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Event Review: Fathers, Donors and Men - Mother-Child Communication in Solo Mother Families

26 June 2017
By Dr Kylie Baldwin
Senior lecturer at De Montfort University
Appeared in BioNews 906

New technologies, procedures, and developments in reproductive science such as egg freezing, mitochondrial donation and genome editing have occupied many column inches, as well as much public and academic discussion in recent years. However, as evidenced by the fervent response to an article by Professor Guido Pennings recently published in BioNews 900, the topic of gamete donation remains an area of interest and continued site of controversy.

On 24 May, one day after presenting her work to the British Sociological Associations Human Reproduction Study Group, Dr Sophie Zadeh, research fellow at the University of Cambridge, shared some of her recent research findings at an invited lecture with members and guests of the Centre for Reproduction Research at De Montfort University.

The focus of many studies on donor conception, including those at the Centre for Family Research, has been to assess the psychological wellbeing and adjustment of donor conceived individuals. This includes examining family functioning, or intentions regarding disclosure. However, over the last six years and under the direction of Professor Susan Golombok, Dr Zadeh has undertaken a longitudinal study of solo mother families realised by sperm donation. In particular, her research has examined the way the media constructs and represents this group of women, and has explored the perspectives and experiences of mothers and children in families formed via sperm donation.

In her lecture, Dr Zadeh reflexively drew on the findings and perceived 'issues' borne out of the data collection in the first phase of the research (2011-2014) when situating her new line of enquiry. Presenting the audience with an image of a drawing task from the first phase of her research, Dr Zadeh explained that the child had been asked to fill in a family map placing himself in the centre, and to draw those he felt closest to in the nearest concentric circles, working outwards. She showed how the child had represented their mother and other close family members, but had also clearly presented another differently shaped and oriented figure in an additional ring: the donor. The child completing the family map was four years of age, which Dr Zadeh noted was far younger than the seven years of age at which most studies suggested a child is able to comprehend the role of the donor. Dr Zadeh explained how this and other findings of the first phase of the research led her to look more holistically in the second phase, at how mothers and children in solo mother families think and feel about the sperm donors responsible for their family creation; specifically, examining how those in middle childhood think and feel about their families, their donor conception, and the donor.

Following interviews with 19 children aged between seven and 13, Dr Zadeh identified four different ways in which the donor was perceived: as a stranger (42 percent), as a biological father (21 percent), as a biological and social parent (16 percent) or ambivalently (21 percent). Given the variation identified in donor perceptions within the sample, Dr Zadeh also sought to explore how the perceptions of the donor might relate to patterns of attachment to the primary carer. Similar to studies examining adolescents (Slutsky et al, 2016), Dr Zadeh identified that children who had more secure and positive relationships with their mother also had more positive perceptions of the donor, whereas  those with less secure attachments were more likely to hold negative perceptions (Zadeh, 2017).  

In her exploration of how mothers communicated to their children about the donor, Dr Zadeh reported no linear relationship between how mothers said they were representing the donor with how children perceived and discussed the donor in interviews. Thus, whilst informed by a small sample, Dr Zadeh's work suggests that the quality of the mother-child relationship may more significantly affect a child's perception of the donor than a mother's representation of the donor. Dr Zadeh concluded that those working with donor conceived families should consider the family context when advising parents about whether and what to tell a child about donor conception.

This session was part of an ongoing seminar series run by the Centre for Reproduction Research.

5 June 2017 - by Professor Vardit Ravitsky, Dr Juliet Guichon, Marie-Eve Lemoine, and Professor Michelle Giroux 
In his commentary, Professor Guido Pennings argues there is no empirical evidence to support the assumption that it is in the best interests of children to know that they are donor conceived. We would like to add another layer to the critique, by focusing on the conceptual foundation underlying the right of donor-conceived people to know their genetic origins...
30 May 2017 - by Professor Eric Blyth, Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, Iolanda Rodino, and Dr Petra Thorn 
Professor Guido Pennings' provocatively entitled BioNews commentary 'Donor children do not benefit from being told about their conception' purports to highlight the shortcomings of existing research supporting a pro-disclosure agenda and castigates counsellors and researchers who advocate parental disclosure...
15 May 2017 - by Professor Guido Pennings 
For some years now, counsellors and psychologists have been spreading the message that it's in the best interest of children to know if they are donor conceived. However, my recent literature review has shown that there is in fact very little empirical evidence to support this position...
27 March 2017 - by Dr Petra Nordqvist and Hazel Burke 
Until twelve years ago, most people donating eggs or sperm via a UK clinic would be anonymous. In the eyes of the law, this donation was a generous gift that was handed over without continuing responsibilities or ties for the donor. In fact, continued involvement of the donor was usually discouraged...
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