Let’s do better.
Three decades have passed since the UN adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are 196 signatories to the convention, including every member of the United Nations, apart from the United States. Among its core principles are that the best interests of the child should be considered and that children should not face discrimination.
This week, to mark the 30th anniversary, a three-day conference is taking place in Geneva. The meeting included a session, held earlier today, called “Children’s Rights in the Age of Biotechnology,” in which several donor-conceived people spoke.
They asked us to consider:
What if you know you are donor-conceived but don’t know who your biological parents or siblings are?
What if the government is complicit in keeping your identity a secret — and your birth certificate is a lie?
What if your biological mother or father or sibling has a medical condition you know nothing about?
What if you wonder if you are related to everyone who looks like you or to the person you are dating?
What if you feel like part of a living experiment in which your human rights don’t matter?
What if you have tens or hundreds of siblings?
Below is some of what they shared.
My parents wanted a baby, and doctors had a method of providing them with one. They told my parents that nobody needed to know about the method of my conception, least of all me.
My mother’s doctor was a pioneer in the field and received numerous accolades. An industry sprang up from what appeared to simply be the altruistic practice of solving a problem and fulfilling a desire.
Nobody considered the implications of having a child grow up in a culture of shame and secrecy — that I might perceive a sense that things weren’t quite right, that I would feel a need to fit in, to prove my worth, to constantly seek approval and acceptance. Nobody thought to prepare my family for the difficulties we would face and the profound effect it would have.
I found out I was donor-conceived when I was 21 years old, when I read it in my medical file. It was less shocking than you might imagine. It made sense. But I wish my parents had found the courage to tell me themselves.
I wish that my parents, and the doctors who facilitated this, had considered what this would really mean: being deprived of half of my medical history, half of my family history, and of the choice to know my biological parent.
My sense of identity was shattered, and it took twenty years before I could begin the process of piecing it together accurately.
Six days before I turned 40, I found my biological father. Once again, it made sense, and once again, it involved complexity and loss.
What worries me deeply — enough to fly across the world to share these thoughts — is that this is still happening: creating children with the express intention of severing a fundamental biological connection purely for the profit and needs of others.
— Courtney du Toit, age 42, family lawyer, mother of two
A birth certificate is a component of a person’s identity. For donor-conceived people who may already be struggling with identity construction issues, having a birth certificate which does not reflect the truth of their genealogy can add to the stress and trauma.
In the Australian state of South Australia, a birth certificate can be legally changed through the courts to correct an error or an omission. I wanted to get my birth certificate changed to reflect a more accurate history. I wanted it to reflect the truth. So rather than have my social dad listed on it, I was seeking to have him removed and have it left blank.
What should have normally been a relatively simple process was not so for me. Because I was donor-conceived, I had to go to court four times before a judgement was made. This involved submitting evidence that made the facts of the case beyond doubt. It also meant representing myself against three lawyers from the Attorney General’s office who were acting on behalf of the Registrar.
Basically the magistrate’s office said she didn’t have the power to do what I was seeking, because the legislation wouldn’t allow her to do it. So I’m stuck in limbo.
Correcting a birth certificate due to an error or omission is allowed for every South Australian citizen with the exception of donor-conceived people. They are the only citizens who cannot rebut paternity. The Attorney General’s office made sure that in this case my birth certificate reflected not only an injustice in the law, but also a lie.
I am left with a document that is better described as a certificate of ownership rather than an accurate birth record. I am envious of my dog who has a more accurate birth certificate than I do.
— Damian Adams, age 45, medical research scientist, father of two
I was born with a congenital heart defect called “Tetralogy of Fallot,” which is known to be hereditary in a small percentage of cases. My parents always told me and my doctors that there was no history of heart issues on my paternal side.
At age 54, I discovered that I was donor-conceived. My father was “Mr Anonymous.” Amidst the shock of discovery was the trauma of knowing I had been unwittingly providing an inaccurate medical history all my life. This was incredibly upsetting and scary.
My cardiologist was both horrified and furious (which felt very validating) and arranged for me to undergo genetic testing to ensure that I didn’t have any of the genes known to be implicated in Fallots. Lack of access to an accurate medical history doesn’t just affect the donor-conceived individual; it affects their descendants too. It waterfalls down the generations, and it can kill.
— Jo Lloyd, age 58, writer, mother of three, daughter to one mother and two fathers
All my life, people have said things like, “There’s a girl who looks just like you,” and it still happens all the time.
I grew up, I went to school, I went on a lot of dates, I had some serious relationships, and eventually, I got married.
I was three months pregnant when I found out I was donor-conceived.
I thought I knew who I was, so I thought I knew who my baby was, but she was one quarter a stranger, with an unknown biological grandparent. My husband could have been my half-brother. Half the medical history I’d been filling out on forms was meaningless. My ethnicity was different to what I thought it was.
My husband jokes about marrying under false pretences and asking for his money back.
