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Being: The Donor-Conceived Perspective

4 March 2013
Appeared in BioNews 695

Another full house for the final event of Progress Educational Trust's 'When it Takes More Than Two' series. This time attendees were invited to consider gamete donation from the perspective of the donor conceived. Two donor-conceived people were on the panel and they answered the questions from an engaged audience in an honest and open way.

First to speak was Jess Pearce, a donor-conceived adult who only found out about her origins when she was 28. Jess was told by her mum when she was considering starting a family of her own. Her father's vasectomy reversal had been unsuccessful and her parents turned to IVF using donated sperm.

Although members of the extended family did not know about the donation, Jess took comfort in the fact that her parents never lied to anyone about her birth. She also knew that as a donor-conceived child she must have been 'really, really wanted'. She referred to her non-biological father as her 'social father' and explained that their relationship has remained largely unchanged by the revelation.

Luckily for Jess, she had access to her donor number, but so far had had no luck in finding her donor father. Services like UK DonorLink had been a 'godsend', she said, for her to make friends and discuss her situation with other people on a similar quest to her own. Jess understood her mother's reasons for not telling her, and was grateful that she found out eventually. Although she still hoped to find some information, she understood that it was unlikely she ever would.

Christine Gunter spoke next, worried that she might be adding a bit of 'doom and gloom' to the evening. In fact, Christine's talk wasn't as negative as all that. Christine is the Coordinator of UK Donor Link, which is designed to help people who were donor-conceived or who donated before donor anonymity ended get in touch with one another, if they so wish.

Christine made the point that it's not just the donor-conceived who have an interest in their genealogy. The success of programmes like 'Who Do You Think You Are?' attests to the broad appeal of tracing ancestors.

Similarly, in Christine's experience, the donor-conceived are simply curious about how they came to be, although for some donor-conceived people the revelation can leave them very distressed. Christine found that this was particularly true of those born via donor insemination (DI) in the 1940s and 50s. These people's parents would be unlikely to tell them about their donor and they may have found out in less secure ways. In such cases, said Christine, the confusion and lack of answers can seem to occupy every waking hour of a person's life.

Further complications arise when one considers that at this time, there was no limit to the number of donations one could make. In some case, hundreds of children could have been born from one donor.

Accidental incest and genetic sexual attraction remain exceptionally unlikely for the offspring of such donors, but can be a real fear. One donor-conceived adult who was struggling with the information about his conception commented that 'my parents never met, and if they did they might not like each other'. This is a common worry for older donor-conceived adults, Christine said - they don't like the idea of a 'medicalised' conception, and would prefer a traditional relationship between their parents.

Dr Tabitha Freeman spoke next, and provided useful insights from her work at The University of Cambridge's Centre for Family Research. Tabitha's research concerned children who are donor conceived, and she found that the nature of their conception had very little noticeable psychological impact. More important to their development was the environment that they grow up in – the warmth of the family and quality of parenting.

The same was true for children born to single mothers and gay couples; children did not seem to be negatively affected because they were donor conceived. Tabitha believed it helped that the children were obviously wanted, and the parents were likely to be involved and committed. Tabitha did point out, however, that not all children are told that they're donor conceived, so there is still an unanswered question over whether awareness impacts upon emotional wellbeing.

Tabitha also studied children's responses to the information about their donor, and found that most were indifferent or neutral - particularly if they had 'always known', having been told at a young age. The research found a sense of curiosity, but no distress. To paraphrase one teenager: 'When you're young everything's new, so you just accept it, it's just another part of my life'.

Those who were told later were more likely to be distressed, but Tabitha emphasised that the disclosure was not just one conversation, but rather stretched over numerous conversations with parents.

Kevin Moore provided another, quite different insight into being donor-conceived, having known since he was very young. He remembered being told when he was about seven years old, and not really being that bothered. An interest in the influence of his genetic make-up came to the fore later on in life as he developed an interest in the arts. His family were all lawyers or doctors, and he wondered if this wasn't his biological father's genes working their magic. No such luck – his donor was also a lawyer!

Growing up, Kevin wasn't really that interested in his donor conception. He had a loving and supportive family, he said, and just never felt the need to explore further. It was only when he was studying for a masters in London that he really started to explore his background, leading to him finding a half-sister and then their donor, thanks to some lax information control at the clinic in Florida. Kevin was himself a sperm donor, having made the decision to donate in the UK so that any donor-conceived children could trace him.

After the presentations, the audience jumped in for a lively debate. Some attendees expressed concern over future regulation of gamete donations, and also probed deeper into the feelings of the donor-conceived adults on the panel. Jess admitted that imagining any kind of relationship with her donor was a bit 'fairytale', but that she was going to keep looking. She was realistic, she said; it wouldn't take over her life.

Suitably, Kevin ended the event by stating that being donor conceived wasn't important to him day-to-day. Rather, what was important was that he was bought up in a loving and supportive family.

The 'When It Takes More Than Two' series of events was supported by the Wellcome Trust.

20 May 2013 - by Sandy Starr 
Should gamete donors be allowed to place conditions on who receives their donation? And should those considering having children via donor conception be encouraged to adopt instead?...
13 May 2013 - by Sandy Starr 
The Progress Educational Trust (PET)'s project 'When It Takes More Than Two', supported by the Wellcome Trust, sought to clarify public and professional understanding of donor conception by focusing on the different parties involved...
29 April 2013 - by Professor Eric Blyth 
Donor-conceived individuals might justifiably feel short-changed by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' report 'Donor conception: ethical aspects of information sharing'...
29 April 2013 - by Professor Carol Smart 
From my point of view as a sociologist carrying out research in this field, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report on donor conception is to be welcomed as a scholarly and balanced contribution to current debates...
22 April 2013 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recommended that parents of donor-conceived children are best placed to tell them about their biological origins, but should not be mandated to do so...
28 January 2013 - by Cait McDonagh 
The second debate in the Progress Educational Trust's project 'When It Takes More Than Two' took place at University College London last week. The debate, 'Receiving: The Recipient Parent Perspective', focused on the views of those who have received donor gametes to begin their families....
14 January 2013 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
The image of the sperm donor nipping off between lectures to casually donate for a few quid of beer money was neatly set aside by this thought-provoking debate. In his place, in strode the complex male – knowledgeable, thoughtful, sensitive… and probably over 25...
23 July 2012 - by Walter Merricks 
To many people concerned with donor conception - patients, parents, donors and donor-conceived people - the Government plans to abolish the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) sound extremely worrying...
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