by Farrah Tomazin
Being kept in the dark about your heritage takes its toll.
THEY say life is full of surprises; mine was a photograph I found when I was 17. The picture was of me, taken when I was about 12 months old. Scribbled on the back, in my mother’s distinctive handwriting, were seven words that changed my life: ”Farrah Mae Lewis. Daughter of George Lewis.”
I remember feeling like I’d been hit. My surname was Tomazin – after the man who I believed was my father. Who the hell was George Lewis?
Over the next few days, I discovered my life had been premised on a lie. The ”father” who raised me was actually my stepfather. My biological father had left soon after I was born. And for reasons I’ll probably never understand – perhaps shame, denial, or misplaced protectiveness – my family had decided not to tell me yet.
There are few things more confronting than having your sense of identity turned upside down, especially when you’re a teenager. Once the shock subsides, the confusion, anger and distress kick in.
Yet I consider myself lucky. I don’t have any significant barriers preventing me from knowing who my biological dad is, or even trying to make contact, should I ever be ready (and I’m not yet). The truth can sometimes hurt you, but it’s easier if at least you know the truth.
For many people conceived through a sperm donor, there’s no such privilege. Victoria has a three-tiered system where access to information depends on the date of your conception. Put simply, children born after 1998 can get information about their biological parent because their donors were required to consent to it being released.
Those born between 1988 and 1997 also have the right to identifying information, provided the donor agrees. But those born before 1988 don’t have the same rights. Their only option is to put themselves on a voluntary register and hope their donor does the same.
That’s because state laws regulating assisted reproductive treatment didn’t take effect until 1988. Before then, donor conception was unregulated and in hands of the medical profession, with contracts guaranteeing secrecy. But this could change if the Baillieu government decides to adopt the recommendations of a parliamentary committee report handed down last month.
The law reform committee’s report has urged the government to give all people the right to identifying information about their donor. This could include their full name, date of birth, and current address.
It’s a contentious proposal, but consistent with Victorian legislation that retrospectively allowed adopted people to get information about their birth parents, despite past pledges of anonymity.
Some doctors argue that changing the law could jeopardise patient confidentiality and breach the privacy of donors who gave on the basis of anonymity. Others fear it could deter people from donating at all.
These are valid concerns. After all, many donors before 1988 were university students who gave their sperm altruistically, or in return for a fee. Presumably, many have now gone on to have their own families and might not want the disruption. Also, some may have many children from their donations.
But as committee chairman and Liberal MP Clem Newton-Brown said recently: ”The problem is that the innocent non-parties to this deal, and the ones most affected, are the children. They are now adults and many desperately yearn for that most basic of human rights: to know who they are, and where they come from.”
This won’t always be the case – not everyone wants to make contact with their biological parent, or feels there is something meaningful missing in their lives. But for those who do, having a choice is important.
The recommendations also come with a number of safeguards. In order to ensure there’s no unreasonable interference in donors’ lives, the committee has suggested creating ”contact vetoes”, which would give donors (or their offspring) the right to refuse contact.
This is a good thing, but importantly, it won’t prevent the information from being released, even if contact is denied. Donor-conceived children will also need the consent of their parents, and to undertake counselling, before their donor’s information can be released. It will be interesting to see if Ted Baillieu accepts the recommendations when the government is required to hand down its response within the next six months.
Let’s face it, the changes are politically risky, and Baillieu tends to be risk-averse. Even the committee – made of up Liberal, Labor, and National MPs – started the inquiry ”inclined towards the view” that donor anonymity should take precedence.
What swayed them, though, was the evidence of donor-conceived children, which is peppered throughout the 206-page report. Some are stories of devastation and grief. Others are tales of successful relationships being forged between donors and their offspring. Mostly, they are appeals for consistency and equality in the law.
As one donor-conceived person told the committee: ”At its heart, I believe this inquiry is about people. It is not about forcing people into unwanted relationships, it’s about giving people … the knowledge we need to complete our sense of identity and normalising the rights of older donor-conceived people to match the standards we set for other Victorians, such as adopted people, or younger donor-conceived people.”
For decades, Victorian donor laws have been inconsistent, giving some people the right to know where they come from, while others are kept in the dark. And often, being kept in the dark is the hardest part of all.
by Ian Smith
Victoria can be a world leader with information on donor conception.
CLEM Newton-Brown (The Age, March 29) has it right when he says of donor conception as practised in the 1980s that this was an experiment that we got wrong and which we now need to correct.
