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Sunday, June 23, 2002



Make more babies: by any means necessary

About five years ago, a mother in Kansas City started wondering about the paternity of her twins. Becky Peck had recently divorced, and she became more sensitive to what she perceived as the physical and behavioral differences between herself and her two children, Lindsay and Jeremy. Her ex-husband was not their genetic father. Becky had conceived through artificial insemination, and now she wanted to know who the sperm donor was.

Somehow she tracked the donor down and sent him a letter and a picture of the twins. David Ross, a piano teacher in San Francisco, was surprised. He had forgotten he had ever donated sperm. He ignored the letter, but later Becky and her two kids appeared in a TV documentary about the children of sperm donors and Becky sent Ross the videotape. That did it. Ross visited Kansas City. He is now close to Jeremy and Lindsay, and they even spend summer vacations together.

As reported in the Asahi Shimbun on May 24, the story is a happy one. It is also semantically tricky. What is David Ross to Jeremy and Lindsay Peck? The article refers to him with the awkwardly precise but nevertheless loaded term "father by virtue of heredity" (idenjo no chichi). In a different Asahi article about AI, such a person was simply referred to as a "donor" (teikyosha), while in still another, the term used was "the real parent" (jitsu no oya).

This lack of lexical consensus may only be of concern to linguists, but it's important that the media find the proper word, because sometime in the next year the government is going to debate laws that will expand the use of third-person genetic material to include ova and even fertilized ova. At present, Japanese women who can't conceive go abroad for treatments that are not available in Japan.

On June 15, an ethics advisory panel of the Japan Academy of Gynecologists and Obstetricians reiterated its opposition to the use of donated ova. Their reasons, however, would seem to apply to all donations of genetic material, since according to the panel, children born from donated ova may "suffer" when they learn later in life that the people who raised them aren't their "biological parents" (another semantic hot potato).

The academy was reacting to the government's plans, but it didn't mention a report released the month before by an advisory committee to the Health, Welfare and Labor Ministry, which said it planned to work on a donor-identity system. In this system, donors will have to reveal their identities to children produced with their genetic material if those children request such information.

Of course, what children don't know won't hurt them, and that has been the policy with regard to donated sperm ever since artificial insemination became available. In the West, however, there is a growing movement among commercial sperm banks and even national governments for full disclosure of donors' identities.

This change was brought about by adult AI offspring themselves, who have made a convincing case that, regardless of their emotional relationship with the people who raised them, they have a right to know their genetic heritage. The most obvious justification for disclosure is medical history, but the moral argument has weight, too. Why should the donor's right to keep his identity a secret supersede the child's right to know?

According to a recent NHK special, in Switzerland, sperm donors must agree to disclose their identities to possible offspring when they donate. As expected, the number of donors there dropped considerably when the policy went into effect, even though the law also states that children born from donated sperm cannot demand financial support from donors or in any other way seek their favor and attention.

In Japan, the situation is more complicated because of the family registration system, which legally defines a person's father. Since donor secrecy remains paramount, it is not known just how many AI children have been born since the technology was introduced to Japan in 1948, but the estimate is between 10,000 and 30,000. Unlike adopted children, whose status as such is recorded in the family register, AI children are registered as the "natural" offspring of their parents. If the government eventually approves an identity-disclosure law, what will happen to the family register, not to mention civil laws related to inheritance and family responsibility that are tied directly to the register?

The government's desperation is not difficult to understand. The latest birthrate figures show a continuing decline, thus indicating that measures to persuade women to have more babies are not working.

Last year, when a 60-year-old Japanese woman made headlines by giving birth to a child conceived through fertility treatment she had undergone in Nevada, the media started a debate on the generally held conviction that all babies must be the genetic offspring of two people under the age of 40 who are married to each other.

What's encouraging about the debate is that, while the government has shown it wants babies by any means possible, the media has moved beyond issues of technology and childless couples to the welfare of the offspring themselves: Where do children of donated genetic material stand in a world obsessed with identity and where the meaning of another loaded word, "family," seems to change on a daily basis?

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