Jessica Barrett, Calgary Herald, July 25, 2014
A Calgary woman says she was shocked to learn of a policy at the city’s only fertility treatment centre that restricts patients from using sperm, eggs or embryos from donors who do not match their ethnic background.
Catherine, who asked to use only her first name, said she sought invitro fertilization at the Regional Fertility Program last March as a single woman. During routine consultations with her doctor she was told she could only use sperm from donors who were white, like her.
“That’s when everything went downhill,” she told the Herald. “I was absolutely floored.”
Dr. Calvin Greene, the clinic’s administrative director, confirmed the private facility will not treat couples or singles who insist on using donors of a different ethnicity. The policy has been in place since the clinic opened in the 1980s.
“I’m not sure that we should be creating rainbow families just because some single woman decides that that’s what she wants,” he said. “That’s her prerogative, but that’s not her prerogative in our clinic.”
A statement on the clinic’s website reads: “it is the practice of the Regional Fertility Program not to permit the use of a sperm donor that would result in a future child appearing racially different than the recipient or the recipient’s partner.”
Greene said doctors at the clinic feel “a child of an ethnic background should have the ability to be able to identify with their ethnic roots.” He added patients should have a “cultural connection” to their donors.
The Alberta Human Rights Commission upheld the policy after a white couple brought a complaint against the clinic about five years ago, Greene said.
They were not infertile but had hoped to use non-Caucasian sperm. “Our psychologist evaluated them and really didn’t see why a couple that is not infertile should be choosing sperm donors they have no cultural relationship with.”
Interracial couples treated at the clinic have the option of using donors that are ethnically similar to either one of the partners, he added, noting most patients want their children to resemble them.
According to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta, doctors can refuse to provide non-emergency treatment on moral grounds as long as they refer patients to other doctors who will. However the Regional Fertility Program is the only fertility clinic in Calgary, so patients must go to Edmonton, Saskatoon, Vancouver or beyond if they don’t agree with its policy. Women receiving fertility treatment often need daily or very frequent treatments for a matter of months.
Greene said the clinic’s policy follows similar guidelines used with in-province adoption and foster care, where children are placed with families of their same cultural background whenever possible.
“I would ask you, why would you not choose somebody of your own cultural background?”
Catherine said there are many reasons. By the time she narrowed down her pool of potential donors to those who met Canadian standards, had a good health history and a compatible blood type, she was left with only 20 or so Caucasian candidates to choose from. Many of them had already been used by several other patients in Calgary.
“Frankly, it’s appalling how many people have the same donors, probably because of this policy,” she said. “A friend of mine just went through this process and used the donor that I would have picked.”
Looking at other ethnicities significantly increased her options. While many people do want children who will look like them, she said she is less concerned with the colour of her potential child’s skin than the demeanour, personality and health history it might inherit from its biological father.
But Greene countered that there are lots of quality Caucasian donors available. “She needs to look harder, because I can tell you reasonable people can easily find a suitable donor.”
He added that visible minorities often have the most trouble finding candidates because their pool–as dictated by the clinic–is generally smaller.
Greene was adamant the rule follows the spirit of Canada’s Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which demands doctors place priority on the well-being of potential children and refrain from producing “designer” babies.
But Tim Caulfield, a University of Alberta law professor and legal expert in assisted reproduction, said the policy is “archaic.”
“To assume that the colour of one’s skin determines their culture, determines their well-being I think is unfortunate,” he said, noting many could argue the Regional Fertility Program is producing designer kids by virtue of its own restrictions.
Children whose ethnicity is different than their parents will “have a different life experience,” he acknowledged. But “to assume that these different types of life experiences somehow put them at a disadvantage, or that we have to ensure that everyone has some kind of ‘normal’ family is, I think, a mistake.”
The law around assisted reproduction is murky, he said, but in today’s multicultural society, and with demographic predictions holding that Caucasian people will soon be the minority in many Canadian cities, there is no way to dictate what a given family should look like.
Ultimately Catherine’s family may never involve biological children. At 38, she hasn’t yet ruled out returning to the clinic to continue her IVF, but her experience has made her reconsider whether she really needs to have a child of her own.
“I think I’ve come to terms and accepted that having children in your life doesn’t necessarily mean ownership of one.”