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Fatherless Families

Spread of IVF Leaves Children in the Dark

By Father John Flynn

ROME, DEC. 25, 2006 (Zenit) - Christmas is a time normally spent with the family, but an increasing number of children are wondering who their father may be. Some countries allow men to be anonymous sperm donors for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) programs, thus depriving the resulting children from even knowing who their father is.

An eloquent example of the anguish this causes was the case of Katrina Clark. The Washington Post on Dec. 17 told the story of the undergraduate student at Gallaudet University, who described how at 18 years of age, "I haven't known half my origins."

Clark was conceived by means of an unknown sperm donor, when her mother was 32 and afraid she might otherwise not have a family. But, as Clark explained, the debate over IVF tends to concentrate on the adults, with sympathy toward those who are trying to have children. Many of the resulting children, however, suffer from emotional problems.

"It's hypocritical of parents and medical professionals to assume that biological roots won't matter to the 'products' of the cryobanks' service, when the longing for a biological relationship is what brings customers to the banks in the first place," she explained. Clark's investigations led to her recently discovering her father, but many other IVF kids are not so fortunate.

Further complications due to donor anonymity were the subject of an article in the Australian newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, on Sept. 27. Describing the situation in the United States, the article told of Justin Senk of Colorado, who discovered at age 15 that he had been conceived by means of donor sperm.

Senk's subsequent research turned up the disturbing fact that he had four brothers and sisters living within a 25-kilometer radius -- for a total of five children born to three mothers who had fertility treatment at the same clinic. The father's identity remains unknown. Another case came to light in Virginia, where 11 women have children conceived from one man's sperm.

Turning back to Australia the Daily Telegraph calculated that only around 30% of donor-conceived children know the identity of their father.

On Aug. 11 the Associated Press described how a Web site, the Donor Sibling Registry, has been set up in the United States to help identify children from the same sperm donor.

Health risks

For one mother, Michelle Jorgenson, the site enabled her to discover that in addition to her daughter Cheyenne the same donor had fathered another six offspring; two of them suffer from autism, with another two show signs of a sensory disorder.

The site was started by Wendy Kramer, to enable her son Ryan, also conceived by donor sperm, to find his siblings. According to the Associated Press the site has also become a point of reference for those who are looking for information on dangerous medical conditions.

"There are people on our Web site seeking siblings because their kids have medical issues, for sure, and even in a medical emergency the sperm banks won't facilitate any contact, which is kind of frustrating," Kramer said.

Earlier this year the New York Times described another case of a sperm donor who had passed on a serious genetic disease to five children, born to four couples. The article, published May 19, noted that it was unknown exactly how many children were fathered by the man.

The children, all from Michigan, lack a type of white blood cell, a neutrophil. This means they are highly vulnerable to infections and prone to leukemia. The children have a 50% chance of passing the genetic defect to their own children.

No need for dad

Not knowing one's father stirs up enough problems. Most of the children who are searching for their fathers at least grew up in a family with a father present, even if he was not their biological parent. Increasingly, however, there is pressure to allow IVF treatments for single women.

A recent report in Britain recommended further loosening the laws along these lines. After a public inquiry, a government-appointed committee handed down its recommendations on the rules for fertility clinics, the BBC reported Dec. 14. Parliament will now have to debate the proposals.

One of the recommendations is to dispense clinics from having to consider the need for a father when deciding whether to offer treatment. If adopted, this change would mean that fertility centers will no longer be able to deny treatment to lesbians and single mothers as a matter of course.

Another recommendation is to legally recognize both partners in same-sex couples as "parents." Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, criticized the removal of the need for a father. "It's a dreadful statement to make about the role of men," she told the BBC. "We can only hope that Parliament will wisely reject the absurd proposal to do away with the child's need for a father."

In any case, even though clinics must currently weigh up if an IVF process can go ahead when there is no father, a prohibition against single mothers does not exist. In recent years the number of single women conceiving through IVF has risen notably, the London-based Telegraph newspaper reported Oct. 8.

Last year, 156 lesbian women were treated by IVF clinics, compared with just 36 in 2000. The number of single women receiving IVF rose to 536, up from 215 over the same time span.

On July 10 an article in the Scotsman newspaper looked at the issue of whether IVF babies need a father. The article reported a number of concerns over the issue. "To give IVF treatment to single women and lesbians is to deliberately bring children into the world without the father they need and in the case of lesbians the children are at risk of being confined to a state of permanent fatherlessness," commented Norman Wells, director of the organization, Family Education.

No limits

Further concern over what may happen in Britain came after a declaration that women in their 50s and 60s should not be banned from IVF treatments because of their age. The comments were made in an interview published Oct. 14 in the Times newspaper of London, by Lord Richard Harries. Harries, a retired Anglican bishop of Oxford, is now interim chairman of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority.

Currently, Britain's National Health Service will not fund IVF for women over 40 years of age. But advanced age was not a sufficient reason for ruling patients out, he told the Times.

Earlier this year Italian IVF doctor Severino Antinori helped a 62-year-old woman to bear a child, the Times reported July 8. Patricia Rashbrook entered the record books as Britain's oldest mother.

More than 20 babies a year are being born to women aged over 50, the Guardian newspaper reported May. 8. A total of 96 women aged 50 and over were treated at British fertility clinics in 2002, the latest year for which data were available. A quarter of them became pregnant as a result.

Such ways of conceiving are not ethical. "Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife ... are gravely immoral," states No. 2376 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. "These techniques ... infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage."

A child is a gift, explains No. 2378, and "may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged 'right to a child' would lead." Precepts increasingly ignored, with unfortunate consequences for growing numbers of children.

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