Parents who for decades hid from their children that they had been conceived with donor sperm and what impact it had on these families. This affected Tinne Claes most during her research into the history of sperm donation. For example, a mother, says Claes on the phone, who for thirty years walked around feeling guilty about her children because she felt: ‘I’m lying. She had promised her husband not to. The doctors had said that it was best that the children would attach to the family without any problems, that she and her husband would also forget that father was not the biological father. But it did not happen.
The mother also thought: if I tell, it is selfish, because then I put the burden on the child. But when they reached puberty, the children began to wonder why they were not like him – and who they really were. “I found it tragic and touching to compare those pages,” Claes says. “And as a historian, I find it interesting to see that honesty, openness and transparency have now become such important values, where in the past it was the norm not to tell everything and even lie to his children now and then for guilt. of the good. “
This mother is one of the more than a hundred people Tinne Claes has interviewed for her recently published book Seeds without name, on the history of sperm donation in Belgium. Belgium is one of the last countries where sperm donors must still be anonymous – in the Netherlands it was allowed until 2004. The history of the Belgian sperm bank is similar to that in the Netherlands, says Claes when asked: “With the difference that the Netherlands seems to be a bit in front of the basket. I believe that donor anonymity will also be lost here in Belgium. But by and large, there are many parallels in European countries: everywhere it starts with a lack of legislation and with doctors experimenting on their own. ”
Claes spoke with the pioneers. The assistants to the couple Robert and Andrée Schoysman, who gave birth to the first Belgian woman with donor sperm in 1956 and founded the first Belgian sperm bank in 1970. Various gynecologists who experimented with frozen sperm, using techniques they used from livestock breeders, among others. The Dane Ole Schou, who in 1987 founded the sperm bank Cryos, which, among other things, thanks to smart PR and skilled adaptation to the legislation in different countries, would become the world’s largest. A kind of catalog where you could choose your future ‘Viking baby’.
Claes also spoke to parents who kept quiet about the father not being their children’s biological father, and children who discovered that secret and went looking for their biological fathers. And she talked to lesbian couples and single women. In the 1970s, they were banned from fertility clinics: “At a major scientific conference held in Leuven in 1973,” writes Claes, “the consensus was that women who knocked on their door without a man would be just as likely. happy for a little dog. ”
The history of sperm donation is clearly also a history of liberation. It goes from the American woman who was inseminated in 1884 with donor sperm from a medical student without the doctors or her husband telling her to, to women who lied in the 1970s that they were infertile and not their husbands (an infertile man was too embarrassing) – to the lesbian and single women who now make up about three-quarters of the sperm bank’s customer base. (Since the early 1990s, hetero has increasingly opted for ICSI, a technique in which a sperm from the father is injected directly into an egg. A sperm is enough, if necessary, a slow one.)
Sperm donation is actually a bit of a side project that went out of control for Claes. At KU Leuven, she researches a broader topic: the history of unwanted infertility in the second half of the twentieth century. Both topics, which people quickly think will be personal, she writes: “They assume that if you struggle with an unfulfilled desire for children, you will donate eggs or discover that you are a donor child.”
But Seeds without name is no more a personal quest than her previous project, her PhD research into the question of where the corpses came from, which were necessary for nineteenth-century anatomical research (initially mandatory body spacing of the poor, later donations). “After that archival survey, I searched. I wanted to interview living people on a socially relevant topic. ”
When she started these interviews, she quickly discovered that the story of the sperm banks was of particular interest to her. “I came across the pioneers who started their own sperm bank, and I became more and more fascinated by it. The story of unwanted infertility is otherwise just progress history: see what science already can do! Compared to IVF, surgeries and hormone treatments for women, donor insemination is the only technique where there is again doubt. Many people think it’s a bit old-fashioned now, especially the donor anonymity. ”
Also read: The children of Karbaat, the fertility doctor who turned out to be the donor father of 53 children.
Today, Claes says, there is a consensus that it is good to tell children at an early age that they have been conceived with donor sperm. “There’s no downside to that, but donor children who only hear it at a later age can have problems.” They may find it a shock that they are not a real brother or sister, not a real child of their father. It is unclear what percentage of late-told donor children will have problems with this. It is also difficult to do research, says Claes, because donor children with problems will unite and are so easy to find for researchers. “I estimate that 80 to 90 percent of donor children still do not know that they are donor children. We do not know anything about that group. ”
Meanwhile, the often very old doctors Claes spoke to tend to stick to their outdated ideas of donor anonymity. “Some proudly said that they had destroyed their archives. I thought that was remarkable, I had expected some ethical reflection on the fate of the donor children, but for the doctors, only the promises they had made to the parents and donors at the time were valid. ‘Do not come and blame me,’ they say, ‘it was agreed’.
However, the old doctors did not always follow rules such as: you may only use sperm from one donor a limited number of times, do not mix sperm from different donors, do not use your own sperm. “It’s really hard: In interviews, doctors say they’ve never done such things themselves and that they were exceptions. But donor sperm scandals have become known in almost every Western country.”
Claes finds it particularly interesting, she says, “how the context of ‘fertility fraud’, as it is called, could arise. The silence, the secrecy, the donor anonymity, no one checked whether one adhered to a maximum number of inseminations per. These quotas have now been clearly defined, although they differ from country to country. For example, for the Netherlands it is twelve and for Belgium six, which means that one donor can fertilize twelve women in the Netherlands and six in Belgium and many more. in other countries and then there is no cheating.
The sperm pioneers did not have such clear rules before. “Even though doctors already in the 70s and 80s thought it was illegal to mix semen and use your own semen. But the chances of it coming true if they did seemed slim. “They could not have imagined how relatively easy it would be to test kinship and trace biological family through commercial DNA testing agencies like 23andMe and MyHeritage.
In late June, a scandal broke out in Belgium involving a gynecologist who had used his own sperm more than thirty years ago. He himself believes that he has done nothing wrong and “just helped people”. The Netherlands has known such scandals before: When Claes started his interviews, Jan Karbaat was in the news, the doctor who had used his own sperm on a large scale and who has dozens of donor children. “Some doctors I spoke to thought he was a very sympathetic and wise man, what was wrong with that. While what he was doing was already impossible at the time.”
What did she think of it? “Well, those doctors were 80-plus, I do not expect 100 percent opinions from those who are good now. So I’m not so afraid. But I find it very interesting. People who used to be very progressive are “In fact, my book is about getting older and sticking to your ideas as society changes.”