers' money for this, to create families, there needs to be some accountability from governments. We can't do… We can't control what happens in the bedrooms of, you know, people wanting to create families this way. But Warren and I made a decision to go and have donor children. We needed to go to a clinic and the clinic gave us three beautiful children. The government licensed that clinic, the NSW Government licensed the Royal Hospital for Women to provide a service and yet there is no accountability to our family.
JENNY BROCKIE: What do you mean there's no accountability?
LEONIE HEWITT: We lobbied for seven years and we finally got the Royal Hospital for Women at Paddington to get a voluntary register. Isn't that wonderful?
JENNY BROCKIE: When you say a register, a register of sperm donations?
LEONIE HEWITT: And egg. And that took a 7-year battle. That’s wonderful, that’s one clinic in the state of NSW, what about all the other clinics?
JENNY BROCKIE: So what do you want to see?
LEONIE HEWITT: What do I want to see? I want to see the Federal Government and the State Governments getting together and legislating for the rights of families to know this information. You know, every time my children get sick and I have to go to the doctors, I can only give them 50% of the health history. That's a real concern for me.
What is it like for my children when they form a relationship? Geraldine's 23, she has to disclose that she's a donor offspring. For one of my children here's 29 half-siblings, 20 conceived in another State, in SA. There's no register there. There needs to be a national register for these people to have access and for donors and recipients and offspring to put their names there. I want accountability.
JENNY BROCKIE: Does everybody think a national register's a good idea. Do you think it's a good idea, Joel?
DR JOEL BERNSTEIN: I'm sceptical whether the government should be doing it because security of information is quite a problem but definitely agree it should be done.
JENNY BROCKIE: Keith.
PROFESSOR KEITH DANIELS: That is absolutely right and the whole purpose of that was really to make it very clear to parents that in fact they couldn't hide the nature of the conception. So in a sense it was actually encouraging, if you like, I suppose forcing parents into a position where they would have to be open. Now, that's a very controversial issue.
JENNY BROCKIE: Andrew Austin, you're planning now to become a sperm donor yourself, having been through this experience with donor eggs with your wife. Now, has anything you've heard tonight changed your mind about being a sperm donor?
ANDREW AUSTIN: No, not at all. I'm committed to giving back to the program that helped me and my wife and to give us a family that we have and the donor is a really special person, a great friend and someone we see regularly through mutual contact and I would like to be able to give something back to the program that helped me.
JENNY BROCKIE: And Martina, how do you think you'll feel if you know that Andrew has actually become a biological parent to other children?
MARTINA KUHSE: I think it adds to the legacy of our own children and it will become part of their story and part of our explanation as to how they were conceived, that their father has given back into the system and I'm very comfortable with it.
JENNY BROCKIE: We are going to have to leave it there. I'm afraid we are we're out of time. We live in a complicated world and we could keep arguing about this forever. But thank you very much for joining Insight tonight. Fascinating discussion. Thank you to Kim Bergman in LA. Our thanks for staying with us Kim and for staying up. We do appreciate it. And Jill Singer too, in Melbourne, thank you very much for your contribution.