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, who was the first Chair of DC Network, only stepping down in April 2017. He also 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 married to Rebecca, and daughter ‘Zannah, a talented therapist and healer.  Then there’s Milo, a seriously noisy and annoying but ultimately lovable Siamese cat.

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When telling early about donor conception is not always the right path to take

The default position these days is to advise parents to start telling their children the story of their donor conception from a very young age so that they will never remember a time when they didn’t know.  I have done this myself over and over at conferences and workshops and of course with individual and couple recipients of donated gametes and embryos. And usually that is the appropriate advice.  DC Network now has a zillion books for a huge variety of family and donation types that encourage all parents to – Tell early, Tell young.  But what if someone wholeheartedly believes this message and wants to do the right thing by her child but has not taken into account the culture in which the child is to be raised.  I talked with such a woman the other day.  She herself is from a very open society but since having conceived her double donation child she has married someone from a very closed culture and finds herself living in a community where donor conception is unknown but all members of the family are likely to be stigmatised and discriminated against should the child’s beginnings become known.  The woman – I’ll call her Laura – has started talking to her son but at just five he has only minimal understanding as yet.

As I was talking with Laura, it was Diane Ehrensaft’s wise words that were running through my head.  She is clear that there are only three reasons for not starting to tell when a child is young.  I’ll write them here as they appear in the Telling and Talking 0-7 book –

  1. Issues to do with the child’s ability to understand: a child with a significant learning or developmental problem may well not be able to take in information about his or her origins.
  2. Issues for the bond between parent and child: for instance if a parent has been away from the child for a long time for any reason, re-building this relationship should come before ‘telling’.  Where parents are separating or divorcing, ‘telling’ should never be used as a threat to break a relationship between parent and child.  Unless children are at real risk of learning about their origins from someone other than a parent, telling should ideally only begin when both parents agree and the emotional climate has settled down.
  3. Issues for the child from outside the immediate family: if wider family members or those in the community are likely to reject a child conceived by donated sperm, eggs or embryos, then it may be difficult for a child to feel any sense of pride about their origins.  This situation can apply where a child is being brought up within a culture or faith that disapproves of donor conception.

Ehrensaft goes on to point out that parents need to be very honest with themselves when deciding to postpone telling their child.  Concerns that a child may be upset or confused by being ‘told’ can cover anxieties and fears that properly belong to the parent and are not really to do with the child at all.

But of course in Laura’s case she is enormously keen to be open with her son.  It is the culture and community in which he is being raised that is a threat to his potential ability to be proud of who he is and how he came to exist.

I talked with Laura about how she might respond to any questions her son raises given that she has already opened the issue of how he was made with him, helping to postpone the issue to a time when he is older but without giving him the impression that this is a subject that cannot be talked about.  We also spoke about child development and how children make a leap in brain development around the age of 8 that allows a much broader understanding of donor conception and many other things. This would be the time to really talk with her son as he would then be more able to grasp that some things are private to a family and not everybody needs to know or would understand.   How he receives the news at this time will depend partly on how Laura explains it to him but I have no doubt that she will do this well because she knows where to seek support and her central concern is her son’s well-being.

It is very pleasing that in the UK at least the message of Telling Early seems to be getting through, but there are problems with this position as it becomes seen as a rule that has to be followed without the context of a child’s (or the family’s) life being taken into account.  Also people worry that if they have missed that early window then ‘telling’ later may cause damage to the child.

I would like to say loudly and clearly that TELLING LATER CAN BE DONE WELL.  Even ‘telling’ when the child has become an adult can be done without lasting damage – although there will always be shock, issues of trust and a range of emotions to be negotiated with adults.

The worst time to ‘tell’ is probably teenage years, particularly 13 to 16, but even then it is better that a teenager learns of their origins from their parent(s) in a planned way rather than by accident or as a result of a row or family breakdown.

Sadly sometimes the Telling Early message is pushed too strongly with potential gamete or embryo recipients by well-meaning counsellors, possibly at a time when the whole idea of donor conception is new and strange.  It is certainly one of the implications of taking the decision to use donor conception that needs to be raised and discussed with potential recipients. However, subtlety and nuance are likely to achieve more in sowing the seeds of decision making that is in the interest of the child than pressured pep talks.  Luckily counsellors are listeners and are responding to the message to tone it down a bit when it comes to talking about ‘telling’ in implications counselling sessions.