Like Peter Lewis, (The Age, March 30), I was part of that ”experiment”. I was a sperm donor in the mid-’80s. I was motivated by altruism. I saw that I could help others and I felt good about doing so. It seemed simple then. Now I realise it is not simple at all.
I know I am the biological father of nine children. Two of my offspring live with me. Seven – offspring from my sperm donations – I have never met. I’m married now, I have children and I can see before me the whole process of the development of a person who is the sum of so many genetic and familial influences.
At times I feel quite anguished that I have seven other children who carry a part of me and my genetic and family background but over whose lives I have no direct influence.
I wonder if they are alive, if they are healthy, happy, well cared for and loved. All I can do is hope. One day I may meet some of them. Who knows? Or maybe I will meet none and will forever wonder about them.
The thing that I have done is make myself available to meet those people if they wish. I have joined the voluntary donor register and am available – for exchange of medical and family history information, meetings, or whatever. It is up to the children of my donations to do what they wish.
Of course, it will be complicated and challenging for me and my family. But I believe I have a fundamental responsibility to those people to let them see and know something of their genetic and biological heritage. I see this as an issue of fundamental human rights – the rights of donor-conceived people to know of their origins if they wish. To my mind that human right outweighs the promises of anonymity that I and other sperm donors received in the 1980s.
The doctors who gave those promises were well intentioned, but I believe they were wrong to deny donor-conceived people access to knowledge of their genetic heritage.
The parallels with adoption practice are strong. For years adopted people were similarly denied access to knowledge of their birth parents. That was changed by legislation – with safeguards and support mechanisms built in as is the case with the recommended changes to information about sperm donors. The sky did not fall in with those changes and it will not in this case either – if handled carefully and sensitively.
Some sperm donors wish to retain anonymity. They may be frightened of disruption to their families or be worried that the children conceived through their donations will make financial claims on them and their families. The latter is a misapprehension – as the law is clear that this cannot occur. Disruption and unsettlement from the appearance of their donor offspring – maybe so. But weighing that against the rights of the offspring to have knowledge of their biological parentage – as the Victorian parliamentary inquiry has done – must lead to a judgment that human rights are paramount in this case.
The inquiry has recognised these significant complexities and has made strong recommendations for safeguards and support for both donors and the offspring. Specifically, the inquiry recognised the importance of ensuring that there will be no unreasonable interference in donors’ lives and recommended that donors and donor-conceived people have the ability to place a veto on contact.
There are also clear recommendations for effective counselling and support services for all who are affected. It will be crucial that these services are properly provided to help people work through the potentially complex circumstances of offspring making contact with their biological parents.
This issue is about people: the donors who have created lives, and the people who have been born from the donations of sperm and eggs. As one of the people involved in the donor conception ”experiment” of the 1980s, I support changes to legislation and practice that will enable donor-conceived people to gain the rights of access to information about their biological parents and their genetic and familial heritage. The recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry have set out a way in which that can be achieved while best treating the rights of all parties concerned.
Victoria can be a world leader in taking a compassionate, progressive and rights-based approach to the issue of granting donor-conceived people access to information about their heritage. I hope that Parliament will do just that when it considers how to respond and act on this report.
Ian Smith is a former sperm donor who gave evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into access by donor-conceived people to information about donors.
Peter Lewis, a sperm donor, says children have a right to know.
WHEN Peter Lewis and his medical school peers were approached to donate sperm in the early 1980s, he was driven by altruism to help.
”We were told it was a crisis and they needed us,” he says. Donors were paid a ”not insignificant amount for a student” but Lewis wasn’t motivated by the cash: ”It was a noble thing to do, helping families who wouldn’t have children.”
But even as a 20-year-old, he was struck by the fact the hospital seeking donors, Prince Henry’s, offered donor anonymity.
”What we perceived they were doing was giving away the right of a child who was not yet born – I couldn’t see how the hospital could speak on behalf of a child not yet born about what their rights would or wouldn’t be,” he says.
Lewis, now a Melbourne GP, became a donor but did not opt for anonymity, the norm for sperm donors pre-1988. Unlike many donors his age, he knows he has fathered seven children and is happy for them to make contact.
Lewis backs the Victorian Parliament’s law reform committee inquiry into access to information about the biological fathers of children conceived before 1988. Donor-conceived children born after this and before 1998 can receive information about their donor father only if he consents. Those after 1998 have unconditional access to information about their donors.
