Consider a case just mentioned in the press yesterday. A Victorian woman is so desperate to find her biological father that she has resorted to legal action. The woman, who is now in her mid-twenties, was conceived with the aid of an anonymous sperm donor whom she knows nothing about.
When she was told about this in 2005 at age 21 she said it was a "shattering" experience, and she still suffers extensively because of it. She said, "I cannot fathom going through life never knowing where I have come from, my ancestry and my identity. Every day I look at the faces of people around me and wonder: 'Could you be my father, my half sister, my half brother, my grandparent?'"
One press account describes the story this way: "In a case that could affect thousands of donor-conceived families, Kimberley Springfield has asked a tribunal to overturn a bureaucratic decision that no action be taken to help identify the donor.
"Her case comes as state and federal parliamentary inquiries due to report in the coming months consider donor conception and the rights of donor-conceived people to gain access to identifying information about their donors. In submissions to both inquiries, Ms Springfield, 26, whose sister and at least four half siblings were conceived with her biological father's sperm, said she had suffered mentally, emotionally and physically from being denied knowledge about her family since she found out how she was conceived five years ago."
The tragedy is, however, that she is far from alone in this. There is an entire generation of young people who are suffering in similar ways. But all of this should not be unexpected. New reproductive technologies such as IVF have always been of concern to bioethicists and others.
Indeed, of real concern are the possible adverse psychological effects on IVF children. How do they perceive their situation? What disadvantages, if any, do they experience? How is their sense of personal history and identity affected by their unique situation? Such questions could not be properly answered until recently. But now that some IVF children are in their twenties, we can begin to find out.
Studies have found that many people conceived through donor sperm or eggs have not been told the truth about their origins. The exact figure is not known, but a large number of the estimated 20,000 babies born through such donations since the 1970s in Australia are ignorant of their parentage.
Many children conceived by IVF have spoken of the loss and/or confusion of identity. In an age that emphasizes knowing one's roots and searching one's genealogy, the dilemma of IVF children is greatly heightened. Many were conceived by donor sperm or egg. Some were housed in a surrogate mother. Indeed, for many, there is not a mother and a father, but a gaggle of "parents" and players. They have in effect been raised by a committee, not a mother and father.
Says one author, "As we know from studies of adopted children and the first testimonies of in vitro babies who are now reaching adulthood, questions of parental origin seem to have great psychic import; uncertainties about our identity on this primary level can have oddly troubling effects."
Another case in point is that of Joanna Rose, an Australian woman who is still coming to terms with who she is and where she belongs, after learning she was fathered by an anonymous sperm donor. Since making the discovery, she has been desperately trying to discover who her father was.
In a moving interview on television some years ago, she spoke of her dilemma. She spoke of her frustration and despair, and how suicide seemed like the only option. It is worth quoting from the interview at length.
"I'm aware that there are huge aspects of my identity, my self-knowledge, my ancestry, my medical history that I don't know. I'd rather answer these questions as soon as possible than live with unanswered questions for the rest of my life, and I'll do whatever I can to answer them quickly so I can get on with the rest of my life without that vortex.
"It's likely that I have between 100 and 200 brothers and sisters, half-brothers and sisters, and no way of identifying who they are and obviously that's terribly badly thought out and irresponsible on behalf of the medical establishments and the Government to allow a situation like that to happen.
"I've always felt like a social guinea pig, an experimental guinea pig. . . . I am absolutely adamant from my experience and from the experience of other people like me that any form of anonymous donation is a violation of our human rights and our identities. As far as other arrangements are concerned, I have to question the idea of encouraging people to donate their paternity or their maternity under any circumstances, but at least if people had an ongoing relationship with their biological family, regardless of the arrangements, it's less damage.
"I was the person who didn't have a say in this whole arrangement in the first place. We are the people who can't put our needs forward with a voice because we haven't been conceived yetâ¦"
A more recent story features another young woman with similar complaints. Myfanwy Walker was conceived through an anonymous sperm donor. In her twenties she finally found who the man was. It has been a harrowing experience for her. She is glad she finally discovered her genetic heritage. "But there was a massive amount of loss there for me. There were almost 20 years I could never reclaim, coupled with the realization that I could never have the genetic relationship with my own dad."
She continues, "Basically my problem is with the ethics of the practice. It doesn't protect the rights of the child. Once people understand the issues they probably wouldn't choose to conceive via donor. . . . It should be a question of whether it's in the interests of the child. You can't negate that, you really can't."
Finally, problems, can arise as have occurred in Sweden. A sperm donor there has been forced to pay child support for children he helped to father through his donor sperm. The children were raised by a lesbian couple, and the man played no role in their lives. But the lesbian couple split up, and the courts ordered him to pay the support.
And here in Australia similar problems have occurred. A lesbian couple has sued an IVF doctor because they ended up with twins instead of just the one child they were after. The couple is demanding financial payment for "wrongful birth". Imagine how the children must feel, knowing that at least one of them is unwanted, and the subject of a "wrongful birth" case?
There are many more such tragic stories out there of children and young people who have been robbed of a mother or a father or both biological parents. We have allowed the 'products' of these new technologies to be used as guinea pigs, obviously not thinking through ahead of time the possible negative repercussions they would experience.
But this is always the case when we allow science and technology to race ahead of ethical considerations. We allow what we can do to outstrip what we should do. And as a result, we have all these young people who are now suffering by being part of a new stolen generation.
Adapted from Bill Muehlenberg's weblog at www.billmuehlenberg.com.
Bill Muehlenberg lectures in apologetics, ethics and theology at several Melbourne theological colleges. Bill used to work with the Australian Family Association, Focus on the Family, and other pro-family and pro-faith organisations.