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Legal change pondered to clarify parentage of babies born from donated sperm, eggs

The Justice Ministry building is seen in this file photo taken in Tokyo's Kasumigaseki district on July 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- Babies born through egg or sperm donations would legally be the children of the birth mother and, in the latter case, a mother's male partner who agreed to the use of donated sperm, under changes to the Civil Code being considered by the government, the Mainichi Shimbun has learned.

The government intends to introduce relevant revisions to the Civil Code to an ordinary session of the Diet as early as 2020, based on discussions at a Justice Ministry panel to be launched in October and at the ministry's Legislative Council. The code, first promulgated in 1896, does not have provisions defining the parentage of children born through assisted reproduction medicine.

The government considers the legal change necessary as more than 10,000 babies have been born in Japan using sperm provided by a third party. Still, no legal basis specifically defining parentage in such cases exists, and there have been multiple lawsuits fought over such relationships.

Under current arrangements employed in most cases, relatives provide eggs for women who want babies, and legal motherhood is determined through discussion. However, last year saw the first birth in Japan of a child from an egg donated by an anonymous woman, who had been introduced by a nongovernmental organization. Similar cases have followed this year. Experts have pointed to the possibility of future legal trouble in such cases.

Moves to amend the law to address this reality of reproductive medicine have been made in the past. In December 2000, a panel of experts under the then Ministry of Health and Welfare published a report recommending approval of assisted reproduction using sperm, eggs and inseminated eggs provided by third persons, provided that a legal framework defining parent-child relationships in such cases was established.

In response, the Justice Ministry's Legislative Council put together an interim draft to add special provisions to the Civil Code, but there was no follow up. Similar provisions were drafted by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito in May 2016, but they were never submitted to the Diet.

Past legal reviews have defined "the mother" as the woman who gave birth to the child even if the egg was provided by another woman. They have also stated that when the baby is born using sperm from a third person, the mother's male partner who agreed to the sperm's use is the legal father. A parent-child relationship is not recognized when both the egg and sperm come from third parties because no genetic relationship exists between the couple and the child.

The government believes it will be relatively easy to obtain a consensus on the parent-child relationship issue, as past discussions have moved in an agreeable direction. The LDP also plans to restart its project team on assisted reproduction, which has been dormant since 2016.

As efforts to establish a legal framework for babies born through assisted reproduction and their parents proceed, some confusion has emerged. In August, Keio University Hospital stopped accepting new patients seeking infertility treatment using donated sperm. The hospital says it made the move after a drop in donors, after the facility began informing them of the global trend to recognize children's right to know their genetic parents. The decline appeared to be caused by potential donors' concerns that they could be contacted by their genetic children in the future.

Besides setting the legal parent-child relationship for children born using reproductive medicine, introducing rules for the children's right to know their genetic parents is necessary. Whether or not to recognize surrogate motherhood is another issue that needs to be discussed and settled.

(Japanese original by Ai Yokota and Ryosuke Abe, Medical Welfare News Department)

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