Welcome to my blog!

Welcome to Olivia’s View.

Olivias photo

This blog is my own personal view of donor conception:  the issues, the questions, my reflections on family life, plus comments on media coverage and events: I’m one of the co-founders of DC Network and mother to two sons and a daughter, now adults, conceived both with and without donor help. The views expressed here  are not necessarily those of DC Network.

Meet my family:  Husband Walter, he’s Chair of DC Network and used to be on the board of the HFEA;   eldest son Peter from my first marriage, married to Emily and parents to our lovely grand-daughter, younger son Will and daughter ‘Zannah married to Jake from New York…then there’s Milo, a seriously noisy and annoying but ultimately lovable Siamese cat

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DNA testing is changing the world

It hasn’t hit the mainstream yet but I can tell you that the donor conception world is changing very fast…and it is the potential for finding genetic relatives through DNA testing that is driving the change.  DC Network is being approached for advice by families who have taken tests like 23andMe and then been contacted by a second cousin who could almost certainly name the donor: what now, they ask?   Parents of DC adults are realising that their ‘children’ could easily do a test and discover factors that would reveal that one of their parents could not possibly be genetically related to them.  Some parents are in very complicated personal situations where revelation of donor conception is likely to have far reaching consequences but they nevertheless believe that planned honesty is better than an accidental bomb exploding.   The DC adults who are most vociferously against donor conception have all had DNA tests done.  Some have found close genetic relatives and relationships are being established and/or struggled with.   The next group – those who are curious but not against the practice – are beginning to take tests.   There are already services – some free, some not, to help DC adults do the detective work that is often necessary in addition to DNA testing.  Our daughter is taking advantage of one of these.

Those DC people conceived after 2005 in the UK will have the right to have information about their donor from 2023 when the first of this cohort become 18, but in the intervening years there are many DC adults without this right and it cannot be long before it is almost standard practice to do a DNA test.  And then there are those who have been conceived abroad.  In the vast majority of cases their donor will have been anonymous but for how long, with data bases of DNA growing at such a fast rate.

The cat is out of the bag.  Donors are no longer anonymous.  Parents MUST tell and be ready to support their children.  There is no going back.

A good read for those wanting to understand about the etiquette of approaching donors or half-siblings is Finding Our Families by Wendy Kramer (of DSR fame) and Naomi Cahn.

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When one letter of the alphabet can make so much difference

Recently I found myself at a presentation that included a fertility doctor at one of London’s leading hospitals.  He was speaking about egg donation and concluded his talk by saying that new research was beginning to show that women carrying a child conceived this way did pass a very small amount of DNA to the embryo at the very early stage of development.  He intended this information to be a comfort to women who felt they had had to give up all hope of a child inheriting anything from them and as a way to help them bond with their baby in utero.  Such very good motives…so sad that, according to the geneticists I have consulted, it was incorrect information.  So fascinating that a doctor…and I doubt he is the only one…usually so fixated on double-blind trials, gold standards and evidence based medicine…should choose to interpret findings this way from a scientific paper that came to no such conclusion.

In response to a question put at DCN’s conference about DNA being passed from mother to child, embryologist Victoria Ryder explained –

It’s not DNA.  It’s a very similar molecule called RNA which does not code … so it is very similar to DNA in that it contains bases, but it’s a messenger service basically. What they have found is that there are microRNAs in the womb, and that we think that they can get into the cells of the embryo, but they don’t insert themselves into the DNA or replace any of the DNA; they are part of the signalling that goes into turning the genes on and off, so we have not got any evidence at all so far to say that there is actual DNA that is coding for genes and proteins moving between the mother and child. And I think it is unlikely that we will see something like that in the future.

