Press release: The Secret Society

December 2, 2021

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

“The Secret Society” Film promotes profit over human rights

TORONTO — A new Canadian documentary “The Secret Society,” set to screen at the Whistler Film Festival this week, claims to expose a secret “women’s health crisis” related to infertility and donor conception but is based on flawed arguments that are harmful to people conceived using egg and sperm donors. 

The real “health crisis” related to donor conception in Canada is the fact that thousands of children are conceived every year with anonymous sperm and eggs, resulting in thousands of people intentionally made without knowledge of half of their family medical history. There are no legal limits on the number of offspring made from a single donor, either — so a single donor conceived person can easily have dozens of siblings and their children can have hundreds of first cousins who risk engaging in accidental incest. 

We, the Donor Conceived Alliance of Canada, an organization advocating for the rights and interests of people conceived through egg and sperm donation, are deeply concerned that the film was made without any engagement with donor-conceived people — the people most directly affected by the industry.  If filmmakers had taken the time to listen to donor-conceived people, they would have learned that donor-conceived people agree with the need to change the donor conception laws in Canada, but not in the way that the filmmakers are advocating. 

The film’s promotional materials wrongly claim that egg donation is “criminalized” in Canada and the filmmakers appear to be advocating for a U.S.-style commercial market for egg and sperm sale in Canada.

Current laws on the books prohibit payment for eggs and sperm in the same way that organs and whole blood cannot be bought and sold in Canada (medical expenses can be reimbursed, though). This law is intended to prevent people from profiting off the sale of bodily tissue, and to help prevent the exploitation of people who might resort to selling their gametes (egg or sperm) for money. The ban on payment also provides some level of protection to donor-conceived people from being commodified as products of a for-profit financial transaction. 

While the filmmakers point to the for-profit egg and sperm market in the U.S. as something for Canada to aspire to — they carelessly neglect to present the very real problems of a commercialized gamete market: The exploitation of young women donors is well-documented in the U.S., where egg selling is promoted as a lucrative side business by the fertility industry. The lack of research into long-term health impacts on egg donors also puts donors at risk.

To present this issue as Canada versus the United States woefully misses the mark in implying that commercial egg donation as practiced in America is more progressive, when in actuality it is Canada that has the more progressive laws (although still woefully inadequate). 

In fact, commercial egg donation is banned in Australia, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Spain. All of these countries have recognised that commercial egg donation is exploitative and dangerous and have changed their laws accordingly. 

Donor-conceived people have been shut out of conversations regarding the ethics of donor conception for decades. The real legal changes that are needed include a ban on anonymous gamete donation, strict global limits on the number of offspring per donor, updated medical records from donors, and long-term centralized record keeping. 

This sentiment was echoed at the United Nations Child Rights Convention Conference in November 2019, whereby there was a call for “urgent national and international measures” to protect the health and well-being of donor-conceived people.

Many progressive countries have already implemented these protections for donor-conceived people, and it’s time for Canada to follow suit.

 

BACKGROUND:

 

Misrepresentation of Canadian law

The film calls for a reform to Canadian law, in order to allow for human eggs and sperm to be able to be bought and sold. However, Campbell makes this call for reform by blatantly misrepresenting existing Canadian law. 

Campbell implies that any form of reimbursement is illegal under Canadian law by stating: “Canadian law allows for egg “donation” for compassionate reasons, as long as no remuneration exchanges hands.” (WFF website). This is blatantly false. As with other countries who have banned commercial egg donation, donors are legally allowed to be paid for legitimate medical costs. By positing this situation as “uniquely Canadian” she also intentionally ignores the fact that many countries no longer allow the exploitation of women through buying and selling eggs.

“Canadian women who wish to hire an egg donor to deal with infertility can face federal charges for a perfectly legal activity south of the border and in many other countries. Meet the courageous women who are trying to help Canadians in this precarious situation. From lobbying to have federal laws changed, finding loopholes that may come with hefty price tags, and shopping overseas for eggs they cannot legally access through commercial means on Canadian soil. The absurdity of the official rules is brought to the fore when you realize that Canadian law allows for egg “donation” for compassionate reasons, as long as no remuneration exchanges hands. As such, the goal is to reform the Assisted Reproduction laws in Canada, and this complex social issue is thoroughly examined from all sides in this comprehensive and surprising documentary.” (WFF website)

