This month, a court in British Columbia, Canada is expected to certify an important class action that was launched near the end of last year by a gutsy 26-year-old journalist. Her name is Olivia Pratten, and her lawsuit is likely to become a major thorn in the side of the booming fertility industry. Olivia was conceived with the sperm of an anonymous donor, and she is supposed to not care about her genetic origins -- after all, she was wanted and loved by her "intended" parents. But Olivia compares herself to adopted children, and like them, she wants the law to recognize her right to information about her biological parent.
Many people are still surprised to learn of the scale of the donor-gamete business. Louise Brown, the first test tube baby, was only born in 1978. How much could have happened in just 30 years? Let's put it this way – the growth of reproductive technologies has been not linear, but exponential. In 2006, Harvard Business School Professor Deborah Spar estimated the worth of the fertility industry at US$3 billion in the US alone.
IVF has become a beacon of hope for many infertile couples who could not otherwise have their own biological children. What can compete with the powerful pain of infertility, combined with the desperate desire for parenthood? Regardless of its cost, and despite a success rate of only about 30 percent, couples have been willing to pay for IVF, even if it means remortgaging the house or racking up credit card debt. And IVF has opened the door to still other possibilities, especially the use of egg donors and surrogate mothers, the genetic screening of embryos, and recently, the creation of embryos with the sperm of infertile men (ICSI, a technique known to transfer infertility to the resulting male children).
The use of donor sperm was of course possible before IVF, and artificial insemination was practised to some extent even before Louise Brown came along -– but the practice really took off with the IVF boom. It has now become a gigantic industry, where profit-driven sperm banks compete in marketing paid "donors" -– and not just to infertile couples: the world's largest sperm bank, the California Cryobank, reports that over 30 percent of its clients are single women and a growing proportion are lesbian couples. Just visit their website to order from an incredible selection of donors described by physical features, occupation and education, sports inclinations, interests and personality tests, baby photos, personal essays, and even handwriting analysis and audio interviews. And for many fertility businesses, the higher the caliber of the donors, the higher the price.
Like a religion, the whole donor-conception industry is undergirded by a central creation myth. The industry cannot stand without faith in this central tenet: that biological parenthood is irrelevant, and that "social" parenthood is what matters for children's full emotional and psychological development. The theme of every sperm bank and egg donor agency is effectively the Beatles song "All you need is love." Needless to say, many infertile couples are only too happy to sing along and accept this claim at face value. Few reflect on the paradox that they clearly want a biological connection while denying its importance for their children. In effect, the industry heals the parents at the children's expense, by giving them their own genetic children while depriving these children of a biological parent.
Back to Olivia Pratten. According to the creation myth of the fertility industry, Olivia should not give a hoot about her anonymous sperm donor. She is one of those very special donor-conception children who was very deeply wanted and loved by her "intended" parents. For her, the anonymous donor should be on par with a nice blood donor who once donated blood to her parents – barely anything to do with her, right?
And yet, Olivia is disturbing the peace and challenging the creation myth. She insists that her sperm donor is important to her, and she speaks of the "psychological distress" she has suffered at not knowing her biological history, including what race, culture, and religion her biological father may have come from. In 2001, she went to the Canadian Parliament and told the Standing Committee on Health: "the genetic tie that I share with my biological father cannot be minimized or made to disappear. I carry it with me. It is visible in who I am and what I will be…. I'm always left pondering, trying to put the pieces together of who this man was and how this relates to who I am today. If I could somehow know who he was…everything I already know about myself would be put into a different context, and I believe my perception of things would be altered."