TangledWebs expresses it’s deep disappointment following the tabling of the Victorian government response in parliament this morning.
The response can be found here: http://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/images/stories/committees/lawrefrom/iadcpiad/DCP_Interim_Govt_Resp_2012-10-11.pdf
The Parliamentary Law Reform Committee (PLRC) enquiry into access by donor-conceived people to information about donors began in June 2010, ran over two years and two governments with the final report tabled in March of this year. TangledWebs supports the recommendations of the PLRC final report which took into account its extensive consultations with various stakeholders and the wider community. TangledWebs is of the view that the PLRC final report recommendations would carefully and sensitively balance the interests of donor conceived people and donors whilst maintaining that the interests of donor conceived people are to be the paramount consideration as required by the guiding principles of the Assisted Reproductive Treatment Act.
It was to our great disappointment to read that this morning the government had tabled its brief response to the report stating that it would be waiting a further six months in order to conduct further research canvassing the “views of the broader donor community”. We query the likelihood of obtaining more information in six months than the committee did over a period of two years and note that this research is to exclusively canvas the views of donors and not donor conceived people. It is apparent by the wording of the government response that donor conceived people are expected to wait yet again whilst the interests of others are considered before and above their own.
A British scientist fathered up to 600 children after founding a fertility clinic that promised to provide sperm donors from ‘intelligent stock’, it emerged yesterday.
Biologist Bertold Wiesner supplied sperm to the partners of infertile men from the middle and upper classes, including ‘peers of the realm’.
His wife Mary Barton later destroyed medical records, meaning most of those conceived there – and their thousands of subsequent offspring – have no idea of their true family history and blood ties.
Half-brothers: Barry Stevens from Canada, left, and David Gollancz from London, right, were both conceived at the controversial Barton clinic and have discovered that Bertold Wiesner is their biological father
But two men conceived by artificial insemination at the practice, which operated from the early 1940s until the mid-1960s, have completed research suggesting up to two-thirds of sperm donations during that period were by Wiesner.
David Gollancz, one of Wiesner’s biological sons, estimated he would have made 20 donations a year, meaning he is likely to have fathered between 300 and 600 children.
The barrister found out in 1965, at the age of 12, that he was born from a sperm donor, but was never told who his biological father was.
He finally discovered the truth through DNA tests and has subsequently made contact with 11 of his half-siblings, including documentary-maker Barry Stevens, who led research into the clinic. Mr Gollancz said he had mixed feelings about his unusual family history.
He said: ‘It’s rather uncomfortable, because artificial insemination was developed on an industrial scale for cattle and I don’t like the feeling of having been “bred”.
‘But meeting the half siblings that I have tracked down has been a very life-enriching experience. This does make it frustrating too, because I know there are all those other siblings out there who I don’t know but would really like to meet. I’d love to be able to hire a huge marquee and invite them all to a party.’
Wiesner and Barton’s clinic, based in London’s Portland Place, is believed to have helped women conceive around 1,500 babies known as the ‘Barton Brood’.
The high fees meant most of their clients were middle-class, but Barton also claimed to have helped many of the upper classes and even some ‘peers of the realm’.
The couple used family friends to provide sperm, but a shortage of donors is believed to have led to Wiesner providing the majority.
DNA tests were carried out in 2007 on 18 people conceived at the clinic between 1943 and 1962. The tests found that 12 of the group – two-thirds – were Wiesner’s children.
Dr Barton told a 1959 government forum on artificial insemination: ‘I matched race, colouring and stature and all donors were drawn from intelligent stock.’
She added: ‘I wouldn’t take a donor unless he was, if anything, a little above average.
‘If you are going to do it [create a child] deliberately, you have got to put the standards rather higher than normal.’
An article the couple wrote in 1945 about their work prompted a peer to denounce their activities in the House of Lords as ‘the work of Beelzebub’.
Geoffrey Fisher, then Archbishop of Canterbury, also demanded the closure of the clinic.
Austrian-born Wiesner died in 1972, aged 70. His wife died 11 years ago.
Mr Gollancz was involved in a campaign to stop sperm donors being anonymous, but said he still wanted further changes in the law.
He said: ‘I would like to see birth certificates also carrying the name of the sperm or egg donor.
‘Most recipient parents don’t tell their children they are conceived this way, meaning they would never know to search for a donor father.
‘People have a right to know about their own history.’
A letter in response to the Guardian article on surrogacy.