In the new recommendation, donors will be able to lodge a ”contact veto”, which would allow children to find out the identity of their parents but not make contact.
”I went into this thinking I may well be contacted one day – I never agreed when the hospital said ‘you will remain anonymous, you will not be contacted’. I thought these kids would have a right to know about their heritage.”
Coincidentally, Lewis had already met one of his daughters, Rachel – an identical twin – before she sought contact with him a few years ago. She had been his patient at his Armadale clinic.
”When she came in [as a patient] I didn’t ask if she was a twin – had I done so I might have wondered and asked if she was born via IVF,” he says.
”We already knew each other and had met on good terms when I got an SMS message saying, ‘Guess what Dr Lewis, I’ve just found out that you are my and my sister’s biological father.”’
He has a close relationship with Rachel, her twin, and their parents, and has even formed a business relationship with Rachel’s boyfriend.
”I’m a positive influence on Rachel’s life and [her parents] are supportive of my contact with her,” he says. ”There’s no book on what the role of a sperm donor dad is but I’m influenced … by hearing about adopted children trying to contact their families of origin and being rejected.
”I think [the need for biological history] palls to insignificance compared to the emotional needs that a person may have to know where they came from,” he says.
Sunday, December 4, 2011, by Sarah Carabott.
Narelle Grech was diagnosed with cancer.
Born in Australia, Narelle Grech, 29, from Melbourne, is one of hundreds of Australians searching for their biological relatives. But since she was born before 1988, she has no legal right of access to her biological father’s details.
Both her parents were born in Malta, so the clinic matched the blood group and Maltese origins when selecting the donor.
Doctors suspect the cancer is genetically linked and her mother’s family has no history of cancer. Finding her biological father earlier could have meant being screened at an earlier age.
Narelle is aware of her biological father’s details. He donated at Prince Henry’s Hospital (now closed) in Melbourne around 1981. At the time, he was a student and married, had brown hair and eyes and his blood group is O positive.
His donor code T5, given to him at the clinic, shows that his surname begins with the letter T. One of the counsellors who has access to her records told Narelle her father’s surname is recognisably of Maltese origin. But this information is the only lead in her quest to find the man who dwelled in her thoughts for the past years.
“It’s been 14 years and the curiosity has not changed. I still want to find him,” she told The Sunday Times.
Narelle was 15 when her parents told her about her donor conception status.
“As you can imagine first I was shocked, although it wasn’t until years later that I seriously considered what this news meant for me – my identity, my place in my family and in the world.
“I was upset I couldn’t know more, and have since been searching for him with the little information I was given. I still feel at a loss for not being able to know him and my paternal family.”
Initially it was all about finding him and identifying the man who helped create Narelle, but as she got older it became about learning more about herself, her identity and her paternal family. Yet, the law in the state of Victoria means the identity of her biological father is kept under lock and key.
“I am being denied access to information about myself and this is very frustrating. It has broken my heart many times over,” she added.
In May, her search took a more critical turn when doctors diagnosed her with advanced bowel cancer, classified at stage four.
“My prognosis is five years, but I’m hoping to defy the odds,” said Narelle, who is on constant medication.
Identifying her biological father earlier could have meant a chance at beating cancer and a potential lifeline to her eight half siblings, who were conceived by the same donor, and who should also be screened every five years.
“I have been denied the chance to know them and not only may they not know they are donor conceived, they may not know that they are at risk of cancer. This makes me very upset and powerless. Being donor conceived not only effects me, it impacts so many people and needs to be monitored far more rigorously than it is now.”
She said there were still many flaws in the Australian system, forcing people to live a lie and a possible direct breach of the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, sanctioned by government and legislation.
Asked whether her biological father could still assist her, even if he wanted to remain anonymous, she said it would be useful to know if anyone had been diagnosed with cancer in his family and at what age it emerged.
“This would help me, the other people conceived by his donations and generations to follow – my children, nieces and nephews related by blood,” Narelle said.
Men have been donating sperm to help couples conceive in Victoria for more than 40 years, with an estimated 20,000 to 60,000 donor-conceived people currently living in Australia.
Before July 1, 1988, donors signed a form pledging never to seek children born from the insemination and were promised their own identities would remain secret.
After donating at a private practice or through larger programs at the Royal Women’s Hospital or the former Queen Victoria or Prince Henry Hospitals, they were sent on their way with no counselling, clueless about how many children may be conceived with their sperm.
