Where did I come from?
July 01, 2006
IT WAS a blow to Narelle Grech the day she discovered at the age of 15 that her dad wasn't her biological father.
Grech grew up with her older sister in the northern Melbourne suburb of Reservoir and never had any reason to question her bloodline or origins.
But then one day her parents broke the news. "I was conceived by the help of a sperm donor," says Grech, now 23.
"My sister was conceived naturally but then my parents had some fertility problems."
And just two years ago, after searching for more information about her genetic heritage, Grech discovered she had seven half siblings who were all conceived from the same biological father as her own.
"Mum's motivation in telling me was that she was worried I would meet or become involved with a half brother which is a well-founded fear," she says.
"I have three half brothers who are a year younger than me and four half sisters."
Grech's story could soon become far more familiar.
From today, laws come into effect that allow all donor-conceived children born on or after July 1, 1988, in Victoria to initiate contact with their biological parent once they turn 18 years old and become legal adults. Likewise, the donor father can apply for identifying information on any or all adult children conceived from his sperm.
They apply to the Melbourne-based Infertility Treatment Authority, created as a regulatory body and storage house, which has kept records on the 3315 assisted births from 1057 donors in Victoria since 1988.
Under the Infertility (Medical Procedures) Act 1984 (effective from 1988), both parties in an assisted conception have the right to refuse approaches for personal information about themselves but donor-assisted children born after 1995 will not need consent from their biological father to access his name, address and other identifying information once they too reach adulthood.
With 6000 children born each year in Australia through assisted conceptions, the Victorian laws have reignited debate about whether there's a need for uniform, national laws to enshrine every child's right to their genetic heritage.
"We know that most parents who have children born from assisted conception – it could be as many as 70 per cent – don't tell their children," says Queensland University of Technology bioethics legal expert Professor Derek Morgan.
So, the first that many of them learn of their birth origin could be a letter from the ITA saying their biological father is seeking contact or personal information.
Given normal population movements around the country, ITA manager of donor register services Helen Kane says it's likely that some of those letters could appear in the mailboxes of young adults now living in Queensland or other states.
"We're not actually expecting many applications from the young adults now turning 18," Kane says. "What we have already experienced is a steady stream of people wanting to know how to tell their children they were conceived by donor sperm or egg."
Kane says research reveals that people begin searching for the genetic heritage from their mid-20s onwards when they first enter serious relationships or begin thinking of starting their own family.
That was true for Grech.
"Early on, not long after my parents told me, we wrote a letter to the doctor and within a few weeks he sent back some non-identifying information," she says.
"I know he was a student, he was married, he had brown hair and brown eyes, he was 170cm tall and weighed about 82kg and had O-positive blood type. At the time, that was enough for me."
But Grech, who is studying social work at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, has wanted to know more as she's grown older.
"The thing that bugs me most is I want to know his nationality," she says.
"It might help with my physical features a bit because my mum and dad are Maltese with dark hair and skin but I'm very Australian looking.
"I also want to know what his interests are, what his occupation is, what he did for his life and what are his favourite foods – the little things you want to know about people."
Morgan says it's basic information about personal and family heritage that most people take for granted but to which this group deserves equal rights.
"These kinds of reproductive technologies have produced people who may not necessarily be able to find out who their genetic parents are and the more we begin to understand about the genetic basis for certain types of diseases, it's increasingly important to know about your make-up."
Morgan will deliver a keynote address at the Australian Bioethics Association Conference, hosted by QUT, next week in Brisbane and will talk about the issues surrounding technology, identity and modern medical law. He believes national laws are needed, based on Victoria's model, to create a sensitive, efficient and enforceable system that places the rights of donor-assisted children above all else.
"Western Australia and South Australia have similar laws to Victoria but Queensland and other states have no laws at all – there needs to be a national register," he says.
But Dr Keith Harrison, Queenslander Fertility Group scientific director and Fertility Society of Australia secretary, says industry codes of practice ensure the same rights to donor-conceived children as the Victorian laws enshrine.
Harrison says all anonymous sperm donations stopped two years ago.
All donors since then have been required to consent to their personal information being released to any child subsequently conceived.
"The National Health and Medical Research Council guidelines state every child must be able to trace its genetic heritage," Harrison says.
"That put an end to anonymous donor semen in Australia and in any one donor, there's a maximum of 10 families that can be created.
"Those guidelines are enshrined in a code of practice and every IVF clinic is accredited by the Reproductive Technology Accreditation Committee."
Harrison says identifying information can be accessed in Queensland in the same way as it is in Victoria, the only difference being that the relative parties apply to the clinic where the treatment took place rather than the ITA regulatory body.
"We, as clinics, also have obligations to regularly contact donors to keep track of them," Harrison says.
"The chance of being closed down for not complying with the regulations is pretty good incentive to comply."
The biggest difference with the Victorian law, says Harrison, is that it gives donors the right to trace their progeny once the children become legal adults and research shows only half – at best – of parents disclose the truth to their donor-assisted children.
Grech says the earlier parents tell their children, the better.
"There are cases of donor-assisted children discovering their birth origins in the middle of family arguments or when a family friend lets the information slip," she says.
"I think parents should tell their children – even at 18 years old – because it's better than when you're 40 or after the death of one of your parents.
"Young people can deal with things better than adults expect them to."
And she says parents need not feel threatened.
"Parents need to understand it's a personal thing – a quest for your own identity and personality traits," she says.
"It's not about replacing or changing relationships."
Unfortunately for Grech, she was born in 1982 and isn't therefore affected by the new laws in Victoria.
"I try not to think about it because I know it might not ever happen but I'd love to meet him (donor)," she says.
"It would mean the world to me and I'd love to meeting all my half siblings as well."