A CATHOLIC priest who helped write the ethical guidelines on assisted reproductive technology said the actions of a sperm donor being investigated for fathering 23 children were illegal and unethical.
Fr Kevin McGovern, who is based in Victoria, was a member of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART) Working Committee that wrote the national ethical guidelines on the use of assisted reproductive technology and was released in 2017 for the Australian Government’s National Health and Medical Research Council.
The guidelines offer standards on the use, donation and storage of gametes, the medical term for sperm and egg cells, including minimising the number of families created through “donated gamete treatment programs” such as in vitro fertilisation.
The guidelines were established in lieu of some states and territories not having legislation about assisted reproductive technology.
Fr McGovern said the case of a man, who reportedly fathered 23 children in one year through private sperm donations and registered clinics, raised serious ethical questions.
The man is being investigated by the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Authority (VARTA) for exceeding the limit of families that can be formed through one donor’s donations.
In Victoria, where some of the man’s sperm was being used, a donor can only form up to 10 families, including what they create with their partner.
This legislation enforces section 5.3.2 of the national guidelines, which states that clinics “must take all reasonable steps to minimise the number of families created through donated gamete treatment programs”.
A breach of this guideline would cause “the risk a person born from donor gametes inadvertently having a sexual relationship with a close genetic relative”.
Fr McGovern said registered fertility clinics required donors to abide by these guidelines.
“This man has obviously gotten around that by donating directly to women who have inseminated themselves,” he said.
“What he’s done is illegal in Victoria and unethical.
“He has possibly been motivated by a sense of concern for women, possibly motivated a bit by a sense of feeling ‘I’m doing something special’.
“The other issue here is that not every donor-inseminated child is made aware of their origin by their parents.”
Given that 23 children in the community could trace the sperm donor as their biological father, Fr McGovern strongly advised that all children created with the man’s sperm be told of how they were conceived.
“In this situation in particular they do need to know, they need to minimise the risk that they’ll end up finding a half-sibling,” he said.
“It is important the children are told early because if it’s concealed from it and they find out later in life, it can really be quite damaging and can really threaten their sense of self.”
Read more about the Catholic Church and IVF: Catholic ethicist says some fertility clinics misleading desperate couples with false IVF success rates
Uncertain future of human life
The Catholic Church teaches IVF to be immoral because it disassociates the procreative act with the sexual act.
The Church also opposes IVF for the dilemma that occurs when creating human embryos, which is that clinics usually fertilise eggs in excess of what can be safely re-implanted into a woman for pregnancy.
This means that some embryos would almost certainly never be used or needed by a couple, so they are either stored indefinitely, used in medical research or destroyed.
Regarding the VARTA investigation, one media outlet reported at least one couple was told they could not use embryos in storage created with the man’s sperm because of the Victorian law around the number of families created by one donor.
The Catholic Church opposes embryos used for research but does not have a strong teaching against embryo adoption.
Dignitas Personae, the Vatican’s instruction on certain bioethical questions, described embryo adoption as “praiseworthy with regard to the intention of respecting and defending human life” but presented “various problems”.
Fr McGovern said he had spoken with many couples about the future of their excess embryos.
Couples considered it a deeply difficult decision because Fr McGovern said they truly believed their excess embryos were their children.
“I can remember one woman who said to me, what am I going to do about my three babies?” he said.
“It’s probably one of the differences between the sections of the community that are involved in termination, where they would tend to deny the fact that this is a human life, a human being, a child.
“In the fertility clinics, everyone is very clear that this is a child.”
Although he is not up to date with current figures, Fr McGovern’s last check on the number of cryogenically preserved embryos in Australia came to 50,000 to 60,000.
He said the Catholic Church once advised for the removal of frozen embryos before “allowing them to succumb” but more recent statements suggested embryos should be cryogenically preserved “as long as is possible in the hope that something might eventually be found for them”.
“And there’s really no solution to that dilemma,” he said.
“There are problems that just don’t have solutions.”