More people conceived using donor sperm or eggs in Victoria will from today have the legal right to know details about their donor, even if the donation was made anonymously or the donor didn’t give consent to being identified.
However, donors who didn’t give consent to being identified when they donated can choose how to be contacted, if at all.
The newly implemented donor conception legislation is a world first as it allows all people, regardless of when conceived with donor eggs or sperm, to find out the donor’s name, date of birth and donor code, if available.
The new legislation covers people born before 1988, when sperm and egg donations in Victoria were made anonymously, and those born from egg, sperm or embryos donated between 1988 and 1998, when a donor’s consent was needed before their offspring could access information about them.
People who donated eggs or sperm before 1998, who may have concerns about how the changes will affect them and their families, can choose how they and any of their own children under 18 years of age are contacted. They can choose to be contacted by email, phone or letter, or by using a donor linking service. They can also choose not to be contacted.
While some donors support people’s right to know their biological origins, others are fearful of their donor-conceived offspring knowing their identity, as they may not have revealed to their partner or children they were once a donor.
A person conceived with donor sperm or egg can also lodge a contact preference or refuse the release of identifying details if their donor seeks identifying information about them.
The new legislation also requires that donor conception registers, which record information about people involved in donor treatment, are managed by the Victorian Assisted Reproduction Treatment Authority. (As noted in this article’s disclosure statement, the author and co-author of this article work for VARTA.) This is also where people – including those conceived using donor eggs and sperm, their parents, the donors and all of their families – can find out more and get support with making applications to the donor conception registers.
The history of donor conception legislation in Victoria
In the early days, children born as a result of donated sperm or eggs were often not told how they were conceived and it was expected donors would remain anonymous. But, over time, it became more acceptable for people to be told how they were conceived and to have information about their donor, a shift from advocating secrecy to promoting openness.
This shift stems from a growing awareness that people have a fundamental interest in knowing their biological origins. For many donor-conceived people, knowing their origins is an important part of understanding who they are and where they come from. Studies show they want as much information as possible about the donor.
As knowledge about the inheritance of disease increases, it also becomes more important for donor-conceived people to know their genetic and medical history.
What are the rules elsewhere?
In 1988, Victoria was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to implement laws to recognise the right of donor-conceived people to be able to access information about the donor. Subsequent legislation (1998 and 2010) gave donor-conceived people progressively more rights.
While the idea that people have the right to know where they come from is generally gaining momentum around the world, there is still great variation between jurisdictions in how donor conception is regulated.
Some countries mandate that donors are anonymous (such as Spain and France); others ban anonymous donations and keep registers of people involved in donor conception or facilitate information exchange between donor-conceived people and donors (eg. Sweden, Austria, UK).
In Australia, anonymous donation of eggs and sperm is banned in all states and territories. Some states have have state-run registers, for example, Western Australia and New South Wales. However, unlike Victoria, parents of donor-conceived children under 18 years of age cannot make applications for information about their donor and donor-conceived people need to wait until adulthood to make an application. Donor-conceived people in those states can lodge information on a voluntary register hoping their donor or donor-siblings also lodge information to allow them to exchange information.
In states without legislation, donor-conceived people who seek information about the donor or their parents rely on the willingness of treating clinics to search for and approach the donor.
Watch with interest
However, Victoria has Australia’s most far-reaching donor conception laws.
They promote openness and give all those who wish, particularly donor-conceived people, the opportunity to connect with people they are related to through donor conception. They also provide safeguards to donors who donated under conditions of anonymity by allowing them to state whether and how they wish to be contacted. However, some donors may still be concerned about the possibility of others knowing they once donated sperm or eggs.
Other jurisdictions around the world and in Australia will watch with interest how the most recent changes to donor conception laws in Victoria are managed and how the people affected by them respond.
This article was co-authored by Louise Johnson, the chief executive officer of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA).
Karin Hammarberg is Senior Research Officer at the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority. In her role she monitors and translates research relevant to the Authority's obligation to provide public education on matters relating to fertility, infertility and assisted reproductive technology. This article was co-authored by Louise Johnson, the chief executive officer of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority.
Authors: Karin Hammarberg, Senior Research Fellow, Jean Hailes Research Unit, School of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Monash University