Watching this film, 'Thank You for Coming', truly brought me into the shoes of a donor-conceived child. As an embryologist, I’ve been trained to be empathetic and well-counselled on the rollercoaster that is fertility treatment, but film-maker Sara Lamm's search for her donor father opened a world of emotions I had yet to consider.
For me, the connection we feel with each individual being interviewed in the film and with Sara herself, is what makes it so poignant. Mostly filmed on a home video camera, these real-life scenarios make the movie feel intimate and frank.
Sara was 29 when she was told by her father, after her mother had passed away, that she was not biologically his. As the film goes on to explore, that moment was the beginning of a huge journey.
In the film, we also meet Jennifer, another donor-conceived adult who met Sara through the Donor Sibling Registry. The women initially thought they might be related due to their ages and similarities but, as one of the many 23andMe at-home genetic tests in the film concludes, they were not. However, their bonding is touching as they support each other through their search for their donor fathers.
With Jennifer, I felt the desperation more than with Sara. She spent hours every day trailing through the Donor Sibling Registry, looking for new relations, which are flagged by chromosomal similarities detected again by the 23andMe tests. She used this information to build multiple family trees with public records to combine them and hopefully find the one common relative – the donor.
Jennifer finds her own donor first, and we see them meet for the first time. Sara is there to document the moment, which I found to be somewhat awkward viewing. She is obviously happy for Jennifer but also understandably jealous. She gets her happy ending eventually.
In this film, both donors welcomed their biological children with open arms, but it would have been interesting to see what the situation would have been if the donors did not want contact with their child. I can only imagine the intense pain if Sara and Jennifer had gone on the entire journey together to be rejected at the final hurdle.
In terms of the science explored, I was struck by the stark differences in the way procedures were conducted in the 1970s, when Sara was conceived – compared with now – although I have only been in embryology for two years.
Sara's parents had no information about her donor, other than he was likely to be a medical student at the University of North Carolina, where they had their treatment. The donor was paid and he had to produce a fresh sample on the day of treatment. In a light-hearted moment, Jennifer's donor recalls getting early-morning calls to donate, so he would produce in an empty film canister at home and rush the sample to the clinic on his motorbike.
Most shocking for me was that they mixed Sara's father's sperm with the donor sperm for insemination. Apparently, this was common protocol in the 1970s. It seems the mixture of sperm is more a token gesture for the father to feel included. This concept was mind-boggling to me as it introduces even more painful confusion to Sara: she assumes she is donor-conceived but there is still the small chance her father is actually her biological father.
Interestingly, parents using donor gametes were told strictly never to tell their child of their origin. I think this film is unknowingly a good advocate for doing exactly the opposite. Both Sara and Jennifer found out about their genetic background in adulthood, and we witness the struggle both have with their identity.
Jennifer's parents regretted not telling her earlier, particularly after learning of her relief to know her background as she felt she did not fit in the family. Sara's mother intended to stick to the doctor's guidance and never tell her about her conception, but her father could not live with the deception.
Sara has learned from this also; she documents herself telling her own young children that she was donor-conceived. She explains it simply and it is a good example of how people could approach the topic when addressing donor-conceived children at a young age.
In general, the film is quite light-hearted and humorous at times but you can never shake the underlying theme of desperation and pain. The most painful scene for me was the conversation with Jennifer's mother about her fertility problems and the decision to use donor sperm. She describes the 'deep grief' and the pain of wanting a child so badly but not being able to have one; the emotions were intense and real. I cried along with the mother, and to my surprise felt more emotional when considering the parent's trauma than the child.
The concluding message of the film summarises my own opinion on the topic. Ultimately, family is about love, not the DNA in your cells. In one scene, a donor-conceived woman who had her biological father seek her out describes her underwhelming experience. She hinted that the contact with the donor did not bring anything extra to her life, while referencing nurture, not nature, as being the most important aspect. You may feel love and connection to the donor whose genes you possess, but those who raised and nurtured you are just as much family as biological relatives.
I think this film should be watched by all who work in a fertility setting, and anyone who has contact with donors, donor-conceived children or parents using donor gametes. Its stripped-back manner is perfect for conveying the intensity of the emotions of those involved, and its sincerity is very thought-provoking.