In this article, specialist fertility lawyer, Natalie Gamble looks at the complex legal position in the UK relating to information available on sperm donors as well as information on siblings conceived by sperm from the same donor.
The law relating to sperm donation in the UK
Over the last 20 years, the focus of UK donor conception law has shifted away from protecting the secrecy of parents and donors towards giving donor-conceived people information about their genetic identity. While the move toward greater openness is undoubtedly positive, the legacy of repeated legal changes still makes this a difficult and challenging area. Donor-conceived people (and their parents) simply want to know, ‘What will I be able to find out about my genetic relatives?’
If you were conceived in the UK before 1st August 1991, there will be no central record of the details of your donor conception. So finding out about your donor’s identity or the identity of any genetic siblings (of which there may be any number, since there was no cap on the numbers of families created by any one donor at this time) is a matter of detective work.
If you were conceived in the UK after 1st August 1991, information about your donor conception will be recorded on the centrally kept Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) Register of Information. The information recorded will include the identity of your donor and the identity of your donor-conceived siblings (i.e., your donor’s offspring in other donor-conceived families). However, what information you can access will depend on your particular circumstances.
Finding out about siblings conceived by the same sperm donor
If you are recorded on the HFEA’s Register of Information, you will have the right to access information about any of your siblings also recorded. At 16 (or before if your parents support you), you can find out how many siblings you have on the Register, and their sex and approximate age.
Following changes to the law which took effect in October 2009, you can also, at age 18, join the HFEA’s Donor Sibling Link register to make contact with them. If any of your siblings are over 18 and have also joined, the HFEA will help you get in touch with each other.
Finding about the sperm donor
Whether you can find out information about your donor is more complicated. Although the information will be recorded on the HFEA’s Register of Information, the law (which changed in April 2005) contains some complicated rules about what information you can access.
If you were conceived between 1st August 1991 and 1st April 2005 you will probably only be able to find out non-identifying information about your donor (such as hair colour, eye colour, occupation, etc). Until April 2005, donors were allowed to donate on the basis that their identity would never be revealed, and when donor anonymity was lifted in 2005 the change in the law was not retrospective.
However, this does not quite tell the whole story. Pre-2005 donors do have the opportunity to elect to become identifiable at any time (and have to do so if they want to donate again). Although very few anonymous donors have so far changed their status, it will be interesting to see how many do so in the decades ahead, particularly with growing openness and understanding of donor conception. It is certainly worth checking with the HFEA from time to time whether your anonymous donor has become identifiable.
If you were conceived in the UK after 1st April 2005, it is highly likely that your donor will be ‘identifiable’, which means that you can ask the HFEA for your donor’s name and address once you are 18. Clinics were given a period of grace between 1st April 2005 and 31st March 2006 during which time they could use up their stocks of anonymous donated eggs and sperm, so if you were conceived during this period, you should check with the HFEA whether your donor is anonymous or identifiable.
If you were conceived after 1st April 2006, your donor will be identifiable if you were conceived in the UK, unless you have an older sibling conceived with anonymous eggs or sperm from the same donor.
The laws relating to donated sperm are complex
So the changes to the law over the past 20 years have created a complex set of rules, and it may not always be easy to work out how they apply to you. Approaching the HFEA about your particular circumstances is usually the best place to start, or you can seek independent legal advice.
This all assumes, of course, that your conception took place in the UK. The HFEA’s remit only extends to conceptions in the UK, and this means that children conceived outside the UK will not fall within the regulated framework explained here. Those conceived abroad will be in a similar position to those conceived in the UK before 1991, limited to more informal means of seeking information about their genetic relatives.
Of course, we are living through an information revolution, and the informal ways of accessing genetic information may well be revolutionised in the decades to come. If Google becomes searchable by DNA, the whole issue of how the law regulates information about donor conception could become utterly irrelevant.