“Canadian women who wish to hire an egg donor to deal with infertility issues risk breaking Assisted Reproduction laws in Canada, even though such commercial arrangements are perfectly legal south of the border. Meet the courageous women who are trying to fight these uniquely Canadian obstacles to women’s reproductive rights”  (Eventive website)

The current laws prohibit payment for eggs and sperm in the same way that organs and blood cannot be bought and sold. This law is intended to prevent people from profiting from the sale of bodily tissue, and to help stop the exploitation of people who might resort to selling their gametes (egg or sperm) for money. Section 2 of the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, 2004 explicitly states: “trade in the reproductive capabilities of women and men and the exploitation of children, women and men for commercial ends raise health and ethical concerns that justify their prohibition.” Therefore, the ban on payment also provides some level of protection to donor conceived people from being commodified, as products of a for-profit financial transaction.

In the lead-up to the release of their film at Whistler Film Festival, the filmmakers have been misrepresenting the current laws around egg donation in Canada, with multiple social media posts on “criminalization of egg donation in Canada” — without clarifying that the only criminal aspect to egg donation is being paid, versus donating altruistically. Further, their website states that, “…women who are unable to conceive because their eggs are no longer viable are forced to take their medical needs into their own hands only to discover that Canadian law criminalizes payment to anyone who wants to use an egg donor [emphasis ours].” This is deliberately confusing language that implies that recipient parents will be criminalized for seeking out donor gametes. Canadian law does not prohibit adult individuals from using nor donating gametes. This blatant misrepresentation of Canadian laws and Health Canada regulations is unethical and intellectually dishonest. 

Lack of engagement with donor-conceived people

Most egregiously, they have made the film without engaging any donor conceived adults — the people whose lives have been most directly impacted by egg and sperm donation, and the people who have, for decades, been shut out of any conversation about donor conception practices and ethics. 

If donor-conceived people had been engaged to share their opinions, it would have become clear that many donor-conceived people are opposed to payment for gametes, and that there are several urgent issues in donor conception that must be addressed before attempts are made to open up the egg and sperm market in Canada. For instance, many donor-conceived people want to see a ban on anonymous donation (replaced by the use of known or open-ID-from-birth donors) and a strict cap on the number of donor-conceived offspring created per donor.

Attempts from donor-conceived people and others in the fertility industry to provide valuable feedback to the filmmakers, including basic facts about the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, 2004 and the accompanying Health Canada regulations, have been met with social media comments being deleted and conversations being shut down. 

Single-sided portrayal of a commercial egg market

The promotional material for the film states “this complex social issue is thoroughly examined from all sides” (WFF website) — yet this is blatantly untrue.

It is clear that the filmmakers have a singular focus: advocating for a US-style, free market model of paying people for their eggs and sperm. While many countries are going in the direction of banning payment for gamete donation and banning “anonymous” donation, the filmmakers are advocating for the opposite — for the ultimate benefit of the multi-billion dollar fertility industry which would perpetuate the real and pressing issues that continue to harm our community. For example, several studies, including Jadva et al. (2010), Beeson et al. (2011), and Hertz et al. (2013), indicate that one of the biggest issues with the industry is the harm that gamete donor anonymity causes. 

The filmmakers have also neglected to communicate the real harms that are resulting to many egg donors as a result of the for-profit egg market. In the US, for example, young women at universities are enticed to sell their eggs by on-campus recruiters; these women are not duly prepared for the potential long-term health impacts of the procedures or for the real possibility of their genetic children wanting to have contact with them one day.

Campbell frames this as a feminist issue while conveniently ignoring the fact that commercial egg donation is hugely coercive and exploitative. Many egg banks intentionally target young women with promises of no-strings-attached large payments, despite the fact that egg donation is an invasive medical procedure that can cause secondary infertility and results in the donor having a biological child who is likely to want to meet them one day. Altruistic-only donations protect vulnerable women and the fact that Campbell’s documentary glosses over this huge issue is outright dangerous. Changing the laws in Canada as she proposes would lead to the exploitation of countless young women, with more power being given to an industry that already has too much control and no oversight.

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The global fertility industry in its current form presents a multitude of problems for both donor-conceived people and commissioning parents. However, restoring compensation is not one of them. As it stands donor conceived people continue to lack the most basic rights: the right to an identity and to not be deliberately deceived — rights enshrined in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. 

In failing to engage our community, this film fails at even the most marginal attempt at finding a balance to these complex issues.

Make no mistake: when audiences are misled to believe that thinly veiled fertility industry propaganda masquerading as facts tell both sides of the story, Canadian donor conceived people and their families are actively harmed. 

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