Put All Your Eggs (and Sperm) in One Basket

Panel on Material Donation Registry Gets to the Roots of the Situation

Vardit Ravitsky turns to fellow panelists Vincent Couture and Vanessa Gruben during a talk at McGill University on Nov. 2.  Photo Julia Miele

Bioethics professor Vardit Ravitsky approaches the podium and stops before addressing the people seated before her in McGill University’s Chancellor Day Hall.

Glancing around the room, she asks the audience a question that creates a pregnant pause.

“If you found out later tonight that the father who raised you is not genetically related to you, would it matter?”

A lot of people raise their hands without a moment’s hesitation, some wait a bit before tentatively extending their arms, and others remained unmoved. Ravitsky nods before continuing, “I used the term ‘matter’ vaguely here because it could matter to different people for different reasons.”

Ravitsky, who teaches at UdeM, was speaking on Nov. 2 at a discussion panel on the sperm and egg donor registry situation in Canada. The McGill Journal of Law and Health hosted the event. Vanessa Gruben, a professor of law at the University of Ottawa, and doctoral student Vincent Couture also participated. They set the stage on why it is of such vital importance that we make the identities of sperm and egg donors accessible to their “offspring.”

Ravitsky discussed how some parents who used sperm or egg donor services want to keep donor identities secret in order to have control over the relationship with their children. In some cases, the donors themselves request anonymity, to avoid certain issues like child welfare and other financial responsibilities.

Donor clinics also have a hand in this anonymity process. Ravitsky said it’s probably because they have “an interest in keeping the process simple” and they’d rather not “be burdened with managing registries and keeping files for decades.”

Ravitsky gave the example of a donor clinic in the United States that recently went bankrupt. It had many records of donors stashed away in a shed rented for safekeeping. But the clinic ran out of funds and was soon unable to continue paying rent. They lost all the records, “the genetic origins of thousands who may have wanted access to that information,” according to Ravitsky who shook her head before proceeding with the panel.

The wellbeing of “donor conceived” individuals was the main focus of the discussion. There are many different reasons they could have for wanting to know the identity of their donor: some wish to know their medical history, while others place urgency on knowing and being able to obtain the missing piece to their identity.

“Would you tolerate being told you had no right to any of that? Denied access to your roots?” Ravitsky said.

“Would you tolerate being told you had no right to any of that? Denied access to your roots?” – Vardit Ratvisky, professor of bioethics at Universite de Montreal

On the other hand, Gruben spoke more about the legal issues concerning sperm and egg registries.

She brought up the 2013 Pratten v British Columbia court case as one example. “[Olivia] Pratten had challenged the provincial rules around disclosure information to donor-conceived offspring,” she said. Pratten herself was conceived from a donor and wished to gain access to his or her identity and to help others who wished to do the same.

“[Pratten] argued that she had a freestanding right to know her genetic origins,” Gruben said. Pratten also argued that B.C.’s adoption registration was discriminatory to donor-conceived people.

Pratten’s second argument succeeded, the judge agreed that there was discrimination against donor offspring, but her first argument failed. Pratten is still being withheld from her by the clinic.

All three speakers restated the same point: that donor-conceived individuals who are denied access to their donor’s information will suffer psychological distress and struggle with identity formation, all while hereditary medical issues go unnoticed. And there’s always that fear of accidentally getting romantically involved with your half-sibling.

This repetition left some attendees feeling as though the discussion was one-sided.

“I think we could have benefitted from having someone that didn’t agree with them,” audience member Rachel Bleetman said. “I didn’t really know much about it, so it would have been nice to hear from both sides.”

Bleetman admitted that she initially believed it was no one’s business to interfere with the donors’ lives. “But now, kind of hearing the arguments from the panel tonight, I can see more and more why it can be important.”

Right now, Health Canada is calling for submissions where anyone can write a comment regarding the registry issue and submit it to the government. “Any citizen can express the support for the ban on anonymity,” Ravitsky said. “This is one thing that students can do to help the cause.”

“Just continue to protest and create relations and connections with people and make this topic known,” Vincent Couture added. “People have strange ideas on this assisted method of conceiving, so just try to make it clear and keep talking about it.”