“Surrogate mothers in India and elsewhere are indeed at great risk of complications in pregnancy (Comment, 6 June). The woman described with convulsions was suffering from eclampsia, which, with its antecedent syndrome, pre-eclampsia, occurs in 20-30% of surrogate mothers compared with less than 5% of normal pregnancies. Without access to medical attention and caesarean section, pre-eclampsia is fatal, and all women recruited to the surrogacy industry should be made aware of the great risks they are taking.”
Professor of reproductive immunology, University of Cambridge
India’s surrogate mothers are risking their lives.
They urgently need protection
As rich westerners flock to India’s unregulated baby factories, impoverished surrogates suffer appalling conditions.
Tuesday 5 June 2012 20.30 BST
Premila Vaghela, a poor 30-year-old surrogate mother, died last month, while reportedly waiting for a routine examination at a hospital in Ahmedabad. The news was barely covered by the media – after all, she had completed the task she had been contracted for, and the eight-month-old foetus meant for an American “commissioning” parent survived.
In fact Premila was like many other economically marginalised surrogates, who may suffer or even lose their lives while carrying a child, and are quickly forgotten. The highly secretive and largely unregulated baby factories (many of which are dressed up as legitimate IVF clinics) now mushrooming all over India are usually only concerned with the end product: the child.
Even conservative estimates show more than 25,000 children are now being born through surrogates in India every year in an industry worth $2bn. These clinics are not just spreading in big cities but in smaller towns as well. Domestic demand is increasing, but as fertility levels drop elsewhere, at least 50% of these babies are “commissioned” by overseas, mainly western, couples.
Whoever the prospective parents, the pattern is the same: it is only India’s desperately poor women who are tempted to rent their wombs. Since the cost of fertility treatment and that of the surrogate is comparatively cheaper in India than in the rest of the world, would-be parents are flooding in, eager to have a child that bears some part of their genetic heritage.
Most of the industry is operating unchecked. India’s medical research watchdog drafted regulations more than two years ago, yet they still await presentation in parliament, leaving the surrogates and baby factories open to abuse. And even many of the supposedly well-run clinics do not appear to be transparent in their dealings.
Dr Manish Banker, from the Pulse Women’s Hospital, is reported to have said that Premila had come for a check-up. “She suddenly had a convulsion and fell on the floor,” he said. “We immediately took her for treatment. Since she was showing signs of distress, we conducted an emergency caesarean section delivery.”
The child, who was born a month premature, was admitted to the intensive care unit. Premila was moved to another hospital, which claims she was in a highly critical condition, having suffered a cardiac arrest. Although there’s no suggestion that this was the case with Premila, sadly, in many cases the surrogate’s life is secondary. It is the baby, for whose birth the hospital is being paid, that is paramount.
Most mothers sign contracts agreeing that even if they are seriously injured during the later stages of pregnancy, or suffer any life-threatening illness, they will be “sustained with life-support equipment” to protect the foetus. Further, they usually agree to assume all medical, financial and psychological risks – releasing the genetic parents, their lawyers, the doctors and all other professionals from all liabilities.
Besides, in tragic cases like Premila’s, the hospital would have quickly paid out the money owed for a ‘successful’ birth, so the family would be unlikely to complain. Premila herself had gone in for the surrogacy to provide her own two children a better life. In a country where thousands of women die every year in normal childbirths, who would complain about the death of one surrogate?
Anindita Majumdar, who is researching surrogacy for her doctorate, says she is personally distressed by how easily the “sheer horror” of it all is being swept away by the money paid out to the surrogates. There are many grey areas – and she fears that even the draft legislation, when it is passed, will favour the medical community over the rights of the surrogate.
Already many malpractices, such as implantation of more than four embryos in the surrogate’s womb, as well as invasive “foetal reduction” frowned on the world over, are being followed. Often women undergo caesareans so the time of birth suits the commissioning parents.
While researching my novel I found that women are more than willing to undergo the risks. They feel that by renting their wombs (perhaps the only asset they possess), they can make enough money to look after their families. And indeed, many have earned enough to build small homes for their families, and buy some security for their children’s schooling. One surrogate told me she wanted her daughter to receive a proper education and speak English just like I did. She was only 21, and carrying twins for a commissioning couple – but she was already planning her next three surrogacies.