Victoria’s answer was probably informed by a definitive article written by geneticist  Dr Jess Buxton in Bio News back in November last year.  I’ll give the link to the whole thing at the end but Dr. Buxton wrote about how epigenetic (environmental) factors present in the womb prior to implantation may alter embryonic gene activity.  This does not mean that “Infertile Mums “pass on DNA,” as a misleading headline said at the time, but it does mean that women who conceive using donor eggs may affect the activity of their child’s genes from the earliest stages of pregnancy onwards.  Dr. Buxton went on to say,

The research team, based in Spain and the USA, studied molecules called microRNAs.  As the name suggests microRNAs are short sections of RNA, a chemical relative of DNA.  Their job is to fine-tune the activity levels of genes during development and throughout life.  As such they are part of the epigenetic machinery.”   Dr. Buxton’s interpretation of the findings in the original paper (named at the end) have since been confirmed by another geneticist.

You may be thinking, why does it matter that a fertility doctor slightly misinterpreted the findings.  What’s one letter of the alphabet between patient and doctor?  Isn’t this just nit picking?

I had a long phone conversation with the doctor concerned a few days after his talk and he continued to insist that it was DNA, in very small quantities, that was passed from mother to child.  He emphasised that he always spoke about research being at an early stage and that only small amounts of DNA were absorbed by the early embryo. However,  I hope he understood my concerns that what he was saying could be heard in a very different way by a woman who is probably still going through a process of mourning for her own lost fertility and therefore vulnerable to clinging on to, and potentially exaggerating, anything that might lead her to believe that her genes will play a role in the make-up of her child-to-be.  At DC Network and on fertility forums we have come across several women who were clearly overjoyed by the misleading headlines.  I don’t worry too much about DC Network members who will have lots of opportunities to be challenged, gently, in their belief that their DNA is being passed, but I do worry about women who, often typified by someone who thinks of egg donation as ‘just a cell’, will use the headlines to deny their donor and use the information as, yet another, excuse not to ‘tell’ their child.

One of the main tasks of couples and individuals using donor conception is to adjust to the ‘difference’ of having a child this way. All counsellors understand the need for potential parents by donation to grieve for the child they cannot have before moving on to have the one that is possible. If women (and their partners) believe that their DNA is likely to reach the child, then the grieving process may be interrupted with severe consequences for the future family. This is why it is so important that the information given to egg donation recipients is absolutely accurate.  And why it is potentially so damaging that someone with the influence that fertility specialists have, should be mis-interpreting scientific findings in this way.

This is the original paper:  Vilella F, Moreno-Moya JM, Balaguer N, et al. Hsa-miR-30d, Secreted by the human Endometrium, Is Taken up by the Pre-Implantation Embryo and Might Modify Its Transcriptome. Development. 2015.

Jess Buxton’s article can be found here http://www.bionews.org.uk/page_581621.asp

An edited transcription of Victoria Ryder’s talk at the DCN conference in April 2016 can be found in DCN’s Summer Journal, being distributed to members now.

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Genetic genealogy and the potential to explode donor anonymity

It’s probably the world that I move in but DNA testing for health, genealogical or just curiosity reasons suddenly seems to have exploded into general consciousness.  The other day the Daily Mail (not my favourite paper) had an article that recycled information from an academic paper that recently warned that egg and sperm donors could no longer ever be considered anonymous because of the potential for finding genetic relatives by way of increasingly low-cost DNA testing.  Debbie Kennett, one of the authors of this paper spoke at the DC Network conference in April, demonstrating the capacities of the three main companies offering DNA testing by showing results of tests carried out on herself and other family members.   Tracking down genetic relatives can be straightforward if the person you are looking for or someone in their immediate family has tested and therefore appears on the data base.  So far, this happens rarely in the UK as the data bases covering this country are pretty small (but growing).  Most often you will find that there is a 3rd to 5th cousin match and it takes contact with that person (if they have agreed to share their contact information), a look at their family tree and potentially some family documentation (so it needs their co-operation) in order to find the person being searched for.  I know a DC adult who managed to find someone who confirmed he was the first cousin of the man likely to have been her donor.   Unfortunately the story stops there as the donor, on being contacted by his cousin, said he did not wish contact to be made with the searcher.  Very frustrating.

