In common parlance, being an egg or sperm donor means donating anonymously via a clinic or bank. This group of donors are often referred to as 'ID-release donors' because, since 2005, their identity can be released to any child conceived via their donation when they turn 18.
However, alongside ID-release donation, there is also the option of 'known' donation. This is where men and women agree to act as donors for friends, family members or people they meet on social media or on donor matching platforms.
Official UK bodies such as the HFEA and the SEED Trust tend to discourage any known donation that circumvents the use of a licensed clinic. Nevertheless, it has become a widespread practice, with the internet playing an increasingly important role in donors and recipients finding each other.
As sociologists at the University of Manchester, our research on the experiences of being an egg or sperm donor has given us insights into the everyday lives of a wide variety of donors in the UK, including known donors. Our research interviews tell us something important about what it means to be a donor. Three main points stand out.
Donors are guided by a strong moral sense that donors should 'know their place'.
This applied to known donors who knew their offspring, as well as ID-release donors. Andy, a known donor who had donated to friends of friends, was typical in the way that he approached being a donor. He said that following the birth: 'I wanted to leave it a few weeks, so probably four or five weeks, so as to give the child plenty of time to bond with the mums…showing that I don't want to be intrusive, I want to respect that they're a family unit.' The quote shows how donors in the study saw their role as very different from the role of a parent.
The vast majority of donors we spoke to were very thoughtful about their role as donors and took particular care not to overstep the boundaries of the recipient families, allowing the parents and the donor conceived child to define and drive the relationship.
Donors often feel a strong link or connection to the recipient and their family.
While they do not see themselves as a parent, donors often feel a strong link or connection to the recipient and their family, without that connection being defined in any particular way. We saw a huge range in the degree of contact that known donors had with their recipient families.
As suggested in our first point, this was usually driven by the recipients. For example, in the case of Ian who had donated sperm to several families via a donor matching platform, he had no face-to-face contact with some couples after the donation, but had occasionally visited other families and kept in touch via Facebook. An egg donor, Eliza, had donated to a friend and found that the donation deepened their relationship.
So, while being a donor is not the same as being a parent, we found a real sense that the connection that comes with being a donor matters.
Donor relationships can shift and change over time.
As with any human relationship, known donor relationships can change quite dramatically over time. We found that when things went well, the relationships that grew between donors, recipients and their children were felt to be deeply enriching, positive and joyous. Beth, for example, who had found her recipients via an online platform, said: 'It brings me so much pleasure to know'.
By the same token, when relationships took a nosedive, they were felt to be anxiety-provoking, even toxic, and sometimes led to a devastating sense of 'heartbreak'. It is important to understand that in known donation, donors (or recipients or donor conceived people for that matter) are not solely in charge of how relationships unfold over time; as with any human relationship, it depends on the people involved, on how they get on and on how they understand their roles and responsibilities. Our data indicated that problems tended to emerge when there were discrepancies in how the various parties understood their roles and the boundaries of the relationships.
We think that taking on board these experiences could help expand the support available to all donors and recipient families in the future. This is because under the current regulatory system there is no truly anonymous donation in the UK anymore.
The 2005 law change to ID release donation (as reported in BioNews 302) stipulates that donor conceived young people can trace and contact their donor when they turn 18. We are now quickly approaching 2023, when the first cohort of donor conceived children will reach this legal threshold. This means that ID release donation is essentially known donation waiting to happen. However, the key difference here is that donors and recipients have never met and at no stage prior to conception have they 'chosen' (or refused) each other based on personal knowledge.
Our findings about what it is like to be a known donor show that important questions might emerge in the future when ID release donation transitions to known donation. How will donor conceived people, donors and recipients understand their connection to one another? What kind of relationship will grow between people connected through donation? What happens when people disagree on the terms of their relationship?
As 2023 is approaching, it is time to start to recognise that ID release is a form of (delayed) known donation, and that it is time to start thinking about how to make the transition a success.
The Curious Connections research project with egg and sperm donors and their families is undertaken by Petra Nordqvist and Leah Gilman at the Morgan Centre, University of Manchester. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Participants' real names have been changed for this comment piece.
The researchers are producing leaflets, academic articles and other resources linked to the project, including a book to be published in 2021. Further information can be found here.
As part of the project, the issues discussed above will be explored at next week's free-to-attend public event 'Known Unknowns: The Pros, Cons and Consequences of Known Donation', taking place at Amnesty International in London, on the evening of Wednesday 16 September.