An interesting debate has been sparked following a letter to the Human Embryology Authority by a woman who says, in marriage, sperm should be considered a marital asset. This followed her own husband making a donation, which could produce as many as twenty children and cites the possible psychological effects on her family other children produced by his sperm may cause. She is calling for a change in the guidelines, particular in light of a change in law in 2005 which made it a child's right to contact the father when they reached the age of 18, which she rightly claimed could disrupt their existing family life.
I have been part of some interesting conversations around this since it was placed in the Sunday Times and while I feel the woman has some very valid points around family stability if another child produced by this donation was to show up, I can't help but feel there are some much bigger considerations which need to be thought about.
Now, without starting a gender war, if we were to be having this discussion the other way round and a man was claiming his wife's eggs to be a marital asset, there would be outrage. We would be entering the right to choose and decide about what a woman does with her body and her eggs and there would be no debating, it would be a no. I don't see how a man's sperm is any different to this, even with the 2005 law change, the right to decide what happens with your body and it's 'products' in law should always lie with the individual.
At the same time, in any functional family unit, you would think that both partners would be placed in the decision making progress for something which could potentially change that unit a few years down the line.
Clinics are required to offer counselling to any man who expresses a desire to donate sperm, but a man does not have to accept it and can donate regardless. This counselling is designed as a safety net, to make sure a man realises the decision he is making and the potential income it could have through life.
In the case which has made the papers, there is a child within the family involved and the big question in my mind is what impact this would have on the child. Having worked with young people in various settings for a fair while, family dynamics and the issue of half-siblings can and will cause significant problems for children, especially in the case of estranged siblings. This is more of an issue in my eyes than the proprietary right of sperm.
In my eyes, it comes down to balance. Surely a law making sperm a marital asset in the context of donation would be a violation of an individual's right to make decisions about their own body and it's 'products', which would be a disastrous turn of events in my eyes and I'm no legal expert, but surely this would be in violation of our human rights. Instead, maybe we turn to the existing guidelines which include counselling and make them more robust, which could include making the counselling or at least an assessment a mandatory part of the donation process, so issues like this can be explored.
It can't be ignored that the potential impact on the children within the family unit could be vast, if a child created by the donation was to show up 18 years down the line, but this can't override the fundamental right we as individuals have to choose what we do with our bodies. This comes more to clear communication within couples, robust assessment and counselling and more involved decision making for the man to ensure that it is the decision that they wish to make. Of course this will not definitely stop this kind of dilemma occurring, but to even consider a law making sperm a marital asset would be simply absurd.
For the children, I fully believe they have the right to know that they could potentially have half-siblings out there, but this is not for the law to dictate. It again comes down to clear communication within the existing family dynamic and while this is a debate worth having, it doesn't have a place in law.
Follow Nick Watts on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nickinoxford