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Donor-conceived children should be told at an early age

7 July 2008
Appeared in BioNews 465

Researchers from the Centre for Family Research at Cambridge University in the UK have told the annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology that children born following the use of donor insemination (DI) should be told sooner rather than later about their origins.

The researchers' aim was to compare the feelings of donor-conceived offspring who were told about their origins later in life to those who were told as young children. A sample of people was obtained via the US-based Donor Sibling Registry, an internet-based facility that enables donors and donor offspring to get into contact with each other, as well as 'donor siblings' - offspring of the same donor who are genetic half-siblings. An online questionnaire comprising of multiple choice and open-ended questions was answered by 165 donor offspring aged between 13 and 61. Eighty-nine per cent of these lived in the US and two per cent lived in the UK - the majority (about 75 per cent) of the respondents was female.

The respondents were also asked about the family type they had been born into: heterosexual parents, a mother only, or same sex parents. Dr Vasanti Jadva, presenting the research, told the conference that children born into the latter two family types were much more likely to have been told about their origins before the age of three, with 63 per cent and 56 per cent respectively finding out at this early age. In heterosexual families, only nine per cent of respondents had found out about their origins by the same age, while 33 per cent had found out after they had reached adulthood, and two of them had only found out from someone who was not one of their parents.

The participants were asked how they felt about the fact they were born from DI when they had been told. A list of feelings was given to them and they were asked to indicate which they most felt represented their own feelings. The most common response from participants who had grown up in all family types was 'curiosity', no matter what age they had been told. However, there were differences in the amount of people indicting that they had felt 'confused', 'shocked', 'upset', 'relieved', 'numb' or 'angry', with a higher proportion of the participants who found out in adulthood responding in this way. One of the participants, a 30-year old, who found out at the age of 17, said that 'I would have appreciated revelation of this information much earlier in my life. Learning of my biological identity at 17 years of age was a traumatic event'. A 19-year old who found out aged 12, said 'either tell your kid from the beginning or don't tell them at all, it was one of the most shocking and upsetting moments of my life'.

When asked about their current feelings towards their method of conception, the most common response was again 'curiosity'. More of those who found out in adulthood still reported being 'angry', 'relieved' or 'shocked'. However, comments from those offspring who were told at a young age reveals a different picture overall. One said 'I've grown up knowing how I was conceived. I've always been accepting to it because I never knew any different. Now I'm a little older, the only thing that's changed is that I'm a bit more curious'. Because of these differences, the researchers conclude that the age at which a donor-conceived child is told about their origins makes a big difference, with children benefiting from being told earlier in life.

The research group is also analysing the data on how many people have sought to make contact with their donor parents and siblings. Initial findings suggest that respondents in this study have gone on to find an average of four donor siblings.

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