05 September 2011
Senior Infertility Counsellor, St Mary's Hospital, ManchesterAppeared in BioNews 623
BBC1, Tuesday 30 August 2011
Anyone who has worked in any capacity in a fertility clinic will, I hope, have wondered what the meeting of an anonymous donor and the donor-conceived person would be like. Would it be like a birth parent meeting an adopted child; would it be like TV documentaries, with all the build up and the huge emotion? The BBC's documentary, 'Donor Mum: The children I've never met', witnessed this event, when an anonymous egg donor who donated 19 years ago, met the twins she had help create in a London clinic. The programme showed clearly, but with great measure, both the emotional and physical impact of this meeting for all involved.
Sylvia, having had a son with donor insemination herself, decided 'to give something back' and consequently donated eggs to help a couple. As far as the clinic was concerned, this was done anonymously, with the recipient sending a bunch of flowers to Sylvia thanking her. The card that came with the flowers (without a name) was hand written. Somehow, various newspapers picked up on part of this story, as the recipient couple had lost two children in a road traffic accident in Crete, and the woman was too old to conceive again herself.
In a television programme made about the couple, Sylvia saw the woman's handwriting on a wreath laid on the grave of her two children, and realised that Joan was the woman she had helped. With enormous strength and understanding, she knew she would have to wait until they were older to make contact. Through television and newspaper reports and then Facebook, she was aware of their names and where they lived for a long time before she could meet them.
At the same time, her own son was trying to find out who his donor had been, and so they contacted UK DonorLink (UKDL). This is the only voluntary information exchange and contact register for adults genetically related through donor conception prior to 1991 in the UK. These children were conceived before the HFEA (Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority) Register was set up. The programme showed how the UKDL counsellor helped Sylvia write a careful, non-threatening letter to the parents of the twins, and to the twins themselves. The result led to Sylvia and her son meeting Joan and her twins Jonathan and Katherine in a hotel in Wales.
The televised meeting showed everyone's individual anxieties. After they got over the introductions, it was fascinating to see the importance of the comparison of physical characteristics: teeth, toes, height, weight, eyebrows, and eye colour. It is clear that these issues are equally important for donor-conceived children and adults as they are to adopted children and adults. They are an essential part of their identity and their roots.
Overall the film handled this important issue with great empathy. My one criticism would be that I found the intrusiveness of the some of the reporter's questions distracting. This human interest story was strong enough for occasional silences so the participants, and the viewers, could reflect on what was unfolding in front of them. I was also left wondering if the death of the couple's children and egg donation had played a part in the fact that Joan and her husband had been divorced for 12 years, and why the father was left out of the meeting.
I was very aware of bias as I watched the programme. During my professional career, I have seen many couples who are still dealing with the problems of anonymous donation, even 20 to 25 years after having treatment. In some cases it has wrecked relationships because the secret of using a donor has been like a bomb ready to explode at any time.
I felt that, when UKDL was set up, this gave these young adults a choice previously denied to them - to try and find their own donor link. Many fertility professionals (with a few notable exceptions) had naively not seen the need for genetic information, and now - when it is so obvious that there is even more need for knowledge about each person's genetic background - the Government funds for UKDL are being withdrawn. This will leave all people donor-conceived before 1991, again without choice. We should also be aware that there are donors who would like to make contact as well.
This programme showed two remarkable women and how, for the well-being of their children, they could see that the need for honesty and openness was paramount. The meeting we saw (who can tell what the future will hold) was hugely emotional, draining for all, but undeniably worthwhile. However as one of the twins, Jonathan, said: 'The meeting was very successful but it could have gone the other way…'. Egg donation was undoubtedly enriching for Joan, and the meeting was the next stage in all their lives.
If the funding is taken away, what about all the other people who would like to know more about their roots? If you look on the UKDL website, you will see the interest this programme has generated, and I hope that someone in the present government will take notice.