Blyth, Eric (2006) Donor anonymity and secrecy versus openness concerning the genetic origins of the offspring: international perspectives. Assia: Jewish Medical Ethics, 2. pp. 4-13.

What is now known as donor insemination (DI) has been practiced for at least several hundred years (Novaes, 1998). Professor William Pancoast’s insemination of a female patient in Philadelphia in 1884, using sperm from his ‘best looking’ medical student, is frequently cited as the first detailed account of its successful use as a ‘medical’ procedure. The woman, who had been anaesthetised prior to her insemination, did not know what had been done to her and, although her husband was aware of his wife’s insemination, he was instructed never to tell her. It is likely their son did not know of the circumstances of his conception, although he may have met his donor. One of Pancoast’s students, Addison Hard, claimed that, several years later, he had ‘shake[n] the hand of the young man’ who had been conceived following Pancoast’s ministrations (thus inviting speculation that Hard himself had been the donor) (Gregoire and Mayer, 1965; Daniels, 1998).

I mention this story since, while we have stopped anaesthetising women prior to insemination and, as far as I know, women are no longer inseminated without their knowledge or permission, the principles of secrecy and anonymity in donor conception have survived for over a century.

For example, as recently as 1987, the UK’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists was advising prospective DI recipients: ‘unless you reveal [DI conception] to your child, there is no reason for him or her ever to know that he or she was conceived by donor insemination’ (Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, 1987, p. 3).

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