Sperm donation in a medical setting first took place at the Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, USA, in 1884. However, quite how widely it was used during the following 60 years is unknown. But in 1945 Dr Mary Barton, working in London, published the first modern account of Donor Insemination (DI) in the British Medical Journal. The response to her paper was almost universal condemnation.
Around the world, politicians and church leaders called for DI to be made illegal. The Pope termed it a sin and in the UK, the Archbishop of Canterbury set up an enquiry and called for Parliament to make it illegal. Although heated debates were held, this did not happen. But nor was DI made a legal activity. This gave it an uncertain status and quite understandably it continued to be conducted in the upmost secrecy.
The secrecy of DI was not only to protect the identity of the donor, but also the woman receiving treatment, her partner and the doctor performing the procedure. Few records were kept and the identities of the donors were not disclosed. Doctors tried their best to match key physical characteristics of the donor (e.g. height, weight, hair colour, eye colour) to that of the infertile man. This increased the chance of any children born looking like the couples genetic children and reduced the risk of questions being asked.
Couples having children by DI rarely told anyone and put their own names on the birth certificate as the parents of the child. Few donor-conceived people were told of their origins and even if they were there was no way they could find out about the donor. Sometimes donor conceived people found out, either through family argument or during a deathbed confession by a member of the family. They often describe this as being devastating, or like being hit by a train.
In the 1970’s the views of society began to change. For example, in the USA laws were passed which made DI legal and allowed the husband to be treated as the legal father of the child. However, in the UK this did not happen until 1990 with the passing of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Even then, it remained a criminal offence to identify a donor, although the law did allow for any donor-conceived people to find out non-identifying information when they reached the age of 18.
Following the development of IVF in 1978, it became technically possible to donate other reproductive cells and egg donation was first performed in 1984 and embryo donation in 1985. To create families through donation then became commonplace around the world.
During the 1990’s, pressure began to grow in the UK to change the law and allow donor (sperm, egg or embryo) to be in some way identified to donor-conceived people. In 2004 this was announced, with the use of anonymous donors being illegal from 31st March 2006. Now it is possible for the donors name and identity to be released once the donor-conceived person reaches the age of 18. Before this age, the law now allows for more detailed (non-identifying) information to be provided, including a ‘pen picture’ written by the donor at the time they donated.