July 16th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Federal Labor's crisis of identity

EDITORIAL: Decisive shift in US Supreme Court

LABOR PARTY: The lesson Labor still has to learn

WORKPLACE RELATIONS: No more hurdles for Howard's dismissal laws

RURAL AFFAIRS: Confronting the myths about agriculture

CENTRAL ASIA: China's march on central Asia

REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY: The dark downside of donor insemination

PARLIAMENTARY DEMOCRACY: Defending the role of parliament

STRAWS IN THE WIND: US fury at Israeli arms sales to China / Not helping the poor / Turn of the tide? / Government's embarrassment

OPINION: Free speech under attack in Victoria

Howard Government's attack on Australian workers (letter)

Why the silence over abortion? (letter)

Ignorance no excuse (letter)

High price of extra water (letter)

To rule or to govern is the question (letter)

Malaria worse than DDT (letter)

BOOKS: THE CUBE AND THE CATHEDRAL: Europe, America, and Politics without God, by George Weigel

BOOKS: MAO: THE UNKNOWN STORY, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday

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The dark downside of donor insemination

by Richard Egan

News Weekly, July 16, 2005
Children with anonymous sperm-donors as fathers frequently suffer anguish from not knowing one half of their ancestral identity, writes Richard Egan.

Reproductive technology, of its very nature, tends to reduce both the child and the parents to objects rather than subjects.

The child is brought into existence not by an act of human love-making but by a technological process. This necessarily and inexorably leads to the application to the child of processes and attitudes that are usually associated with manufactured goods.

Concepts and process such as "quality control", discarding "substandard" products, "grading" products, "storing" stock for future use, "use-by dates" and so forth are applied to the child.

In regard to parents, certainly the encounter with infertility is often an incredible roller-coaster of emotions. Feminist writer Gena Corea has said: "A lack of informed consent to IVF has been a constant and continuing problem from its earliest days when Leslie [Brown], pregnant with the first IVF baby Louise, was under the misapprehension that hundreds of such babies had already been born; she had no idea that she was in such an experimental program."


The exact number of women who have died in IVF programs is not known. However, Ms Corea writes that she herself has documented at least 10 deaths from IVF since 1997, and her experience was that physicians practising IVF knew less about these deaths than she did.

This lack of disclosure to women has continued, with the latest development having taken place in Korea, where Seoul National University's Woo Suk Hwang and his associates recently announced that they had succeeded in cloning a number of human embryos to the blastocyst stage and had successfully extracted embryonic stem-cells from those cloned embryos.

Cloned embryos can only be made with ova, and ova can only be produced by women. A paper, published alongside Hwang's paper in Science magazine, explored the question of consent in this particular instance, where the women who provided the ova were neither patients nor themselves the subject of research but simply the suppliers of research material. The paper questioned the validity of consent in this context.

Regine Kollek, a German feminist writer says, "The idea that children of medically-assisted reproduction would not display any detectable flaws was already prevalent in the early stages of IVF introduction and was also the basis of the agreement that Leslie Brown, mother of Louise Brown, had to sign as a prerequisite for her treatment by Drs [Patrick] Steptoe and [Robert] Edwards, with the experimental IVF method.

"If the foetus did not turn out to be normal, she agreed to have an abortion. This vision of an 'immaculate' conception was and is an integral part of these technologies."

One can't imagine Steptoe and Edwards presenting to the world a child with Down Syndrome or with spina bifida as the first IVF baby. That wasn't part of the plan, so Leslie Brown, as part of her treatment, had to agree to terminate the pregnancy if the "product" was less than perfect.

No one has a right to access to reproductive technology, because no one has a right to acquire a child.

Everyone capable of marriage certainly has the right to marry and to found a family, but no one has an inherent right to acquire a child. Here are some of the voices of the products of IVF - and specifically of that version of IVF, or of artificial insemination, that involves a donor.

Bill Cordray writes: "What is it like to be conceived through donor insemination? Infertility experts do not know. The social scientists do not know. The politicians do not know. No one knows because no one has actually asked us, the people who have been created through donor insemination.

"We are left to make sense of ourselves without the roadmap of our genetic blueprint. We are lost in an unfamiliar landscape. We are invisible."

Lyn Spencer, another donor-insemination child, writes, "I long to know who my biological father is and to meet and speak with him at least once. I search for my half-siblings in other people's faces. We have a right to know our identity."

