Response to ACART [1] Draft Guidelines on the Use of Donated Eggs in Conjunction with Donated Sperm

Staff of The Nathaniel Centre
Issue 27, April 2009


In August 2007 staff of The Nathaniel Centre responded to an ACART Consultation Document on various aspects of artificial reproductive technologies that included a question as to whether an embryo should be allowed to be created for reproductive purposes using a donated egg and donated sperm. While this particular procedure has been classified as an assisted reproductive procedure since 2005, there have never been any guidelines enabling the procedure to be approved by the Ethics Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology (ECART).

After considering the feedback received, ACART formed the view that the use of donated eggs with donated sperm should continue to be an assisted reproductive procedure and proceeded to develop draft guidelines. These guidelines were sent out for comment in January 2009.

Current New Zealand Guidelines allow for either the egg or the sperm to be donated for the purposes of creating an embryo for reproductive purposes, but not both. That is, at least one of the commissioning couple must be genetically related to the child.

The practice of using donated eggs and donated sperm together, if approved, will give rise to a host of different situations that complicate parent-child attachment and parent to parent relationships. The donors may or may not be known to each other or to the commissioning parents. Children conceived using this procedure may grow up either knowing or not knowing the circumstances surrounding their conception, and may know either both or one or neither of the donors.

Catholic teaching on the transmission of human life and the use of technology to assist human procreation is found in a number of documents including the Instruction "Donum Vitae" (DV). DV rules out the use of "heterologous IVF" because it takes human procreation outside of the marriage relationship ("The fidelity of the spouses in the unity of marriage involves reciprocal respect of their right to become a father and mother only through each other" DV, Part II, A, 1), and because it violates the rights of children by complicating, if not denying, them of their filial relationship with their parental origins and therefore can hinder the maturing of their personal identity (DV, Part II, A, 2).

The Discussion Document and the Draft Guidelines are able to be viewed on the ACART website:

Introductory Comments

We have laid out our opposition to the creation of embryos using donated eggs and donated sperm in an earlier submission to ACART and we summarise below what we have previously stated with a view to reiterating our absolute opposition to this procedure.

We are opposed to the practice of using donated eggs and donated sperm to create embryos on essentially two grounds; (i) it contravenes the right that married couples have to become parents only through each other, and (ii) intentionally depriving children of the close connection between genetic parenthood and the responsibility of care constitutes a serious offence against the dignity of the child.

Catholic teaching on the transmission of human life reflects a commitment to holding together the genetic, gestational and social dimensions of family and parenting. Our sense of personal well-being is linked with a healthy self-identity, something that is intimately tied in with a lived knowledge of our biological ties. This knowledge is put seriously at risk by arrangements that exclude children from growing up with the families of their biological origins. On this basis we believe that children have the right to grow up within the family networks that are generated by our biological ties. This right should only ever be compromised in situations where it is clearly in the interests of the child involved.

What is at stake in the debate about using donated eggs and sperm is nothing less than the importance of genetic origins and affective relations in establishing enduring human relationships and in securing a healthy self identity. T he Discussion document itself makes it abundantly clear that this particular procedure raises complex issues that impact directly on the identity and well-being of the children that result. To approve of embryos being created from donated eggs and donated sperm is to disregard the critical importance of affective relations with the biological parents and extended family. It remains our firmly held view that an honest appraisal of this procedure from the perspective of the child, one that keeps the interests and well-being of the child to the fore (as required by the HART Act), would rule out the use of donated eggs and sperm as a means of conceiving a child.

Whatever people believe about the acceptability of IVF, a clear moral distinction exists between homologous IVF (where the gametes are sourced from both partners within the relationship) and heterologous IVF (where one or both gametes are sourced outside of the commissioning couple). This distinction rests on the fact that homologous IVF conserves the link between parenthood, family and genetic origins. We acknowledge that heterologous IVF is currently approved in New Zealand. However, we think it should always remain limited to situations where one of the parents is genetically related.

We note that the New Zealand Guidelines on Surrogacy Arrangements (2007) require at least one of the intending parents to be the genetic parent of any resulting child. The reasons for this, which reflected the clear views of submitters, relate to the well-being of the child; above all they give concrete recognition to the absolute importance of the connection between self-identity, personal well-being and biological origins.

A decision to approve the intentional creation of embryos from donated eggs and donated sperm cuts right across this reasoning, and effectively severs the genetic dimension of parenting from the gestational and social dimensions. No other approved assisted reproductive technologies have previously gone this far. In this way, the approval to create embryos from donated eggs and sperm takes the use of assisted reproductive technology in New Zealand to a new place, one which places the well-being of children at greater risk than ever before.

