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TV Review: 25 Siblings and Me

2 November 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1070

'Eye-opening and jaw dropping' is how Stephen Fry described this documentary, taking a temporary break from his Twitter hiatus to tweet about 25 Siblings & Me, featuring Oli, a young British man with Asperger's who has long known about his donor conception and recently discovers he has a family of 25 siblings from his American donor.

Oli's two mothers conceived him through fertility treatment in the US and used an American sperm donor. There are no regulations governing sperm donation in the US and there is no limit on the number of offspring that a donor can be responsible for. It is not unheard of for donors to have dozens, even hundreds of donor-conceived offspring having donated at multiple clinics for a prolonged period of time.

The general view of the donor-conceived people I have met is that the donor-conceived person is more often only an afterthought and their welfare is not put first and foremost during donor conception. This was highlighted in the documentary when Oli's mum was asked what was the top criteria for choosing a donor? She stated 'Anonymous... you don't want a third party knocking on the door. We had a choice and wanted to protect that family unit'.    

This documentary follows Oli on his journey from finding out about his siblings. It covers his reactions on discovering how many siblings he has, being introduced to them on Whatsapp, the different opinions between himself and his siblings, meeting some of his siblings in person until finally attending a mass reunion of all his siblings and the donor.

There are two very strong themes that run through this hour and a half long documentary, firstly the very personal journey that Oli takes in getting to meet his donor siblings and donor, and secondly the challenges faced by Oli as a result of this. People with Asperger's see, hear and feel the world differently to other people. Oli's Mum admits that he has struggled in life in forming strong bonds with other people, and Oli admits himself that he would like his new family to accept him for who he is.

As a donor-conceived person myself, I am aware of the huge range of different familial dynamics which come into play, and at sometimes fragile, interpersonal relationships, all of which can be extremely emotional to those involved. Adding in Asperger's makes it a complete minefield.

Throughout the documentary, you get to see the raw emotions involved as Oli tries his best to navigate serenely through such an extraordinary experience. You see the exact moment Oli experiences outright rejection from one sibling, and how Oli deals with this - he buys lunch for some homeless people sleeping rough in the park. Cleary not fully understood by his siblings, it can be a difficult watch at times. This continues at the family reunion, where you sense that Oli just does not have the same relationship with his siblings and donor as they do with each other.  

25 Siblings & Me is a moving documentary that captures the personal journey Oli undertakes and the issues that arise along the way. It is as much, if not more, of a documentary about how Oli sees, hears and feels the world differently to his new 'family' and the challenges faced in communication with them. One aspect that is not explored through the documentary in much depth is the impact of cultural differences, which could have contributed to some of the challenging situations Oli found himself in.

I would definitely recommend this as a worthwhile watch to anyone - irrespective of any experience they have of donor conception or Asperger's. It's an extraordinary story, one that has elements which people who are donor-conceived will be able to relate to. My only disappointment is that the title, '25 Siblings & Me' appears misleading. It is a documentary that covers some of the issues encountered by some donor-conceived people but also covers issues arising from Oli's Asperger's and his communication with his siblings and donor. It does do a great job of bringing the topic of donor conception more into the public eye, though I feel donor-conceived people are still waiting for that documentary/media which successfully summarises what it is like to be donor-conceived and the impact is has on their lives.

25 Siblings & Me
BBC |  4 October 2020
21 September 2020 - by Dr Yvonne Collins 
Donor conception was the focus of the event Known Unknowns: The Pros, Cons and Consequences of Known Donation, held online by the Progress Educational Trust (PET), the charity that publishes BioNews, in partnership with the University of Manchester...
27 January 2020 - by Dr Sonia Allan, Damian Adams and Stephanie Raeymaekers 
As we enter 2020 and countries continue to grapple with the issues raised by donor-conception and surrogacy, reflection on recent 'consultations' and 'reviews' by government, not-for-profit and United Nations (UN) organisations around the world reveal that meaningful inclusion of the voices of people born as a result of such practices is often lacking...
3 June 2019 - by Vince Londini 
In a recent commentary, Professor Guido Pennings outlined his views on donor anonymity and DNA-testing databases. Professor Pennings seems to advocate for the contractual rights of anonymous donors by placing such in opposition to the increasingly recognised, if not yet codified in law, moral rights of donor-conceived people...
Comment ( - 02/11/2020)
I agree that the side of this documentary that dealth with donor conception and sibling tracing was interesting
and sen sitively presented, although there were still several unanswered questions for me.  My  big problem was with the presentation of Oli, which I felt was exploitative and insensitive.  I feel it was unfair to follow him on his trip to the USA without the support he needed to deal with the issues such as his language causing offense, or his interest in registering as a sperm donor  causing alarm.  Steven Fry's reaction cofirms that it was sensationalist, and
Comment ( - 02/11/2020)
continued from above:  sorry about the typos, there was no facility to edit...
I feel the programme   mercilessly exploited a young man with a disability and may have caused him long term harm.  I feel very uncomfortable having been  witness to this without the opportunity to intervene.
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