Fast and loose days of sperm donation, when records were deleted

Sarah Dingle is disappointed with the findings of an investigation into the destruction of donor records at Clinic 20. Photo: Steven SiewertTrue fatherhood is not about biology

It used to be easy to find men willing to donate their sperm to infertile couples.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, social mores were offended by advertisements for potential sperm donors, but men learned through word-of-mouth that a lazy $60 could be earned in the fertility clinics.

It was a popular money-spinner among residents at the University of Sydney colleges, with the clinic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital across the road from St Andrews college.

There was never any question at the time that their progeny would scout them out – though years later many would write to the clinics seeking assurances that their biological children would not seek them out for financial assistance.

The good doctors promised them, in word and writing, that their identity would never be disclosed.

Doctors at Clinic 20 at the Royal North Shore Hospital went to extraordinary lengths to ensure this promise would be kept even if retrospective laws were enacted in the future to allow their offspring to track them down.

Once a pregnancy was achieved, they destroyed the codes used to identify the sperm donors.

An investigation into the destruction of donor records at Clinic 20 has cleared staff of “tampering” and found that they were justified in deleting the identification codes of sperm donors when judged by the standards of the day.

The report, obtained by Fairfax Media under freedom of information laws, was prepared in response to the high profile case of ABC journalist Sarah Dingle who learned that information about her biological father had been destroyed by the clinic.

The code that would allow him to be identified had been deleted from the file.

Dingle had not seen the findings of the report until she was interviewed for this story, as the hospital had refused to provide her with a copy, and she was disappointed with the findings.

The investigator had not referenced any of her evidence.

“I’m the one who started all of this,” Dingle said.

“They keep referring to me as a journalist – obviously because they’re in damage control mode – but I’m a human being we’re talking about. This is my life.”

The content of the report was equally disappointing, failing to identify any of the staff who had actually destroyed the records and clearing them of wrongdoing without scrutinising whether the practice was sanctioned by a policy.

“They keep saying it was standard practice to remove the donor codes. If it was OK, why didn’t they write it down?”

The report recalls practices at the wild frontier of reproductive medicine, when record keeping was loose. Many files had been damaged by mould and water damage.

At Clinic 20, sperm was kept in a cryogenic storage tank known as “Billy Blue”, sometimes for as long as 10 years and with sometimes hundreds of samples per person, although each donor was limited to 10 pregnancies.

In the first 12 months of operation, 40 per cent of donors were students, but the recruitment base later expanded.

In 84 cases, believed to be between 1977 and 1984, donor codes had been blacked out or cut out, after which time the investigator hypothesised there was no longer a requirement to delete them as laws were passed to protect donor anonymity.

Sperm donations slowed to a trickle after laws were introduced to allow donor children to track down their biological fathers.

Victorian parliament is due to debate next week whether such laws should be made retrospective, allowing the offspring of people who had believed they were donating anonymously to find them.

Dingle said if her biological father’s donor code still existed, she would prefer to go through a third party to see if he would consent to meeting her or providing her with information.

Her latest report on the ABC’s Background Briefing, to air Sunday at 1pm and again on Tuesday at 9pm, delves into donor-conceived people using DNA testing to find their parents.

It is her next best option. “All bets are off.”

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