All this has now become personal for me.  First of all our daughter Zannah decided to test with 23andme.  This is the company that has the biggest UK data base.  It also gives health reports, something not available via Family Tree DNA and AncestryDNA.  Zan is curious about her donor and half-siblings but she particularly wanted to know if she had any health risks not shared with me and also to try and establish her donor’s geographical ancestral roots.  This was really only possible to do if I tested as well so I decided to do so.  There is a tool on 23andMe that allows separation of maternal and paternal DNA inheritance, but you need at least one parent to test as well in order to get any sort of accuracy.  The results have been a mixture of absolutely fascinating and inconclusive.  We have discovered that we have the same blood group but different rhesus factors and share a trait that may make us predisposed to developing blood clots.  Zan has no other risk factors.  Although our results clearly showed and named us as mother and daughter, beyond that neither Zan nor I have a closer genetic match than 3rd to 5th cousin and so far Zannah doesn’t seem minded to follow this up with further research.  Someone who did follow up with considerable zeal is Elizabeth Howard, the first person in the UK to go public about having found her donor via a DNA testing service.  On Father’s Day this year she published a shortened version of her story http://www.conservativewoman.co.uk/elizabeth-howard-a-daughters-detective-story-for-fathers-day/      Her donor, like the the person referred to earlier, does not want contact but Elizabeth does know exactly who he is and what he looks like, and apparently the family resemblances are remarkable.

It would seem important, given the above, that all parents and potential parents of donor conceived children should understand about the possibilities of connections with genetic relatives via DNA testing.  However, once again the forum Fertility Friends have put their heads in the sand, first of all taking down a post from someone (not connected to DC Network) who gave information about this development and then, when the same person put a link to the Daily Mail article, management posted a dire warning about people getting into polarised discussions about it.  Hence, virtually no-one has said anything at all, but the link does remain so at least it is there for the curious to read.

I am sure Debbie and her colleagues are right in saying that anonymity for donors can no longer be guaranteed, but it is difficult to know how fast genetic linking via DNA will take off in the UK.  It is also likely to take longer where overseas donors are concerned, although the data bases for Scandinavia are large.   I paid only £67 for my test and this seems to me to be within the reach of large numbers so cost is unlikely to put people off.  It is a question of the awareness of the possibility becoming widely known and then people deciding if it is something they really want to do…and that is a big question.  Like the locked information on 23andMe about specific predisposing genes for Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and the BRACA genes, you cannot unknow something once you know it, so it is important to be prepared for finding out information that may not be comfortable…but on the other hand it could bring comfort and peace of mind as well.  As with most interesting and worthwhile things in life, it’s complicated.  I’m certainly glad I took the leap.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3648672/DNA-tests-expose-parents-staying-mum-donor-babies-Doctors-say-rise-relative-finder-kits-lift-lid-children-conceived.html

http://humrep.oxfordjournals.org/content/31/6/1135.abstract

 

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As our children grow up, we need to listen…

Since I returned from holidays in Vienna and Northern Spain (yes, I know, lucky me) I have been editing the presentations that were given at the DC Network conference in April, so that they can be printed in the Summer Journal.  The two talks in the morning were on genetics and  the role of DNA in donor conception and the huge recent growth of genetic genealogy, where DNA testing is used together with written records to discover information about genetic relatives.  I’m going to write about this another time but today I want to concentrate on something that came up in the afternoon.

