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Secrets and lies in sperm donation

4 September 2000
By Juliet Tizzard
Director, Progress Educational Trust
Appeared in BioNews 73
For those of us struggling to improve the public appreciation of science, the increased coverage of science and medicine in the British media over the past few years is a welcome development. But sometimes, one seemingly innocent mistake can undo all the good work!

One such occasion was this week. In BioNews, we report on two separate research papers published in the journal, Human Reproduction, which surveyed both children born of sperm donation and their parents. The study most noticed by the British press was that of the children, who were reported to 'face life-long problems with personal identity, confusion and mistrust in the family' (Independent).

Reading through the newspapers, from the highbrow to the tabloid, you could have been forgiven for thinking that sperm donation spells disaster for the children involved. But you'd be wrong, because one important piece of information was either omitted from the media stories or was left to the very end. The study was conducted on adults (16 of them) who had discovered that they were conceived as a result of sperm donation later in life. As such, they were kept in the dark for many years.

Given this fact, it seems unsurprising that people in these circumstances would experience a crisis of identity. This has little to do with how they were conceived and a lot to do with how they discovered the truth. Anyone who discovers, as an adult, that their father is not biologically related to them and that their parents have kept the secret from them, is bound to experience shock. This goes for someone who was conceived naturally, just as it does for someone conceived with the assistance of donor sperm.

One of the study's authors, Amanda Turner, summed up the research perfectly. But, alas, her voice was lost in the hubbub. 'A consistent finding was the negative and ongoing effects of keeping secrets. This supports research that suggests that secrecy in families is damaging.' Not very newsworthy, but probably true.

9 November 2009 - by Dr Jennifer Speirs 
Professor Lisa Jardine sounded tired. Contributing to a BBC Radio 4 Analysis programme on 26 October, the chair of the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) declared that she was 'positively nostalgic' for secrecy and discretion....
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