Inevitably, the question will also then be asked as to why surrogacy arrangements should remain subject to the restriction that one of the intending parents must be the genetic parent.

To those who argue that "a genetic or gestational link is not necessary for a strong parent-child attachment" (see p. 10 of Discussion document) we would respond by saying that there is much more at stake in this matter than parent-child attachment. The key issue, we would argue, is the child's own sense of identity and well-being. Even in situations where adopted children and adoptive parents form close and strong attachments the personal emotional difficulties are often still significant. If the experiences of adoption have taught us anything then it is surely the fact that strong attachments between adopted children and their adoptive parents do nothing to displace the sense of loss of, and yearning for, connection with their families of biological origin.

The need to foster or adopt children highlights that there are occasions when, for the good of a child's welfare, the decision is made that they not be brought up within their family of origin or by one of their biological parents. In these situations the decision to adopt represents an act of outstanding generosity. To accept that there are circumstances when we need to separate a child from their genetic family of origin is one thing. To set out to deliberately deprive children of this link for the sake of the needs of the adults involved is quite another. It is inconsistent with respect for the child and it undermines the ideal of the family. It is this distinction that makes the adoption of an already existing embryo morally distinct from, and morally more acceptable than, the deliberate creation of an embryo from donor eggs and sperm.

The burden of infertility can indeed be overwhelming for couples. In situations where neither of the partners can provide the gametes for IVF, other options exist including adoption of children and the adoption of 'surplus' embryos. While the context within which they were created means that the adoption of spare embryos is morally distinguishable from the use of donated sperms and eggs, they are in all other respects virtually indistinguishable since in each case the intending parents are not the genetic parents of a resulting child.

We recognise that in formulating this Discussion document ACART have made a significant attempt to consider the issue from the perspective of the child that is to be conceived. We note that in formulating its preliminary position that the procedure of using donated eggs and sperm not extend to surrogacy arrangements, ACART have concluded that "the complexity of the arrangement does not provide sufficient safeguards for the wellbeing of the potential child" (p. 11). We agree with this position, but fail to see how giving proper consideration to the child's wellbeing does not bring ACART to make the same determination in all cases of using donated eggs and sperm. This seems totally inconsistent. Nowhere is it spelled out in the document how, ethically speaking, ACART have arrived at the determination that the safeguards are sufficient in one set of circumstances but not in the other.

In conclusion, then, we respectfully submit that in its consideration of the well-being of the child (as demanded by the HART Act) ACART has, by its decision to recommend the use of donated eggs and sperm, failed to give it the ethical weight demanded by an authentic concern for the dignity and well-being of the children who will potentially be born by way of this procedure. We believe, therefore, that any advice given by ACART to the Minister approving in principle the use of donated eggs and sperm should be urgently reviewed in line with the first purpose of the HART Act which is to "[take] appropriate measures to protect and promote the health, safety, dignity, and rights of all individuals, but particularly those of women and children in the use of [assisted reproductive procedures]" (Part I: Preliminary provisions (a) )

Questions on the draft guidelines

Question 1 (Whether the procedure could involve a surrogacy arrangement):

The paper presents ACART's proposal and another point of view about whether the use of donated eggs with donated sperm could involve a surrogacy arrangement (page 10).

(i) ACART is proposing that the use of donated eggs with donated sperm in conjunction with a surrogacy arrangement should not be permitted.
(ii) However, ACART has noted a view that the guidelines should enable, in exceptional circumstances, the use of donated eggs with donated sperm in conjunction with surrogacy.

Do you agree with (i)?
Or do you agree with (ii)? If you agree with (ii), what content would need to be in the guidelines?
Or do you have a view that is different to either (i) or (ii)?

In line with the arguments made in our Introductory comments (above), we agree whole-heartedly with the reasoning given by ACART that the use of donated eggs with donated sperm in conjunction with a surrogacy arrangement should not be permitted. The additional complexity of the arrangement constitutes an even greater increase in the likelihood of adverse risks to the well-being of the child.

To think that the use of donated eggs with donated sperm in conjunction with surrogacy might be allowed in "exceptional circumstances" would be to allow the notion of reproductive autonomy to completely over-ride concerns for the wellbeing of any child that might be born. Yet, the adverse risks are the same for any potential child irrespective of the circumstances of the commissioning couple. Therefore, the circumstances of the couple are, from an ethical perspective, irrelevant in terms of protecting the rights and promoting the well-being of children. It is logically inconsistent to argue otherwise, because then there no longer exists any reasonable basis upon which to argue that the practice in question could not be allowed in any circumstances!

