'To everyone, their family is normal,' says 16-year-old Helen, as she describes how she feels about having been donor-conceived and growing up in an alternative family. She is one of a group of donor-conceived children and young adults who share their views and experiences in the DC Network's short film, 'A Different Story… Revisited'. As the title suggests, the film updates its predecessor from 2003. Its purpose is to reflect changing times for donor conception in a new era of openness, and to address the issues and opportunities that this brings.
The DVD's chapters focus on children of single mothers and lesbian families, and children of heterosexual couples. While this distinction might be helpful for intending parents to be able to find out about their specific situation, I would recommend watching both as the chapters are similar and even complementary. In its running time of well under one hour, the film puts the viewer in conversation with eloquent and reflective young people of different ages and family backgrounds. Indeed, the film is very much about giving these children and young adults the opportunity to speak for themselves. The viewer never even hears the questions that the interviewers ask. Instead, the children's answers address key concerns that people considering donor conception might have.
The interviewees reflect at length about their understandings of and feelings about having been donor-conceived, with perspectives given on egg, sperm and embryo donation. They each explain how they were told about donor conception so early that they do not remember ever having not known, and consider it a natural part of their identities. Several describe how they gradually came to understand the process better, from early childhood picture-books to GP visits in their early teens. I am baffled at how well even the younger children understand and are able to reflect on not only the process of assisted conception, but also its social implications - no doubt a result of the efforts made by their parents in repeatedly discussing and explaining these matters. From the 'I was made a special way' of nine-year-old Carly, to the 'I'd quite like to be a donor when I'm older… and kind of give something back in a way' of 16-year-old Helen, the understanding of how donor conception works, and what it means for their relationship with their parents, become more nuanced (and perhaps biomedical) as they become older. Crucially, though, some kind of understanding is there from early on.
The discussion also covers how and when the children were told about donor conception, how they explain it to their friends and how they go about growing up in an alternative family. Of special interest to many might be the discussion of the relatively new opportunities presented by the removal of donor anonymity, such as discovering more about their donor and finding siblings. What transpires is that for these children, finding out this information is not about searching for missing family members they felt should be present in their lives. Instead, it is a matter of finding out more about oneself and having the freedom to decide whether or not to do so. The film, with its matter-of-fact approach to donor conception, is thus both informative and encouraging. It should be interesting and comforting for potential parents, as well as a good DVD to pass on to friends, neighbours and members of the extended family.
On a critical note, what stood out in the film was how similar the children's views were on key matters, to the point where the film became rather repetitive towards the end. This made me wonder what other approaches and opinions are out there that were perhaps not included, such as children who were told later, those whose have struggled more to come to terms with things or to explain it to friends in school, as well as those who feel differently about anonymity. Surely not everyone feels the same way and it would have been great if the film could have reflected that diversity a bit more so as to prepare potential parents for what donor conception can potentially bring.
It would also have been great to see the views of children from gay male parent families expressed in the film, not only those of lesbian parent families. That being said, it is likely that these issues are at least partly the result of the general difficulty of finding participants, making it a challenge to cover all perspectives.
Moreover, an evaluation of the film depends on what we take to be its goals. It may not be the best overview of donor conception, but it is a brilliant promotion of going about it in a certain way. The DC Network represents and promotes a specific way of being a donor-conceived family. It places high value on honesty, communication, involvement and understanding. The film makes no attempt to hide this bias. The children and adults openly discuss their families' close involvement with DC Network. In this regard, as a pitch for the DC Network approach, the film does a great job. It provides reassurance and answers to potential parents or other interested parties and, most importantly, it shows that donor conception, as the kind of alternative form of parenting that DC Network promotes, can work incredibly well. Perhaps, then, the repetition in the film is exactly what potential parents (or indeed all of us) need to hear, over and over again - from girls, from boys, from children, from adults - that being donor-conceived is just another way to be a family. Definitely worth a watch for anyone considering donor conception or close to people who are.