Proposal to pay sperm and egg donors, surrogates spawns controversy

Should Canadians be allowed to financially compensate sperm and egg donors and surrogates? Opinion is divided as Health Canada prepares to update its policies on assisted reproduction.

Bill C-404 would legalize financial compensation for egg and sperm donors, surrogates in Canada

Kevin Martin is driving to Toronto from his home in Ohio to tell Health Canada that he is opposed to legalizing financial compensation for egg and sperm donors and surrogates. (Submitted by Kevin Martin)

Kevin Martin was conceived with the help of a sperm donor in London, Ont.

On Wednesday, the 32-year-old was driving from his home in Ohio to Toronto to voice opposition to Bill C-404. The legislation would legalize financial compensation for egg and sperm donors — and could make Canada the new nexus of a global fight over assisted reproduction.

Martin and others are set to make their arguments at a public consultation hosted by Health Canada, not on Bill C-404 itself but other potential changes to the Assisted Human Reproduction Act.

While many see sperm and egg donation as a way to make it easier for couples struggling with infertility, LGBT couples or prospective single parents to have children, the meeting does not explicitly invite donor-conceived people.

With commercial DNA tests on the rise, those donor-conceived people are finding their hidden genetic history online after decades of donor anonymity being the norm — and they're demanding new protections in the world of assisted reproduction.

"I felt it was a real slap in the face to donor-conceived adults and really tone deaf by the department of health to not even realize we were stakeholders and an integral part of this process," said Martin.

"My intention is to go there and make our presence known and get it on the public record."

Health Canada said its consultations are open to anyone who is interested.

The purpose of the in-person events being held in cities across the country is to provide Canadians who may be less familiar with the Assisted Human Reproduction Act and the proposed regulations with an opportunity to engage with Health Canada officials directly, to obtain clarity, ask questions, raise considerations and provide overall feedback on the proposed regulations," said spokesperson ​Maryse Durette in an email to CBC Toronto.

Those proposed regulations, which pertain to "the safety of donor sperm and ova, reimbursement, and administration and enforcement," have been posted online.

Martin, a dual Canadian-American citizen and co-founder of the Donor Conceived Alliance of Canada, argues Bill C-404 could open the door to a multimillion-dollar industry in which donors are vendors, intended parents are customers and children are merchandise.

It remains legal to cover expenses pertaining to donation and surrogacy. But outright payment of surrogates or someone who donates sperm or eggs carries a sentence of four to 10 years in jail and up to $500,000 in fines for a conviction. Only one person has ever been convicted. She paid $60,000 in fines and has no criminal record as a result. 

'They're doing it under the table'

The private members bill has been championed by Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who believes it would effectively remove barriers for would-be parents.

Housefather says illegal compensation and criminal penalties create an inhospitable and unsafe environment for all parties, whether they're intended parents at risk of being fined or donors and surrogates not receiving proper compensation for their time.

Many intended parents resort to paying to import sperm and eggs from the United States and beyond, where health standards are significantly lower, he says. Further, there is confusion among would-be parents about what kind of expenses are allowed to be paid under the current system. 

Health Canada said donor semen is currently regulated in Canada, and its importation is prohibited unless it has been processed in accordance with the regulations. The proposed changes, the agency said, would modernize the existing safety regulations for donor sperm and introduce new rules for donation ova.

"Even worse than all this is that our law makes it illegal for the agencies to be paid to introduce the parents to the surrogates or the donors," says Housefather.

"We have agencies all over the place that are doing it, but they're doing it under the table."

'Genetic bewilderment' 

While the bill would ease burdens for some, critics say it fails to address unseen costs borne by donor-conceived children. 

Two years ago, curious about her Jamaican mother's African ancestry, Ashley Splawinski took a commercially available ancestry test. A few months later, a relative reached out to reveal two big surprises: Splawinski has a half sister in Florida and both she and her half sister were conceived using the same sperm donor.

Splawinski, 24, was devastated by the news. She was suddenly faced with an unknown genealogical history. The shock proved to be the impetus for her to co-found the Donor Conceived Alliance of Canada.

"For many people, the feeling of genetic bewilderment is very real and can be very damaging," says Splawinski about finding out her biological father, an American, was legally compensated for donating his sperm in the United States.

"To know that there was a monetary exchange in order to create you, for me is a little bit disgusting."

Her organization wants:

  • Criminal penalties for unlawful financial compensation maintained.
  • Birth certificates to have information about donor ancestry and biological parents.
  • A national donor conception registry.
  • A ban on donor anonymity.
  • A limit on the number of human beings created through donor conception.

Athena Reich, 42, is a Canadian-American single mother and lesbian living in Toronto. She previously resided in New York City for some 16 years. She strongly supports Bill C-404.

Reich carried and gave birth to a son conceived through American sperm and egg donation. She now hopes to conceive a second child using the same American sperm donor, but this time with a Canadian egg donor. Her children will share a biological father.

Reich believes that compensation would make donation more competitive, in turn attracting more educated, fertile young women. Further, she argues that payment would make women more accountable in fulfilling their side of the bargain.

Lucky or buying a service?

As someone who has spent a significant amount of money and time to become a mother, Reich recounts the emotional turmoil of the possibility of losing an egg donor at the last minute because the donor simply changed her mind.

"The whole framework here [in Canada] is 'Oh, I'm so lucky and I should just be so grateful that they're donating.' Well actually, I'm shelling out tens of thousands of dollars, so am I lucky or am I really buying a service? Whether you call it that or not — if I'm buying a service, don't I deserve quality and don't I deserve somebody who's committed, who's not going to flake out on me?" says Reich.

Housefather and intended parents like Reich believe that legalizing financial compensation for donors and surrogates would make assisted reproduction safer, more affordable and easier.

But some donor-conceived adults like Martin and Splawinski, however, think it will result in more people facing the psychological turmoil of wondering where they came from and possibly open the door to a new form of child trafficking.


Deidre Olsen is an editorial intern at the West End Phoenix and a 2019 Fellow in Global Journalism at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.