A compensation suit filed by a Tokyo woman against a sperm donor who she claims deceived her has underlined the need for regulation of a health care sector that’s likely to come under increasing scrutiny in ageing Japan, experts say.
The woman, whose name is being withheld under court privacy rules, is understood to be married and in her 30s. She had one child with her husband before he was diagnosed with a serious hereditary illness that prevented the couple from having more children.
Desperate for a second child, the woman took to social media in search of a sperm donor. She eventually connected with a man from northern Japan who claimed to be single, Japanese and a graduate of the elite Kyoto University.
According to the Tokyo Shimbun, the woman had sex with the man on 10 occasions and she ultimately became pregnant in June 2019.
She later discovered, however, that the sperm donor was a Chinese national married to a Japanese woman and had graduated from a university in a rural part of northern Japan. By then, it was too late to terminate the pregnancy. After she gave birth, she immediately put the baby up for adoption.
The woman has filed a compensation suit demanding 330 million yen (S$3.9 million) for emotional distress, although her lawyer told a press conference last week that her primary motivation was for the case to “lead to a fuller debate of the sperm donation business in Japan”.
Dr Yasushi Odawara, director of the Fertility Clinic Tokyo, said the Japan Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology had for years been planning guidelines for the regulation of sperm donations, but discussions had become bogged down by debates about ethics.
“The biggest debate is over the rights of any child born from donated sperm to know his or her father, which is a problem for many donors as they do not want their identity to be revealed in the future,” Odawara said.
A child identifying their biological father opens up a can of potential legal worms, such as the requirement to provide financial support for the child’s upbringing or medical costs, he said, while some donors might also be married and have failed to inform their wives of their donations.
“On the other hand, there is the argument that any child born as a result of donated sperm does have the right to know their father. So the sticking point in the debate now revolves around how much information the child has the right to access, and whether that should be enough for him or her to identify their father,” Odawara said.
“It has already taken a long time and I do not think the organisation that oversees this sector of health care is close to finding a solution.”
Yet another “grey zone” in the commercial supply of donor sperm is the unregulated operation of a number of foreign companies in Japan. Several hundred Japanese women are understood to have bought sperm from Cryos International, a Denmark-based sperm bank that’s the world’s largest.
The firm began offering its services in Japan in 2019, with clients including single women with no plans to get married, couples where one partner is not able to have a child, and people from sexual minority groups.
Yoko Tsukamoto, a professor at the Health Sciences University of Hokkaido, said social attitudes in Japan needed to evolve before sperm donation could become as accepted as in other countries.
“Right now, there are effectively no regulations covering sperm donations, and that’s why some women are having to go online to search for a donor. That’s dangerous in many ways, and that’s what we see in this legal case,” she said.
“It also spills over into the issue of surrogate mothers, sought after by women unable to produce eggs, but that then leads to the problem of lineage – which is very important to Japanese people,” Tsukamoto said.
A couple that raises a child born from a surrogate mother cannot register the baby as their own, which has given rise to an underground surrogacy trade, she said.
“Technology to assist in having children has advanced so much in recent years, but Japanese laws and regulations have not kept up,” Tsukamoto said. “This is not a medical issue; it’s a problem in Japan’s strict legal definitions of families.”
The article was first published on South China Morning Post.