The Baby Boom - The Borneo Post - Sunday, 2 September, 2001

For a public fascinated with celebrity life, the pregnancy of Celine Dion had it all fertility treatments, the long months as she slowly blossomed out of her uber-waif designer clothes, and her son.

Thousands of words and magazine covers revealed all in vivid detail - how it was done (using husband Rene Angelli's frozen sperm and 14 fertilised eggs, one of which is being held in a New York clinic for the couple's next child); how much her treatments cost (US$14,000); even what she ate for lunch (toast, pate, tea) since the day she was told she was pregnant.

Now 32, and married to a 58-year-old with slow-moving sperm, Celine is the ideal In-vitro fertilisation (IVF) pin-up. She took fertility drugs with few side effects, had her eggs fertilized using new technology called Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection (ICSI), and fell pregnant on the first attempt.

Genetic Questions

As the average age of first-time mothers slowly climbs past 30, and sperm count continue to drop worldwide - they have declined 40 to 50 percent in just one generation - Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) is becoming a booming business. For women with irregular cycles, there are specialty drugs; those suffering polycystic ovarian syndrome have been given hope with a new technology - In-vitro Maturation (IVM). Men with low sperm counts or who have slow-moving sperm have a choice of everything from sperm banking and donor insemination to ICSI.

As is happening with gene therapy and cloning, government in Canada, the US, Europe and Australia are scrambling to formulate guidelines to regulate ART as social and moral issues begin to crop up. Unregulated egg and sperm donations, the oldest ART technology of all, are easily purchased via the Internet - and are easily imported. Now, however, donor conceived adults have begun to hunt for their genetic forebears - men who would otherwise remain anonymous.

This has so troubled some countries it has sparked legislation that will govern what the next generation of donor-conceived offspring, fertilised using IVF and other technology, will know about themselves. As of October last year, when the new Human Rights Act 1998 came into force in Europe, the European Court of Human Rights has wrestled with the question of just how much information, if any, should be made available to children conceived using donated sperm and ova.

In Australia, Victoria is making information about sperm donors available to anyone conceived after January 1, 1998. (The Reproductive Technology Accreditation Committee of the Fertility Society of Australia oversees all ART, but enacting the legislation remains a State responsibility). "Our entire culture is full of stories of people who try to find their genetic relatives," says Canadian documentary film-maker and donor insemination (DI) offspring Barry Stevens, 47, who is currently searching for his sperm donor. But the issue isn't just one of discovering a distant relationship to minor royalty or a medical history, as important as that is. On an emotional level, Barry describe the empty page where his genetic story would be as "genealogical bewilderment", similar to that felt by adoptees who seek their biological parents.

Yet just like adoptees, donor-conceived people face resistance, predominantly because few countries have laws spelling out the legal and moral responsibility, if any, of donors to their offspring.

Yet genetic history is so important that many couples who return for a second donor-assisted pregnancy often request, and are given, the same donor. WHY? Because of the genetic connection. If it's so important to have that genetic connection, why wouldn't it be important for donor-conceived offspring to have it too?

Inadvertent incest may also become an issue for older donor conceived adults, particularly for those generated through a "popular" donor who made his gift 30 to 40 -years ago when donor insemination was still new technology and the number of donors small.

Those adults may have hundreds of half siblings who are living relatively close to each other. It's been said that there is a greater danger of incest from illegitimate births than sperm donor children. The solution is to have a registry and to be open about it all. Yet, openness is at the very root of the unregulated Internet-obtained sperm and egg market. Through websites, such as Options National Fertility Register, sperm and ova can be purchased and imported into Australia where the only impediment is a health check and a small handling fee. With few regulations governing the dollar-driven business, groups, such as NSW based Donor Conception Support Group (DCSG), have been formed to force accountability and debate on DI issues.

"We have grave concern about Internet obtained sperm and ova as there is no regulation of the practice and hence no protection for those conceived," says DCSG spokeswoman Leonie Hewitt, who has three donor-conceived children. "Where is the legislation in these circumstances to protect medical records, screen donors and limit the number of offspring? What is the motivation in doing it this way - it seems totally devoid of any accountability, particularly to the offspring."

Given time, the once-sacred anonymity of donors could change. And as those children who; as adults, now regularly find their biological relatives, children conceived using ART may on day have access to their histories. "People had the same fears when adoptees found their birth parent: - there was pain, sorrow and difficulty, but blood didn't run in the streets," says Barry Steven.  "There is less emotional entanglement with sperm donors. You're just interested in what kind of person they are."