Question 2 (Whether there should be a limit to the number of siblings):

ACART is proposing (page 13) that the use of donated eggs with donated sperm should be limited to producing full genetic siblings in no more than two families. Do you agree with this position?

The existence of full genetic siblings in more than two families would be highly undesirable for the reasons given. At the same time, if it is the case that healthy embryos that have been created will not be available for adoption because of the two family rule, this creates a new situation of injustice. The right to life of the human embryo then becomes subject to what is in many ways an arbitrary decision, even though it appears as a response to genuine concerns regarding the medical, psycho-social and genetic risks associated with relationships between adults with genetic parents in common.

These additional dilemmas only serve to show that, while the decision to allow the use of donated eggs and sperm may arise from a genuine and simple concern to alleviate infertility problems for couples, the practice inevitably leads us into, and opens up, a 'moral maze'. This, in itself, highlights yet another significant reason why we should not approve of this procedure in the first instance.

Question 3 (Informed consent and decision making):
ACART's thinking to date on consent and decision making is set out from page 15.

Do you have any comments about the issues raised in this section?
Do you have any comments about how consent and decision making in relation to the use of donated eggs and donated sperm should be managed?
Should the guidelines on donated eggs with donated sperm include specific provisions about informed consent, withdrawal of consent and decision making?

We believe that egg or sperm donors should not be allowed to withdraw their consent once an embryo has been created. Catholic teaching holds that human life begins at the point of fertilisation. From that point on the embryo needs to be afforded the same dignity and right to survive as a person. We believe this on the basis of the continuity of human existence – an embryo is already the human being that it will always be. To allow donors to withdraw their consent after the embryo has been created would be to tolerate a situation where the inviolable right to life was made subject to the preferences of other persons.

To focus on the limits for withdrawing consent essentially frames the responsibilities associated with the transmission of human life in a negative way. It is a disturbing feature of the use of assisted reproductive technologies that we find ourselves increasingly defining human relationships of care in such a minimalistic and legalistic way. Rather than stipulating the limits of 'withdrawal of consent', the guidelines should somehow stipulate and promote the positive duties of care that are a consequence of the generation of any new human life.

In most situations associated with assisted human reproduction, the providers of the gametes assume responsibility for the care of embryos that are created on the basis of their biological connection to the embryo. However, the use of donated eggs in conjunction with created sperm makes it quite unclear who has ultimate responsibility of care for the embryos created. On the one hand, the context of decision making surrounding the donation of gametes works against donors recognising and acting on the moral commitment that is a consequence of their biological link to the embryo.

On the other hand, the lack of any biological connection between commissioning parents and embryos produced using donated eggs and sperm means that the basis (and therefore motivation) for their duty of care to the embryos created for them can be reduced to something quite 'tentative'; tentative because it is essentially founded on, and therefore dependant on, nothing more than an ongoing desire for a child. The more tentative nature of this relationship, and the different ways in which we are coming to regard the relationships between embryos of differing origins and couples, are already evident in current ACART Guidelines: The "Guidelines on Embryo Donation for Reproductive Purposes" (17th November 2008), for example, specifically exclude couples from donating embryos not created from their own gametes, and thereby make a clear differentiation between the moral authority of the two sets of parents. The effect of this, overall, is to make certain embryos more vulnerable than others even though, ontologically speaking, they all share the same moral status and the same right to life.

This, in turn, is likely to lead to the unacceptable situation whereby many more embryos will be simply 'abandoned' and fertility clinics find themselves having to assume 'guardianship' because of their custodial role in storing the embryos; yet another example of the 'moral maze' that will result if approval is given for embryos to be created using donated eggs and donated sperm.

Question 4 (Issues of particular interest to Māori):

ACART has noted on (page 17) some issues that may be of particular interest to Māori. Are there other Māori issues and perspectives that should inform the guidelines?

We defer to the views of Māori on this question while noting that within the Māori tradition there is a strong emphasis on the link between self identity, family and community.

Question 5 (The draft guidelines):

The draft guidelines are set out from page 20. Are these draft guidelines appropriate for managing the use, for reproductive purposes, of embryos created from donated eggs with donated sperm?

We have no specific comments to make on the proposed guidelines.

Question 6 (The discussion paper, including the draft guidelines):

Do you have any other comments or suggestions about either the draft guidelines themselves or the associated discussion?

We note that there have been a number of studies carried out recently which highlight that the practice of donating eggs to help infertile couples comes with both psychological and physical risks. Counselling for the women involved in egg donation should cover these potentialities.


[1] Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology