Sperm Donors Anonymous

ABC • 2015

Sperm Donors Anonymous is a cautionary and inspiring tale about the effects of anonymous sperm donation on donor-conceived children, their families and on the sperm donors themselves.

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Synopsis

Myf, Michael, Jeff and Ross were conceived in the 1970s using anonymous donor sperm. All four grew up thinking their dad was their biological father, only to discover in adulthood they were donor-conceived. Sharing a desire to uncover the truth about their donor father and their genetic heritage, their search for answers is hampered by old promises to donors that they would remain anonymous. Faced with this obstacle, they are inventive in their efforts to find out what they can, and searching yields some very surprising results.

Sperm Donors Anonymous lifts the lid on donor anonymity, looks at the effects on the donor-conceived, their families, and on the sperm donors themselves – and shows what is possible when the truth is told.

From the filmmakers of Alone In A Crowded Room.

Sperm Donors Anonymous extras – Behind the Scenes

 

Sperm Donors Anonymous extras – Kim Buck’s story

 

Sperm Donors Anonymous extras – Donors

 

Sperm Donors Anonymous extras – Anna & Alexander

 

Sperm Donors Anonymous extras – Resemblance

 

Director’s Notes

By Lucy Paplinska

Director Lucy Paplinska.

Director Lucy Paplinska.

One of the most difficult things you face when developing documentary ideas is finding participants. When producer Lisa Horler and I started the research for Sperm Donors Anonymous, I was immediately struck by how many people approached us wanting to share their experiences of being conceived through anonymous sperm donation.

I sensed that this topic was very raw, and that it brought up issues around identity and how we think about starting a family – as well as the rights of our children to genetic information. I knew that this was a very important story to be told, and it would resonate with the wider community. I wanted to help the donor-conceived to have a voice. From the beginning I instinctively felt that anonymous gamete donation was not the right way to create families, and as I dug deeper the more I became convinced of this.

I could acutely sense the complexity – and the pain – of the participants’ situation, and it was the story’s many layers that I wanted to convey to the audience. This meant going further afield than just the stories of donor- conceived people, but also speaking to their parents and sperm donors as well. Due to the sensitivity of the topic, a lot of parents understandably did not feel comfortable to participate in the documentary. Therefore, when Myf’s dad Simon decided to be a part of the film and tell his story for the first time, I felt very honoured and knew we had captured an important insight.

I also felt it was very important to include the perspective of the sperm donors, as without them I wouldn’t be able to show the whole picture. I found filming the sperm donors’ meeting to be fascinating. Seeing them all bound together by their common experience of having donated anonymously, and learning from their different views on the situation was very enlightening. I discovered with the sperm donors who were interested in their offspring, their experiences often mirrored those of the donor-conceived adults – finding out any information about their biological relatives was extremely difficult, if not impossible. For me, the landscape of the documentary was laden with sorrow– parents, donor-conceived and donors. Few had ever received adequate counseling and support in coping with this difficult situation. Ultimately, I hope this documentary makes it easier for parents to seek help in coming forward and telling their children they are donor-conceived, as most of them still do not know.

One of the other challenges the film presented was dealing with the bureaucracy surrounding donor-conception – the differing laws and various ways clinics were dealing with donor-conception, not to mention the obstacles presented by the destruction of records. Finding out anything at all – if records existed, who could access them, etc – was incredibly difficult and slow going and it really made me appreciate what donor-conceived people went through to find out any information about their genetic heritage.

One of the highlights of the film for me was being able to be there when one of our participants, Michael Griffiths, found out the DNA test he had completed with a donor (who had come forward after seeing a photo of him in the paper) was a match. This was a completely unexpected and incredible turn of events, and one I never thought would happen due to the destruction of records in Michael’s case. I will never forget how that moment felt, sitting in Michael’s kitchen feeling overwhelmed as I heard him get the news. I feel extremely happy we were able to document this happy situation for Michael.

However, Michael’s story made me feel even more deeply for those whom a happy outcome was not possible at this point. Jeff’s sister Kimberley, whose donor was approached on numerous occasions by Monash IVF, never responded. By this point, I feel very strongly that donor conception laws should be more in line with adoption laws in Victoria – ie. that all parties have the right to identifying information about their biological relatives. I feel that the situation is incredibly unjust – that whilst many donor-conceived people are not after a relationship with their donor, they are powerless to get any information at all (ie. medical, genetic) unless the donor is asked for permission. In most cases, it is the right to the information that donor-conceived people are passionate about, and they would never seek a relationship with someone who was not interested.

I hope we have been able to show the fallout of the decision to use anonymous sperm and how it has affected everyone involved. It is my wish that it makes people think twice about using anonymous gamete donation to create their families.

Lucy Paplinska

June 2015

 

Producer’s Notes

By Lisa Horler

Producer Lisa Horler.

Producer Lisa Horler.

I first became interested in the stories of donor-conceived people when learning about the story of Narelle Grech. Narelle was a donor-conceived adult in Melbourne who was dying of bowel cancer. She spoke about her desire, her need and her right to information about her biological father. Her struggle and final meeting with her biological father inspired me to research this subject for a documentary.

Working on this film over the past two years, the topic has never ceased to be interesting. The combination of themes – secrets in families, mystery surrounding anonymous sperm donors, and the incredible community of donor-conceived folks who were fighting to have their voices heard – all interact to tell an astonishing story.

My first phone call was to the Victorian Assistive Reproductive Technology Association (VARTA). Social worker, Kate Bourne, facilitated the donor- conceived support group and she was able to put us in touch with a group of people eager to tell their stories.

The first time director Lucy Paplinska and I organized to met a group of possible participants for the film, three sperm donors turned up with two donor- conceived adults. I was struck by how the donors and the children, although not related, all shared a common interest. They were joined together by a sense of injustice, and they were all determined that donor-conceived folk should have the right to information about their genetic heritage. The sperm donors – Ian Smith, Michael Linden and Peter Liston – revealed a side of the story I hadn’t heard before. Here were guys who donated sperm years ago, who were expressing interest in their “offspring”, their unknown children. It opened my eyes to their strong feelings of responsibility towards the children they had helped to create. The myth of the anonymous sperm donor, a mysterious figure people snigger about, became a silly stereotype in my mind, and I was determined to include this aspect in the documentary.

There is a question people often ask in relation to this film – “How many donors are open to contact?” It’s a hard question to answer as the research done to date isn’t representative enough. However, it is obvious many donors are open to contact, and one thing this documentary should do is explode the myth that all donors want to remain anonymous.

We were fortunate two of our donor-conceived participants were able to locate their donors during the course of filming. This was unexpected, particularly
for Michael Griffiths. Michael’s story was designed to show how difficult the situation is in South Australia as records have been destroyed, and there isn’t a voluntary register, or a service set up to help people. However, in every step of Michael’s search, he got closer to finding his donor, and in the end he got lucky! I was able to meet Michael’s donor before the DNA test was conducted, and to see him grappling with what was about to unfold. It showed me how difficult it can be for a sperm donor to come to terms with his past actions, but also how an open heart is a very powerful remedy in dealing with this situation.

The cast and crew of Sperm Donors Anonymous (left to right): Michael Griffiths, Lisa Horler (Producer), Lucy Paplinska (Director), Ross Hunter and Jeff Springfield.

The cast and crew of Sperm Donors Anonymous (left to right): Michael Griffiths, Lisa Horler (Producer), Lucy Paplinska (Director), Ross Hunter and Jeff Springfield.

I am interested in telling stories about subjects that people find hard to talk about, and sperm donation is one of them. It’s a topic that people either cringe about, or make jokes about. I even found that SPERM is a word that people genuinely don’t like. Calling the film Sperm Donors Anonymous is in reaction to that, and my hope is the film will create an opportunity to get people talking about this sensitive topic, and to embrace its complexity.

Lisa Horler

June 2015

 

Background

Australia was one of the first countries in the world to recognise that people conceived from donor sperm and eggs are entitled to know their genetic origins. However, the ability to access information differs across the country, and there is no national DNA database to assist in matching children and donors. Worldwide, a small number of countries have moved to recognise the right to information for donor-conceived people.

In the early 1970s, the technology to freeze sperm dramatically improved and the use of sperm donation to achieve conception became more widespread.
It is estimated that between 20,000 and 60,000 donor-conceived people live in Australia, yet, according to Louise Johnson of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA), most do not know that they are donor-conceived. This information was never included on birth certificates, and in the 1970s and 80s, parents were encouraged by their fertility doctors not to tell their children about their origins.

During this period, Victoria was one of the leading international sites for the development of assisted reproductive technologies such as IVF. It was also the first Australian state, and the first jurisdiction in the world to enact legislation regulating assisted reproductive treatment. This legislation – the Infertility Medical Procedures Act – came into effect in 1988.

Prior to 1988, donor-conception was unregulated and was entirely in the hands of the medical profession. A culture of secrecy existed. Donors and recipient parents were required to sign anonymity contracts agreeing not to seek each other’s identity.

Recent changes to legislation in Victoria gives donor-conceived adults greater access to relevant files and services to assist in their search for their donors and potential half siblings. Files that have been locked away for almost forty years will be opened again. This makes the State’s laws on donor conception the most advanced in Australia. In the other states, the law varies. Neither Tasmania nor South Australia has a volunteer register, and in some places, many records have been destroyed. In South Australia, clinics such as Repromed and Flinders Fertility report that donor identity records have been destroyed.

Some clinics including Victoria’s Monash IVF, have kept records and are able to assist donor-conceived adults to trace and make contact with their donor. However, for other clinics – particularly in other states of Australia – there is some reluctance from the clinics to allow identifying information about donors to be released when they were originally promised anonymity. One doctor at a recent NSW Parliamentary Enquiry said some doctors might burn records if they were ordered to release them. But as many sperm donors from the 1970s and 80s have said, they were never given any choice on this issue. Many now say they are happy for identifying information to be given to their offspring.

 

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