That Hollywood star of 50s, Ava Gardner, is remembered mostly for qualities other than a sharp wit – except in Sydney, where they gleefully recall her impressions of Melbourne after working on a film about a nuclear apocalypse. “On The Beach is a story about the end of the world,” she told the press, “and Melbourne sure is the right place to film it.”
But Melbourne has other claims on world history, one of them being the capital of a state which was the first jurisdiction to pass a law regulating artificial reproduction. That was in 1984. But good records of sperm donors were not kept until 1988, eight years after the birth of Australia’s first IVF baby. The news this week is that a committee of the state parliament has recommended that IVF children be allowed to access these records, even if the donors had been guaranteed complete anonymity. (See this week’s BioEdge.)
Its report is a disturbing reminder of the cavalier attitude of pioneering IVF doctors. This was, mind you, not the 1880s when people knew almost nothing about parental attachment. It was not even the 1930s or the 1950s. It was the 1980s. As early as 1982, a government committee rang alarm bells: “As now practiced, [assisted insemination by donor] often involves a series of clear breaches of … legislation and deception of the State.”
The result was another stolen generation, a generation of genetic orphans. Between 1980 and 1988, thousands of IVF babies were born in Victoria — but no one knows how many. The records linking them to donors either do not exist or are mouldering away in hospital basements. Some donors were told to use pseudonyms; sometimes the sperm of a spouse was mixed with the sperm of a donor. Some doctors may have provided donations themselves. Some records may have been falsified. Most of the IVF children were never told about their origins.
It was Wild West stuff. A specialist with an international reputation told a parliamentary committee about his work in the early 80s: “It was my job to do some marketing for the donors. I used to go and talk to groups of medical students saying: Look, come and be a sperm donor. We need people to donate, we have got all these infertile men; the women are waiting…”
What were these doctors thinking? Did they ever ponder the ethics of creating new life? Or did they only think about their reputations, or their wallets, or the thrill of using new toys? This was only 30 years ago. The same cowboys are still in the saddle today and training a new generation. What assurances can today’s IVF industry give us that its shoddy ethics have changed for the better?
The result was another stolen generation, a generation of genetic orphans. Between 1980 and 1988, thousands of IVF babies were born in Victoria — but no one knows how many. The records linking them to donors either do not exist or are mouldering away in hospital basements.
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