Now some of the people created through this process want the right to know their biological fathers.
Not necessarily establish contact or a relationship, just have the right to access the information.
Different rules about access apply, depending on when the sperm donation was made.
People conceived from sperm donated after January 1, 1998, have unconditional access to information about their donors, while those created from donations between July 1, 1988, and December 31, 1997, can only access that information with the donor’s consent.
But for those conceived with donor sperm before the Infertility (Medical Procedures) Act came into effect on July 1, 1988, no access is available to identifying information about their donors.
The Victorian parliament’s Law Reform Committee is examining possible reforms in this area, with an eye to how changes will affect donor-conceived people, their families and donors.
Myfanwy Cummerford was 20 when she learnt she was donor-conceived in what she describes as an extremely traumatic experience.
“By the time you reach age 20 you have gone through the angsty teenage period of wondering ‘who the hell am I?’ that sort of growing up stage, and you seem to be developing a better idea of who you are and where you’ve been,” she said.
“To have that completely demolished is … absolutely devastating.”
Cummerford said she felt like a fraud when she found out her dad was not her biological father.
Some of her characteristics could no longer be attributed to her father’s side of the family.
People she stayed with while overseas, who she thought were relatives, were not.
“I also felt a bit of a fraud to be honest,” she said.
“I felt guilty … I felt like they’d been duped because I wasn’t related to them.
“Even now I’m not completely okay with the way I discovered I was donor-conceived.”
After unsuccessful attempts to track her biological father down through the Royal Women’s Hospital, the pair made contact after he read an article in a newspaper, featuring Cummerford’s picture.
She now has an ongoing relationship with her biological father and his other children born within his marriage.
Cummerford says she has a better relationship with her dad now the secret about her biological father is out in the open.
She says she would like to know the identity of several half-sisters, who were also conceived using her biological father’s sperm.
Some donors, like Cummerford’s biological father, are happy to have a relationship with their offspring but others remain at the other end of the spectrum, dreading a phone call from a child they helped create but have never known.
“As a donor, I fear contact,” one man said in a written submission tendered to the Law Reform Committee inquiry this week.
“Such contact would be extremely distressing to myself and to my spouse and children and I do not want the wonderful relationships with them upset by the sudden onset of donor-conceived people.”
The donor says that while donor-conceived people can access support groups and have a voice in the debate about access to information, donors often are silent to conceal their history.
“In this inquiry, I can see the rights of the donor to anonymity are likely to be overrun by the desire of donor-conceived people for contact,” he said
Records from procedures at the Royal Women’s Hospital are kept at Melbourne IVF, those at Prince Henry Hospital at the Public Records Office and Monash IVF holds most of the records from the Queen Victoria Hospital, although records for procedures before 1979 no longer exist.
Monash IVF’s Maria Gabbe said the clinic has files for 928 children who potentially were born from pre-1988 donors.
Many of the files were incomplete, missing signatures, dates of birth, addresses and some don’t have names, she said.
Gabbe agreed with suggestions there could be between 2000 and 3000 children conceived using sperm donated before 1988.
Clinic manager Rita Alesi said Monash IVF supported a voluntary register being set up to manage information about donors and their children but doctors would be reluctant to hand control of their records over to such a body.
Some doctors were worried they could be sued if the names of donors promised anonymity were released without their consent, she said.
“There is enormous anxiety from the medical profession about what that might mean for them,” she said.
“They were guaranteed complete anonymity in those days.”
Melbourne IVF (MIVF) argues in its submission the rights of the donor-conceived person should never trump the donor’s right to privacy and control over the release of their personal information.
“MIVF does not support equal access for all donor-conceived individuals as this does not protect the rights of the donor or respect the agreement that Melbourne IVF entered into with the donor at the time they donated,” it says in its submission.
Lauren Burns was 21 when her mother told her and her 24-year-old sister they were donor-conceived.
“I learnt my biological father was a vial of frozen sperm labelled C11,” she said.
Burns, who went on to meet her biological father and his three children who are her half-siblings, said donor-conceived people did not expect an instant family.
She said she understood doctors feeling a responsibility to honour the promise of anonymity they gave to donors decades ago, but questioned whether they should ever had entered into such an agreement.
“They’re not bad people or anything but I think it was a very anachronistic promise to create a child without responsibility because you can’t do that,” she said.
“It shouldn’t have been promised in the first place.”
The inquiry is to report by the end of June next year.