By some accounts, 26 million people have undergone direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic or ancestry tests. While some of the results of these tests seem might seem obvious (I turned out to be half-Hungarian and half-Ashkenazi, to no one’s surprise), there have been a number of accounts in the media of test results that have been considerably more dramatic.
Some of the more shocking — and now shockingly common — scenarios are the ones in which a consumer finds out through a DTC test that they were donor-conceived, and that one or both of the parents who raised them are not their genetic relatives. Gamete donors, who often provide genetic material (eggs or sperm) with the promise of anonymity, are finding themselves the recipients of messages from genetic children they never intended to meet.
Gamete donors could argue that they have a right to privacy. But Prof. Seema Mohapatra suggests the idea of gamete donor privacy is no longer realistic, due to the state of genetic technology.
I sat down with Prof. Mohapatra to learn more about the many ethical and legal questions DTC genetic testing raises for donors, recipients, and clinics.
Egg and sperm donations are an integral part of the infertility industry. The donors are usually young men and women who donate relying on the promise of anonymity. This is the norm in the United States. But, internationally things are changing. A growing number of countries have prohibited egg and sperm donor anonymity. This usually means that when the child who was conceived by egg or sperm donation reaches the age of eighteen he can receive the identifying information of the donor and meet his genetic parent.
An expanding movement of commentators is advocating a shift in the United States to an open identity model, which will prohibit anonymity. In fact, last year, Washington state adopted the first modified open identity statute in the United States. Faced by calls for the removal of anonymity, an obvious cause for concern is how would prohibitions on anonymity affect people’s willingness to donate egg and sperm. Supporters of prohibitions on anonymity argue that they only cause short-term shortages in egg and sperm supplies. However, in a study I published in 2010, I showed that unfortunately that does not seem to be the case. My study examined three jurisdictions, which prohibited donor gamete anonymity: Sweden, Victoria (an Australian state) and the United Kingdom. It showed that all these jurisdictions share dire shortages in donor gametes accompanied by long wait-lists. The study concluded that although prohibitions on anonymity were not the sole cause of the shortages, these prohibitions definitely played a role in their creation.
In a new article, titled “Unintended Consequences: Prohibitions on Gamete Donor Anonymity and the Fragile Practice of Surrogacy,” I examine the potential effect of the adoption of prohibitions on anonymity in the United States on the practice of surrogacy. Surrogacy has not been part of the international debate on donor gamete anonymity. But the situation in the United States is different. Unlike most foreign jurisdictions that adopted prohibitions on anonymity, the practice of surrogacy in the United States is particularly reliant on donor eggs because of the unique legal regime governing surrogacy here. Generally, there are two types of surrogacy arrangements: traditional surrogacy and gestational surrogacy. In a traditional surrogacy arrangement the surrogate’s eggs are used and she is the genetic mother of the child, while in gestational surrogacy the intended mother’s eggs or a donor’s eggs are used and the surrogate is not the genetic mother of the conceived child. Most U.S. states that expressly allow surrogacy provide legal certainty only to gestational surrogacy, which relies heavily on donor eggs, while leaving traditional surrogacy in a legal limbo. Without legal certainty, the intended parents may not be the legal parents of the conceived child, and instead the surrogate and even her husband may become the legal parents. Infertility practitioners endorse the legal preference for gestational surrogacy also for psychological reasons, believing that a surrogate who is not genetically related to the baby is less likely to change her mind and refuse to hand over the baby.