A few days after my 21st birthday my mother sat me down and in a halting voice explained dad wasn't my biological father. To my complete shock, I learned I had been conceived using sperm from an anonymous donor. My sense of identity shattered. Who was I?
My shock was compounded by my devastating powerlessness as I learned the law locked me out of ever knowing where I came from. The unknowable figure of my donor father, known only as C11, was the greatest mystery of my being, like a splinter in my brain.
My mother's treating doctor, David de Kretser, was the gatekeeper to the donor records. My only shot of ever knowing the truth was to meet my maker, so to speak, and personally convince him to help me. I wrote and he invited me to meet with him. By that time he had been appointed Governor of Victoria. I was a 25-year-old student, and extremely nervous.
I had to be strategic so I played the role of a damsel in distress, hoping that he might choose to save me. This was the system. I held my breath. Governor of the state. Governor of my future. Was it right that everything hung on the personal ethics of one man?
The architects of the system of anonymous sperm donation I was attempting to overturn were exclusively male. David de Kretser AC, Gab Kovacs AM, Carl Wood AC, Ian Johnston AM. Order of Australia initials overflow from their names. As well as their clinical work, they had taught at universities where they recruited male medical students as a primary source of sperm donors.
In 2008, I joined the political battle to enable donor-conceived people to access information about our biological parents. This campaign was spearheaded mainly by young donor-conceived women (check out Donor Conceived Australia).
My very first meeting was with a senior member of the Victorian parliament. Nervously, I shared my story of genetic bewilderment, unknown medical history and fear of accidental incest with half-siblings. He dismissed my plea for help in the search for my donor father with an awkward attempt at a joke: "What you don't know can't hurt you. Don't worry, at least you look normal!"
My face froze into the mask of female humiliation - an awkward smile. It was devastating this MP, who epitomised pale, male and stale, clearly identified with the donors and displayed no sympathy to my situation. Yet, as a young woman with questions, confronting the powers of government and the medical fraternity, I knew the rules. Above all else I could not betray any flickers of anger or frustration. I had to remain poised, nice and normal.
Watching the recent media disapproval of Grace Tame, I am reminded how little has changed. Our culture still reinforces the role of women is to make powerful men feel good, and act admiringly, rather than challenge and criticise.
My years of activism have taught me the importance of equal representation in politics, and indeed every power structure, to avoid these sorts of outcomes. It was female MPs (Sue Pennicuik, Jane Garrett and Christine Campbell) and progressive male MPs (Clem Newton-Brown and Anthony Carbines) who became our champions as we battled outdated legislation and a medical culture of silence.
We pushed for the government to follow the precedent set by adoption law reform. In 1984 Victoria passed legislation to unseal adoption records, reversing the promise of anonymity given to birth parents at the time of the adoption. The people affected by that law change had mainly been unmarried women caught in the moralistic dogma that condemned them both socially and economically.
By contrast, ending donor anonymity was mostly going to affect high-status males in the medical fraternity, whose rights were afforded more consideration than young, unmarried mothers. The Australian Medical Association swung into action to oppose information release.
Finally, eight years after that first meeting, it was fitting Victoria's then-health minister Jill Hennessy sponsored the world-first legislation which made history with its passage in 2016.
Later that same year I was appointed to the board of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA), a small organisation tasked with the enormous challenge of regulating the assisted reproductive industry that is growing ever larger, global and more commercialised.
A Victorian clinic that markets itself as low-cost, imports eggs from the UK, which are in-turn procured mainly from women in the Ukraine. The experience of these egg donors makes for uncomfortable reading. In shades of The Handmaid's Tale, Erena says she felt she was treated like a 'milking cow.' Svetlana has kept her egg donation a secret from most people: "I don't want anybody to know; for me it's unpleasant that I have sold a part of myself. That I have sold myself for money. Many people wouldn't understand it."
The role of feminism and female solidarity in the global assisted reproductive industry is complex, and tends to bifurcate along class lines. Paying donors and surrogates for profit is illegal within Australia, but in some states going overseas to pay commercial surrogates is still legal. In their desperation for a baby, Australians who conscientiously buy fair trade coffee and chocolate are fuelling a murky world of exploitation and human trafficking.
Ukraine is the low-cost capital of the global surrogacy market because of the combination of poverty and whiteness. A healthy human egg from a young, white woman is a prized commodity, more valuable than gold. The current crisis has exposed the inequalities between the wealthy commissioning parents and poor Ukrainian women who carry their babies. As the bombs rain down, pregnant women are being pressured to abandon their existing children and leave the country to meet their contracted surrogacy obligations.
The creation of human life is not a consumer product or a commodity. It's essential that policies and regulation abandons the language of the market to end exploitation and allow us, the people conceived, to reclaim our humanity.
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