Lucia, a solo mum with twins conceived by embryo donation in Spain was interviewed by the Director of DC Network.  Her girl/boy twins are now 9 and a half and since he was about 8 the boy has been keen to tell anyone who will listen that his mum used donors to have him and his sister.  Recently, to Lucia’s distress, he has been asking her if she is his ‘real mum’.  This was Lucia’s worst fear (and seems to feature on many DC parents nightmare list) but after reassuring him several times that she was his ‘real mum’, she stood back and realised that what she was not acknowledging was that the penny had dropped for her son.  Having thought anew about the much repeated mantra, “mummy needed an egg from another lady and a seed from a man to make you”, he had realised that if the ingredients that made him did not come from his mum, perhaps that meant that she was not his ‘real mother’.  What he was looking for was validation of this realisation and when Lucia gave it to him he was obviously relieved and very happy to agree that in every other way she was his real mother.  Lucia could have become upset and denied the reality or pushed her son’s questioning away, giving him the strong message that he was asking about something that was too difficult or painful for his mother to contemplate.  We know from the accounts of some DC adults that they have felt their parents were too vulnerable or fragile on the subject of donor conception for them to express curiosity or talk about their genetic relatives.  But Lucia did not fall apart, despite her own feelings she listened to what her son was asking and eventually was able to give him the validation he needed.  This family often have conversations about what the children might have inherited from their donors.  Both are proud of having olive skin and sometimes tell people about their Spanish connection.  Although she doesn’t always find it easy, Lucia prides herself on her open relationship with her children and wants them to be able to tell her how they are feeling without worrying about her.

Lucia is a solo mum but this situation could easily have occurred in a lesbian or heterosexual couple family.  All DC children will have at least one non-genetically linked parent and we know from about the age of eight a leap in brain development makes it very likely that the realisation of the lack of genetic connection will dawn on them around this time.  Some are sad that they do not have this link by blood to a much loved parent.  Some are just matter of fact about it.  All need to have parents who feel comfortable and confident enough in their role to be able to listen and acknowledge feelings.

Another topic that comes up in Lucia’s household is that of daddies.  Both her children say they would like one – and Lucia sometimes feels guilty that she went ahead and had them on her own (although she dearly would have loved a partner) – but she does wonder sometimes if the twins are simply wanting something that other children seem to have rather than actually missing out on a father in their life.

Lorraine, an American solo mum by DC who contributes to a couple of Facebook groups I am part of posted something very interesting about dads and the importance of validating children’s feelings the other day.  With her permission I am reprinting it here –

I had an interesting conversation with my daughter this morning. A Father’s Day commercial was on encouraging people to do things for their dads. She said:
“But I don’t have a dad”
So I went through the list of people she does have in her life including sister, grandma, aunts, cousins, etc. I also reminded her that she has a donor. She responded in a “yeah and” assertive tone with “Yeah but I want a dad.”
Although I didn’t feel the least bit slighted by it, I learned important things. Having a huge family doesn’t take the place of having a dad. On a positive note, she’s not connecting her donor with the concept of a dad. She’s perhaps learning the important difference. My point in mentioning all of this is because I’ve always wanted to be a mother, not a father. Therefore, I’m not concerned about “not being enough” for her because I embrace what my role is, a mother. That means I am not and can never be a father to my kids and I’m ok with that.
I never want my girls to feel that they have to pretend not to care about not having a dad. I don’t want them to worry about hurting my feelings. What’s important to me is that they feel free to express how they feel no matter what and I, their mom, will validate their feelings. So with her assertive tone of voice and all, I’m glad she felt comfortable to say what’s on her mind. If she’s like this going on 7, I shudder to think how she would respond at 17.
I’m posting this not to offend anyone but with the hope that it might help an SMC worried about Father’s Day.

What Lorraine and Lucia seem to have in common is a willingness to own the consequences of the decisions they took right at the beginning and to really listen to what their children have to say.  It is important to them that their children are able to express themselves but they have enough self-confidence to manage the negative emotions that sometimes emerge.  I suspect Lorraine is a bit tougher and more cool with it all than Lucia, but anyone who can parent twins on their own certainly gets my respect!  I can’t help feeling that the children of both women will do enormously well.

DC Network members can read the whole of Lucia’s insightful and often humorous interview in the summer edition of the DCN Journal, out in July.

