Secretly connected? Anonymous semen donation, genetics and meanings of kinship
Speirs, Jennifer M
The use of donated human semen in the UK was developed by medical practitioners as a means of circumventing male infertility and helping childless women to achieve a pregnancy. Uncertainty about the legal status of donor-conceived children and moral concerns about the possible effects on the marital relationship of the recipients worked to maintain donor insemination (DI) as a largely hidden practice in which the donors remained anonymous to the recipients and unrevealed to any resulting donor offspring. Donors were not expected or encouraged to take any interest in what became of their donations even after the practice became subject to regulation by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. This thesis is based on a set of unstructured interviews with medical practitioners and other health professionals currently or formerly working in clinics providing DI services in the UK, and with men who donated semen between the 1960s and early 1980s mostly when they were medical students. Participant observation was carried out at conferences and other meetings of organisations and individuals with professional or personal involvement in donor-assisted conception, and a survey was made of infertility clinics’ policies concerning the use of semen from donors known personally to recipients. Discussions with donors revealed ambivalent and mixed feelings about their involvement in providing semen, often for payment, and about their lack of information regarding the outcome of their donations. The idea of possible contact with donor offspring is influenced for these semen donors by their perceptions and experiences of what it means to be a parent and by the significance attributed to physical resemblances between genetically related people. In this situation of ambiguity and uncertain obligation, there is no existing script for managing possible new kinds of kinship relation. The historical tension in DI services between opportunity and risk because of possible defects or disease in donated semen is now echoed in professional uncertainties about whether to allow semen donation where the donor and recipient are known personally to each other. I show that for some people, including donors, this brings the practice into a kinship frame, whilst for others it confuses family boundaries because of the possible fantasies between donor and recipient, and the involvement of the genetic father with the donor-conceived child’s upbringing. Finally I show that disagreements in the UK over whether to remove the legal provisions for anonymity turn on whether it is necessary to protect donors from emotional and financial claims from their donor offspring, and on perceptions about what constitutes a parent.