At age 23, Sachiko Ishizuka discovered that her father was battling an incurable muscle disease that can run in families, a wave of dismay soon coming over her at the thought that she may have inherited it.
But then her mother, in a bid to appease her, told Ishizuka that she did not need to worry — the man diagnosed with the genetic disease was actually not her biological father. Even more staggering was the revelation that, more than 20 years ago, Ishizuka was born as a result of reproductive treatment using donor sperm at the prestigious Keio University Hospital. As to who the sperm donor was, her mother said she did not have the faintest idea.
“At first I was relieved that I at least hadn’t inherited the disease,” Ishizuka, now 41, recalled in a recent interview. But her mother’s confession “denied everything I believed about my biological origin, which made me feel as if the entire 23 years of my life had been built upon a falsehood. I felt like my identity was crumbling away.”
Ishizuka’s tale of emotional distress, an identity crisis and a subsequent falling-out with her mother echoes the experience of many offspring conceived by the artificial insemination by donor (AID) reproductive technique who are unexpectedly told of their biological origins by their parents.
Today, donor-conceived offspring in Japan are increasingly questioning the rigid anonymity conferred on donors by medical institutions that perform this procedure, citing a global trend toward recognizing the rights by people like themselves to access information about, and establish contact with, their biological fathers.
In what was hailed by some as a breakthrough development, the Diet passed a bill in early December that was the first to stipulate any rules about the hitherto unregulated realm of sperm donation. The law essentially clarified that it is the husband who agreed to the sperm donation, not the donor themselves, that will be recognized as the father of a child conceived by the fertility treatment.
But gone unaddressed in the law are other pressing issues pertaining to sperm donation, including eligibility criteria for donors and recipients, as well as the question of how to guarantee AID-conceived children of their rights to know their ancestral origins. The law only said in a supplementary provision that those issues will be revisited within two years.
Japan’s history of AID dates as far back as to 1948, when Keio University Hospital became the nation’s first institution to successfully conduct the procedure.
Since then, much of the information around AID has been shrouded in secrecy, with institutions keeping donors — many of whom are thought to be medical school students — strictly anonymous and denying recipients any details about them, including their names, whereabouts and physical characteristics.
It wasn’t until the turn of the millennium that the nation saw a rise in momentum for legislating the practice of reproductive medicine in general. The move was prompted by the advent of agencies for surrogacy and egg donation procedures overseas, as well as some reports of controversial assisted fertility, including the donation of sperm by a wife’s father-in-law.
In 2003, the health ministry compiled a report that stated, among other things, AID-conceived children should be allowed to demand the disclosure of “identifiable information” about their donors once they turn 15 years old. Nearly 20 years have since passed, however, without such principles being enshrined into law.
The desire to know donors is something that resonates deeply with Ishizuka. Every time she goes to the doctors and is asked if any of her family members have drug allergies or diseases that can be inherited, she finds herself unable to answer those critical questions on her health.
Moreover, learning about her donor is key to her regaining what has been lost.
Being clueless as to who he was or what he was like “makes me feel as if I had been born between a mother and this ‘thing’ — the sperm,” Ishizuka said. “I want to feel it was a human being, not the sperm, that fathered me.”
Now a core member of a group of AID-conceived offspring, she calls for the disclosure of personally identifiable information about the donor so she can track him down, feel convinced of his existence and reconstruct her identity.
“I want to meet him, just so I can see for myself that he’s real,” Ishizuka said.
The longer it takes parents to break the news of donor insemination, the greater the shock and sense of betrayal that comes over children, as is exemplified by Ishizuka’s case. In her case, her mother’s treatment of the subject as taboo made the young Ishizuka feel as though she herself was being regarded as untouchable.
“My mom would loathe the idea that I would talk about the truth of my origins to someone outside of our family,” Ishizuka recalled. “The fact that she was regarding the technique that conceived me as something shameful, something she desperately needed to keep secret, gave me the impression that she was in denial of my very existence too, which damaged my self-esteem and my relationship with her.”
The right to access information about one’s ancestry is now increasingly recognized overseas.
Countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany ban sperm donor anonymity, with the former, for example, enabling anyone conceived with donor sperm to request “identifying information” from the age of 18, such as the full name and date of birth.
“In Japan, children tend to be treated as ‘belongings’ of parents, who are somehow entrusted with deciding what’s best for them,” Ishizuka said. “But all children grow up and, as adults, if we become curious about what our roots are, shouldn’t that right to know our origins be acknowledged?”
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