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‘Coming out’ as a Donor Conception Family

My Saturday morning reading always starts with the Family section of The Guardian.  If the sun is shining and I can sit in the conservatory then that’s a blissful bonus.  This Saturday there was a different column in place of one of the regular contributors.  Louise Kelly from Stonewall gave Ten Tips on How to Come Out as LGBT to Your Family and Friends.  As I read through I thought, this feels familiar, and I realised that an awful lot of what was being said applies to ‘coming out’ as a donor conception family as well.  Of course some things are not the same but the essence is that you are trying to explain a ‘difference’ to people you love but who have not been through the same experiences and feelings that you have.  So I thought I’d take the headings she had and see where we get to with substituting explaining about donor conception for explaining about being LGBT.

You don’t have to come out – True.  You don’t have to do it but the main difference between the LGBT situation and donor conception is that it’s not just your feelings as  parent(s) that are involved.  There is your child as well.  If you don’t tell family and friends (and that is what this is about rather than focusing on telling the child) and you do tell your child then you risk the child being at the end of an unplanned and possibly shocked or unbelieving reaction from a family member.  All children deserve to have those in the caring circle around them know about their beginnings so that grandparents, uncles and aunts can process their thoughts and feelings before a child mentions it.  If you don’t plan to tell your child but anyone else knows then you risk unplanned disclosure.  You can certainly wait until you feel comfortable and confident about ‘telling’ (as Louise Kelly suggests) but remember that not-telling is much harder than many people imagine and can put anxiety as well as dishonesty at the heart of family life.  And the longer you put it off the harder it gets.

Coming out can be a really positive experience – Also true.  As Louise says, it can be very liberating to be authentic with family, friends and colleagues.  So very many members of DC Network have told stories about being terrified of telling certain people, only to have them respond warmly and supportively.

Many people worry about other people’s reactions – Quoting from the Guardian, “Key concerns are that they won’t be accepted or will be seen differently.”  This is so true of many DC families and it can be helpful to them to understand that they may need to allow time for people to understand what they are being told.

Worries and concerns may vary according to how old your family members are (this is adapted from Louise’s list which talks about how old the LGBT person is).  People often worry that elderly parents, for instance, could not possibly understand DC but it could well be that adult children are under-estimating their mum and dad who have had many more years than them of negotiating life’s surprises.  Different personalities will of course receive information in different ways.  Sometimes older people will hear the news, absorb it, but not want to discuss it openly again, instead showing in subtle ways that they understand and support you.  The most important thing they can do is welcome and accept your children, loving them the same as any other grandchild.

Allow people to be shocked and to need the time to take the news in – be sensitive to their feelings too.  Pick a calm, quiet time when you tell people, which will give you all time to talk about it.  Remember that coming out may be more of a process than an event.

These last couple of sentences come verbatim from the Guardian and are absolutely appropriate for DC families as well as those explaining about being LGBT.  Remember how at the beginning, when you first knew you had a problem with conception, how clear you were that egg, sperm or embryo donation was absolutely not for you!  One Network mum to an egg donation child had to recall her own first reaction to the idea of using an egg donor when her mother initially said that she wouldn’t be a ‘real’ grandmother to any child conceived this way.

If family or friends react in a negative way it won’t necessarily be how they will always feel.  Give them time to get used to the news.  First reactions aren’t always lasting reactions.  People sometimes say silly or ignorant things at first because they haven’t thought about what they are saying or the impact it might have.  Have patience, be an educator.  They are likely to come round to acceptance and even full support (admiration often) after getting some information and thinking about it for a while.

If you are really nervous about coming out, particularly to certain people, consider writing them a letter and then following this up with a telephone call or a visit.  This allows the recipient time to get used to the news, but you still retain control of the situation.  You might even want to send them a copy of Our Family, DC Network’s booklet for family and friends of those using donor conception.

Stay in control of the news as best you can but remember that hushed tones and pleas to not tell anyone else, may encourage some people to share what feels like forbidden and titillating information.  Telling in a matter of fact way is far more likely to result in people feeling privileged to share in something special about your family and then forget about it!  You can always say that you would appreciate people asking you before they tell anyone else but in the end you cannot ever guarantee privacy.  Best of all is feeling confident and proud – although not necessarily shouting the information to all and sundry – not feeling worried if the news in known by people other than those you have told.