One woman, according to another researcher, had over 20 cycles of hormonal injections. Since each child is often born through caeserean section (so that the birth coincides with the arrival of the commissioning parents) the health of the surrogate is likely to suffer with each operation.
I found that medical practitioners involved in it are rarely troubled about the fate of the women whose normal maternal cycles have been disrupted. As in Premila’s case, they seem to be only interested in delivering the end-product: a child.
If India doesn’t pass the regulatory bill soon, the international community should pressurise it to do so. This is now a global industry so requires an international law and a global fertility body to regulate it. Otherwise, it is likely that most of the unhealthy practices prevailing will go underground – and the fog of secrecy over the industry will become more dense.
May 1, 2012
Dr Sonia Allan
PEOPLE conceived by sperm donation have different rights when it comes to accessing information about their biological parent — it all depends on the date of donation. People conceived from gametes donated after 1998 have a right to access information about donors. Donations between 1988 and 1997 allow access only with donor consent, while donations before 1988 carry no right of access. The Victorian Law Reform Committee recently urged the government to reconcile the differences. Deakin University expert in donor conception Sonia Allan — now in the US as a global health law fellow at Georgetown University — welcomes that committee’s report.
What has the committee recommended?
It made 30 recommendations. The overarching one is the government should introduce legislation to allow all donor-conceived people in Victoria access to identifying information about their donors. They also made recommendations about: education and support services for all parties involved in donor conception; the use of contact vetoes to protect privacy; where records should be held; and what should be done in instances where records were not kept or have been destroyed.
Why was the inquiry and report necessary?
Donor-conceived people, recipient parents and some donors have been calling for information about each other for decades. This call has increased as more donor-conceived people have reached adulthood and are voicing how being denied information is affecting them. The inquiry was necessary to consider whether records concerning their conception should be opened and how to balance competing interests — especially as some donors may have believed they would remain anonymous.
Why do you welcome the recommendations?
Over the years I have come to know many people who call for information. I have heard their stories and seen their distress. Whilst not all donor-conceived people may want information, all should have the choice. The recommendations reflect great understanding of these issues, and show willingness to act.
Why should a donor-conceived person have that choice?
For some, it is a question of identity — having a sense of self, knowing about their genetic heritage. There is also the desire to know familial medical history, particularly where there may be a serious heritable illness. Some discuss the risk or fear of partnering with a half-sibling or donor. Others just want to know their donor’s name, or thank them, or know why the donor donated. Cutting through all of the arguments is that we should not be perpetuating a system that actively deceives people about their origins, or denies them information most other people have. Openness and honesty — and a right to choose for themselves — are fundamental.
Even if the donor was assured he would stay anonymous?
The committee recognised whilst some donors who wish to remain anonymous might suffer knowing that they shall not, there are donor-conceived people who are actually suffering. Given this, and all of the above reasons why donor-conceived people call for information, the balance arguably lies with donor-conceived people who are denied access to information. The law can, however, compromise and protect donors in other ways, such as enabling a contact veto system.
How does that system work?
It protects donor privacy whilst allowing donor-conceived people to have access to the information they require. It was implemented in some states (for example, NSW) when retrospective release of information about adoption occurred. In the donor-conception context, it would mean that prior to information release a donor or a donor-conceived person could lodge a veto, which prohibits contact by the other party. The person seeking information would have to undertake not to make contact with the person who has lodged the veto. There may be penalties imposed if a veto is breached.
What role should the state play?
The state has played an important role in regulating assisted-reproductive technologies in Victoria for nearly three decades. The current Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority is also well-placed to facilitate access to information by providing counselling to all parties, running education campaigns to inform people about donor conception and maintaining the registers that hold information.
Is Victoria trailing other states or leading the way?
I am travelling on a Churchill Fellowship to Sweden, The Netherlands, Austria, Finland and the UK — all places that require non-anonymous donation. Whilst Victoria has always led the way regarding information release and the regulation of donor conception, I think it is important to know what occurs in other places — good and bad — and to bring that knowledge back to Australia.
Shame McBain. Such blatant misinformation.
No law will be changed retrospectively. No contract will be broken. There is no law to change and no contract exists between a donor and his biological children. It appears Dr McBain has not read the parliamentary committee report.
But he is right on one thing. It is true donor conceived people have no ‘special’ right. What they have is the same right as everyone else, to be treated equally, free from discrimination. But wait? Wasn’t this the basis for McBain v State of Victoria 2000? What’s good for the goose.
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.