Another donor-insemination child, whose name was withheld, says: "They created me in the same way they breed pigs. All I know, and am allowed to know, about my father is that he masturbated his 'sample' for a sum. Yes, you could say I am angry."

I heard Joanna Rose speak at a seminar put on by the Reproductive Technology Council some years ago when she was about 20. She told her story of how, when she was only an 8-year-old, her manic-depressive father - whose condition had been exacerbated by his wife's recourse to donor insemination - blurted out to her that he was not her father.

Joanna talks about her bewilderment as to what her ethnic background was. Some people thought she was Swedish; some thought she was Chinese.

I met Joanna again just a couple of years ago at the University of Cambridge at a bioethics conference. In 2002, she successfully brought a challenge to the High Court that, under the Human Rights Act in the United Kingdom, donor-insemination children could sue the government and had the right to find out the identities of their fathers.


Joanna writes: "I think it is important to understand that anger is a healthy and normal response to the deliberate infliction of pain. One half of my ancestral identity has intentionally been concealed from me.

"When I state that this is causing me immense pain, I would expect reasonable attempts to be made to address this. When I am faced with a total lack of empathy, I can only tell that the anger becomes quite formidable.

"Adoption, stolen generations, child migrants, donor inseminations - each time experts have decided that a certain group of people should be denied knowledge of their biological family, ancestry, ethnicity and medical history."

In a letter to an adoption activist, Joanna brought out some distinctions between adoption and donor insemination.

She said that in donor insemination - and in other forms of reproductive technology in which there are more than two parties involved - there is a deliberate plan, before the very origins of the child, to sever the biological and genetic from the social kinship systems.

The questions of access that have come up in the Australian debate over the last few years start from a presumption that society does allow some access to reproductive technology. Certainly, pro-family groups contend that children flourish best in the context of a stable marriage where they have both a father and a mother. However, as not all children are necessarily born in that context, the state has an obligation to ensure that it gives maximum support to the family, based on marriage.

In the case of adoption or of reproductive technology, if it is to be permitted at all, only married couples should be given access. This is not a position based simply on intuition or on traditional values, but also on a large body of social-science research which shows, for a large range of indicators, children flourish best in that context. Therefore, the best interests of the child must remain the overriding concern.

Let us finally look at the concept of the "quality control" of the child, of the human embryo produced through reproductive technology.

Eugenics - or engineering a "good birth", as it were - used to have a bad name, but it is recovering its good name. Eugenic uses of reproductive technology are particularly abhorrent and they are necessarily discriminatory.

Selection during embryo production or after embryo production on the basis of unwanted characteristics of any kind, be it sex, or the carrying of a particular disability or disease, necessarily discriminates between wanted and unwanted, those worthy of living and those not worthy of a chance of life.

It denies continued life to some human beings because of unwanted characteristics. Simply moving the discrimination to an earlier stage in the process, from testing and termination during pregnancy to testing and washing down the sink before implantation, does nothing to remove the discrimination involved.

We no longer merely screen out embryos for their own disabilities. Now, even healthy embryos can be discriminated against and discarded because they don't happen to have the right blood-type to be a tissue match for an existing person, perhaps a sibling, perhaps an adult. Thus, embryos are now screened specifically for their usefulness to others.

Finally, in this eugenic project, perhaps the diseased discarded embryos will find a new use.

Since April 5, 2005, all human embryos brought into existence in Australia are now potentially available for such research. Alan Trounson has explained that he wants to get his hands on fresh embryos affected with cystic fibrosis.

So, from being screened out as unwanted, now they are to be screened out at Trounson's request - if the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Licensing Committee approves this new development - so that he can grow them and let their life develop for a few more days in order to extract stem cells from them and conduct research into cystic fibrosis.

Living laboratories

Robyn Rowland, in her book, Living Laboratories, says:

"If women are inefficient and deficient with respect to the child-bearing process, the 'product' they produce could also do with improvement.

"In its desire to control the outcome, masculine science is developing procedures to create 'perfect', 'unproblematic' people through sex determination or through elimination of genetic illness, or through the enhancement of a healthy normal adult.

"The dream of quality control raises questions essential to the value structure of our society. It raises issues about eugenics, social control and about the use of women's bodies as raw materials and experimental laboratories."

  • Richard Egan is Western Australian state president of the National Civic Council. This article is an edited version of an address he gave to a public seminar on "The rights of access to assisted reproductive technology", held at Murdoch University on May 27, 2005.

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