If you are not sure of how certain significant people in your life may react it’s a good idea to build a support network around you first.  This could mean telling one person whom you trust and are reasonably confident will be supportive.  If necessary, have that person with you when you come out to others.  I can just imagine this working in DC families where some, say, brothers or sisters-in-law may be felt to be intolerant or judgemental.

If you suspect someone you know has donor conceived children too remember that you cannot – and should not – force them to come out, but you can foster an environment where the family feels supported and safe to do so.

Again, this last tip is verbatim from Louise Kelly (to whom many thanks).   Hopefully in years to come both LGBT people and donor conception families will not feel so fearful of exposing their difference to the world.  In the meantime Stonewall is there to help, guide and support LGBT people and DC Network is there for all donor conception families, including LGBT ones.

Telling and Talking for Family and Friends -booklet for people committed to donor conception family creation and parenting young children and wanting support in ‘telling’ family and friends.  http://www.dcnetwork.org/catalog/books-and-pdfs

Our Family – booklet for the family and friends of those using donor conception for family creation and parenting young children.  http://www.dcnetwork.org/catalog/books-and-pdfs

Stonewall help and advice on coming out http://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/coming-out-0

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A tale of two conferences

I had hoped that last week’s conference on Assisted Reproduction: Emotional and Identity Implications for Parents and Children would be more enlightening than I found it actually was.  It was clear that the organisers had only recently stumbled on the issue and whilst I am delighted that they have, the psychoanalytic community have as yet little to say that is helpful.  Wonderings and meandering thoughts about the impact of having been a frozen embryo are not necessarily helpful to parents, offspring or indeed mental health professionals who may encounter families going through difficulties.  However, some things did resonate with me.  I’ll summarise them here.

It was good to be reminded of the enormous pain of infertility and need to grieve for lost fertility/sense of manliness or womanliness as well as the child it is not possible to have, BEFORE moving on to ART with or without donated gametes.  Loss is the central theme and  therapy and counselling undoubtedly offer a lifeline at this stage for many people. I would say a period of grief and personal reflection are essential before contemplating egg, sperm or embryo donation.  Joan Rafael Leff was interesting in designating all babies as a ‘stranger’, going on to suggest that many people find it very difficult to accept that every baby is ‘unknown’ or ‘other’.  So not just babies created with the gametes of an unknown person or persons, but every baby comes into the world as a unique being in their own right who has to become ‘known’ to his or her parents.

Of greater pertinence to those at the stage of contemplating using donated gametes or with children conceived this way was Susan Golombok’s research finding that higher levels of well-being are found in 14 year olds who are ‘told’ about their beginnings before the age of 7.  Surprise, surprise, it was the quality of the relationships in the family – the sense of belonging and connectedness these young people felt – that seemed to account for their levels of adjustment.  Interestingly, securely attached adolescents were more interested in exploring their donor conception origins than those who were insecurely attached.  Although Golombok did not say this, I assume this means that those teenagers who felt comfortable about their beginnings and where the topic was an open one in the family, felt able to ask questions and explore their donor conception without any concern about hurting their parents.  We know from other research that many donor conceived adults who have found out about beginnings in teenage or adult years fear sharing their interest in their donor and half-sibs because they think their parents will be upset and hurt by this.  Thus they may search but they will not share this fact within the family.

Another interesting research result from Susan Golombok was that children conceived via surrogacy show at age 7 the same levels of problems/anxieties as internationally adopted children.  In other words they are dealing with issues of identity earlier than most other children.  However, longitudinal studies have shown that both groups return to ‘normal’ by age 10.  In the study carried out by Golombok’s team 60 per cent of surrogacy families remained in touch with their surrogate ten years later.  Where the surrogate was also the genetic mother they were more likely to lose contact.