Child development is always the key to sharing information with children, no matter what it is.  Where the child is in their development, rather than their age in years, taken together with the  context of the child’s life, will give parents the clues they need as to when to start telling and what language to use.  Also what they might expect from a child in terms of understanding and response.  Another variable is personality and level of curiosity.  Some children ask a lot of questions and others just do not.  Some live their life with face outward to the world and others turn inwards.  Tuning in to who your child really is, rather than what we as parents assume they are or want them to be, is always the right thing to do, whatever their age.

‘Laura’ has seen this blog and given her blessing to her session with me being written about.

Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Question and Building Strong Families by Diane Ehrensaft published by Guilford.

Telling and Talking 0-7, 8-11, 12up and 17+ by Olivia Montuschi and published by the Donor Conception Network dcnetwork.org

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Balloons, sperm and the magic of a DC Network conference

April was a busy month.  Two events celebrating DC Network’s 25th anniversary took up a huge amount of energy and head space for all the office staff, particularly Director Nina, but the outcomes were a drinks reception at the House of Lords and a Conference that were both triumphs.  The weather was kind for the reception so that the doors of the Cholmondeley Room could be opened on to the terrace overlooking the Thames and the splendid view beyond.  The speeches from Ken Daniels, Professor of Social Work from New Zealand and Marilyn Crawshaw from the University of York were full of praise for the breadth of DCN’s work and the influence the organisation has around the world; Ginny, a parent, spoke of how she looked forward to continuing to be supported by DCN as her sons move into their teenage years and potentially had difficult questions; and Aled, an embryo donation conceived fifteen year old, told of the bizarre questions that friends asked when he explained that the embryo he came from had been defrosted after five years in cold storage.  Nina Barnsley, the Director, wound up by giving an update on DCN’s achievements over the years and plans for the future concluding with a plea for those present to consider helping the organisation to raise £25,000 in order to continue and expand the work.

There was a wonderful buzz around the room as people enjoyed the wine and canapés on offer and met up with old friends and colleagues.  Personally, it was great to see Dr Sheila Cooke, grandmother to the organisation, and most of the other founding families, all of whom had travelled from the North of England to be there.  I think we were all rather stunned and amazed to be celebrating 25 years since we gathered in Sheila’s clinic in Sheffield and boldly and possibly rather naively said we would start a national organisation for donor conception families.  And just look at it now!

The member’s conference last Sunday was the fiftieth in the history of DCN and sold out within 48 hours!  Two hundred and thirty people were lucky to get places and sadly another 100 were disappointed.  There were 100 children in the creche or attending the Children’s Group for 8 – 12 year olds and included amongst the 230 were a dozen or so DC teenagers and young adults.  The only venue possible for this sort of gathering is a school and DCN are delighted that a N.London secondary school has been happy to host them for the past few years.

Professor Ken Daniels gave the key-note speech, setting out the principles of good communication and confidence that both he and DCN believe are fundamental for the raising of donor conceived children who are comfortable and confident with who they are.  Later in the morning a panel of three DC adults aged 54, 37 and 26 gave the longer view of being a DC person by answering questions about how much being DC impacted on how they felt about themselves; how having their own children  (2 panel members) might have changed their perspective on being DC and if they shared the information with their children; who do they think of as ‘family’ and finally how they felt about their donor and actual or possible half-siblings.  The two older panel members know who their donor is and one is in contact with 25 half-sibs but said it was impossible to have relationships with so many people.  Via DNA testing the other is in touch with a first cousin of the donor, who via the cousin, refused to have contact with her.  She has, however, managed to find out who he is and has a photo of him.  The youngest panel member is intrigued by the idea of half-siblings but has not taken any steps as yet to find them.  Unlike the other two, he was told of his DC conception from an early age. He has a very close relationship with his parents and his DC (different donor) brother and cannot imagine anyone else being considered as ‘family’.  He has curiosity about his donor but no interest in contact.  His brother has never shown any interest in anything to do with his conception. This panel gave a fascinating insight into the different eras of donor conception and how both thoughts and feelings about being DC can change over time.