Now, every time someone says to me, “I know someone who looks just like you,” I get an adrenaline rush. I ask for all the details, where they saw them, if they know their name. I wonder if any of the girls people told me about were actually my DC sisters, or if any of the men I kissed were my DC brothers.
I’m searching for half-siblings who might not even know they’re donor-conceived. Their names are on record, but the record keepers won’t give me this information, so the only way I can find them is through detective work. So far, I’ve had the opportunity to meet two half-sisters.
So, if you know someone who looks like me, please let me know.
— S Wilson, mother of one
I’m closely connected to dozens of strangers: my siblings. I’ve discovered a couple of my donor-conceived siblings — that is, from the same donor but raised in different families — and have been absolutely bowled over by the similarities we share. Not only in appearance, but in interests, aptitudes and hobbies. I discovered that I was studying at university with one of my brothers — in the same field of study at the same time. One of my sisters collects May Gibbs collectables just like me. And one of my other sisters has the same dream retirement plan as me — we both want to buy conservation properties to revegetate, and to conserve wildlife.
Being denied access to these people — to my siblings and to my biological father’s family — has left me feeling a bit haunted. I find myself looking for them in strangers’ faces as I walk past them in the street, on the train, at work. Truthfully, it feels disruptive, and I feel disempowered to acknowledge that this feeling of longing to meet them is in fact grief. Society expects donor-conceived people to be nonchalant about our biological families, but any other human is seemingly given permission to want to bond with their biological kin. And donor-conceived people are just like every other human in that regard. Sometimes it feels like our humanity is being diminished, and we are asked to celebrate that instead of being given the autonomy to acknowledge that for many of us it feels complicated, like we have lost something.
— Hayley Smith, age 29, advocate for donor-conceived people
I grew up in a multiracial family, with three adopted siblings from Asia. Our family harboured two deep secrets. The first was that we lived with violence and abuse. The second was my own identity. I was never supposed to know that I am the product of reproductive technology. My family of origin did not support my search for my identity in any way. They disowned me and cut off all contact.
After fourteen years of searching, thanks to consumer DNA testing, I at last found my missing family. I was never supposed to know my Jewish identity or that I have a birthright to Israeli citizenship. I was never supposed to know my own father or my four amazing half siblings with whom I have so much in common. I’m very fortunate to have been embraced by my new family. Needless to say, this experience has had a radical effect on my identity. I immediately found a sense of belonging for the first time in my life.
I was never supposed to know that half my family existed. This is a grave injustice and a direct violation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Identity is a human right. If adoption and donor conception are to exist, our laws should recognize that some of us effectively have three or four parents. Fully recognizing both biological and social parents, and supporting lifelong relationships with all of them, is the only way to fully honour both nature and nurture. Identity should not be a corporate or state secret. It must be considered a fundamental human right.
— Albert Frantz, age 45, pianist
I am donor-conceived. Miraculously, I was able to connect with my biological father thanks to a national newspaper article published in 2001.
I live in Victoria, Australia, the first state in the world to legislate to retrospectively permit donor-conceived people access to identifying information about their donor. As a result of this ground-breaking legislation, I was able to make contact with one of my donor-conceived sisters, and we now enjoy a close friendship.
What is the justification for denying a child, a human being, the right to their own identity and ethnicity, the right to know and have contact with their biological family members? If the people conceived using donor conception and surrogacy want to know their biological and birth families — and we know that they do, as is their right — then how can we justify denying it?
In the clash between the desires of prospective parents, the fertility industry and our human rights, it is sadly rare that the rights and interests of the child prevail.
— Myf Cummerford, age 38, designer, law student and mother of two, advocate for donor-conceived people
I’m donor-conceived, made by the state, in one of Australia’s biggest public hospitals. I didn’t know I was donor-conceived until I was 27, when my mother told me one night over dinner. My social father, the man I had thought was also my biological father until then, died when I was a teenager without the truth coming out.
When I began searching for my biological family, I was told that the public hospital had sold its practice, with all its records, to what is now a multinational fertility giant listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. The public system had retained no records of what it had done to the public, using taxpayers’ money.
I contacted the company which now owned the records. After a long delay, they got back to me and said the key information regarding my conception had been deliberately destroyed. In fact, there were holes in pages where the relevant information — the donor code — had been literally cut out. This was not the donor’s name — no one would have given that to me anyway, they were extremely clear on that — this was his donor code. By destroying that, they obscured how many times that donor’s sperm had been used (and so how many siblings I might have), obliterated any link between me and my family medical history, and also removed any chance the donor might have of discovering how many offspring he had, should he want to go searching.
After finding that out, I presented my evidence to a parliamentary inquiry in my state of New South Wales, published my story in the country’s biggest weekend magazine and featured in a two-part TV documentary. This prompted two separate state inquiries into what happened. They have never given me the reports of either of those inquiries. They have admitted that they destroyed donor codes for more than 80 families. They have full staff records of who was working at this clinic at the time, but not a single person has been held responsible.
— Sarah Dingle, journalist
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