Katherine Fine’s presentation was just lovely – extending and exploring the theme of her book Donor Conception for Life, which is that families formed by donor conception need to recognise and include in their understanding of family, both the genetic and psychological history of the donor.  As far as those of us from DC Network were concerned, this talk was pitched just right – the importance of acknowledging the donor as a real person making a contribution to individual offspring and their families, but keeping it real by using quotes from a pair of half-siblings and others who had contributed to the book.  I was sad that members of the audience asked her few questions and made no reference to her presentation later – quite possibly because they felt it was not analytic in its focus – although she is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.

In contrast to Saturday, Sunday’s DCN conference was a warm and friendly swirl of donor conception parents and children and those pregnant or still contemplating.  Just over 200 adults and about 80 children gathered at a N.London school for presentations on genes and genealogy where myths like DNA being passed from mother to child when the child has been conceived by egg donation, were busted, and we were all introduced to the concept of there being no such thing as an anonymous donor any more because of the huge increase in use of DNA based genealogy websites.   In the afternoon a solo mum of nine year old twins by double donation told us about the range of funny, sad and poignant things her children say about being donor conceived, their interest in their Spanish donors and their wish for a dad.

It was a great day, full of chat and laughter as adults and children met up with old friends and made new relationships.  It felt very real and could not have been a greater contrast to Saturday.

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Identity: the modern dilemma

I haven’t blogged for absolutely ages and although there has been plenty going on in the donor conception world I haven’t felt inspired to write.  However, it suddenly feels like I am surrounded by people’s thoughts about identity (which has become something of a buzzword) and that subject is absolutely central to debates around donor conception.

Just before we went to Paris last week I realised that the book I had taken from our daughter’s old bookcase and chucked on the floor of my office was Identity: Sociological Perspectives by Steph Lawlor.  It was one of many books consulted by Zannah when she was writing her final dissertation for her Anthropology degree.  Then whilst we were in France the story broke about the Archbishop of Canterbury not having the genetic father he thought he had.  The revelation had been a shock but he declared, “I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes.”  On our return I was listening to the BBC World Service and realised they were running an Identity project, inviting people to submit video footage in the context of globalisation and who people think they are.   Then I opened my copy of Therapy Today to find two articles, ‘Who am I and what makes me who I am’ and ‘Ancestors Matter’, both absolutely pertinent to the topic.

But the thing about identity is that it’s slippery.  It has many components and I would suggest only becomes a problem when something is perceived as ‘missing’.  In a fractured, globalised and unstable world where there is no such thing as a job for life and families are, as I once heard described, ‘whoever you find behind the front door’ there seems plenty of opportunity for a sense of loss rather than wholeness to be felt by many people.

As Lawlor says, “The notion of identity hinges of an apparently paradoxical combination of sameness and difference.  The root of the word ‘identity’ is the Latin idem (same) from which we also get identical.  We share common identities with others but at the same time we are also unique.  Lawlor goes on to say, “Western notions of identity rely on these two modes of understanding, so that people are understood as being simultaneously the same and different.”

As I suggested above, identity is made up of many things – “the totality of the beliefs we have about ourselves” – as one contributor to the World Service debate said, but as Lawlor suggests these many components are mostly interactive and must also be seen as dynamic.   Identities do change over time.  There also appears to be an inner/outer split with on the one hand, who we think we are inside ourselves and who others viewing us from the outside  think we are, but the reality is that what we believe about ourselves is largely formed through relationships and interactions with others.  Human beings are social animals and it is our interdependence that binds us together and forms the basis of our identity.  We can of course choose to identify with certain groups and not with others.  The Archbishop of Canterbury chooses to identify himself with the Christian community and his belief in God.  This feels like a stronger connection and identity to him than the genetics that created him.  It would appear that finding out that his father was not his creator is not a loss in his life because the stronger identity is with his Christian beliefs.

Where all this leaves donor conceived people who believe they cannot understand their full identity without knowing their genetic heritage and progenitor I am not sure.  Loss seems a central theme with an identity provided by the community of others who feel the same way.  Perhaps the conference to be held at the Wellcome Collection on Saturday, “Assisted Reproduction – Emotional and Identity Implications for Parents and Children” will throw some light on all this.  I’ll report back.

 

 

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