Whilst presentations and panels, like the excellent ones above, are an important part of any conference, the lasting impact of the event is in the friendships that are made over lunch and tea-breaks, breaking isolation and giving members a whole day in which they know that every person next to them in the coffee or lunch queue is going to understand their story.   People were loosely divided into different donation or family types for the morning long refreshment break and in the afternoon, following a session where a solo mum and her 17 year old daughter answered questions from the audience, members divided into pre-selected topic groups.  I facilitated a group of parents who had chosen Talking to Friends and Family.  Everyone had children and had started to share the information with others but in some cases only either the husband’s or wife’s family knew and with children advancing in age and articulacy they knew they had to change this.  For some it was fear of upsetting elderly and/or conservative parents – in one case worrying that the parents would worry about their grand-daughter’s future, and in two cases there were issues of language.  Parents who could speak English but not read it (so no point in giving them a Friends and Family Telling and Talking book) or parents who remained in the country of origin of the member and only spoke that language.  The power of groups is that members often have wisdom to offer each other and just coming together with others can help shift ideas…as with one couple who were contemplating telling their child and only telling their own parents when the child was old enough to speak about it.  Other group members helped them to see that telling their own parents first would help the child by giving them a community to grow up in where conversations could be open and supportive and ‘telling’ others would not be the child’s burden.

As is now often the case, the conference had an international contingent with Ken Daniels and his wife from New Zealand certainly having come the furthest, but Vince Londini from the DC parent support group in London, Ontario was hard on his heels with Claudia Brugge and her family coming from DI Netz in Germany.  DCN are always proud and pleased to have visitors from abroad and on Monday morning Vince and Claudia came to the DCN office to talk to staff about their organisations.

The conference ended with tea and wonderful birthday cakes.  A group of DC teenagers speculated whether the decorations on them were balloons or sperm and one decided it was sperm entering the egg!  When young people can joke about their means of conception you can be pretty sure they feel OK.  A perfect end to a perfect day.

 

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What if your donor turns out to be a Trump supporter?

Via Carole Leiber-Wilkins on Facebook I recently came across a podcast on the site of a platform called Death, Sex and Money.  These topics are often thought of as ones to be avoided in polite conversation for fear of offending others, so this set-up has deliberately taken on the taboo and puts out thought provoking broadcasts on the topics we actually all want to hear about.  Cue donor conception and the story of Amy who innocently took a DNA test and discovered the identity of her biological father…the sperm donor her parents had used to conceive her over forty years ago.  I won’t spoil the story completely as the podcast absolutely deserves listening to all the way through (although there is a very annoying commercial break half-way for the company to let us know who they are and advertise forthcoming podcasts) but it ends with Amy and her sister, also DC but with different donor, making very individual choices about the way forward.  After having contact with a half-sibling who had been in touch with their donor, Amy decides that these people have nothing in common with her – and there is a very up to date context about this decision – and not to have anything further to do with them, at least for the time being.  She also partly wishes that she could go back to a time when she didn’t know about being donor conceived.  Amy’s sister, on the other hand, is enjoying being in touch with a large number of half-siblings.

Amy’s raising father is now dead but she had a very close relationship with him.  She is shocked that he never revealed the truth to her but she is also immensely loyal to the very fond memories she has of him.  Her mother is elderly now and only spoke the truth about her daughter’s conceptions when they asked her directly about them…but the two women were careful to approach their mother kindly.  They had been raised with care and love.

What should we make of Amy’s reluctance to have a relationship with her biological father and half-siblings?  The current orthodoxy is that donor conceived people who discover their origins late and without being told in a planned way, are likely to feel deceived and that trust has been undermined in the family.  They are portrayed as always having a real need to search for biological relatives in order to try and understand the recently discovered other side of themselves and it is considered a bonus if they find these people are open to having a relationship with them.  More controversially it is sometimes said by some DC adults that those of their peers who shy away from searching through loyalty to their raising parents, are denying their real needs and feelings to have contact with bio relatives.  But what if, like Amy, they have had an opportunity to learn about the donor and some half-siblings and really don’t like what they see. And although we rarely encounter them on-line, there must be DC people who find relatives after deliberate searching, and also discover that they do not instantly like them or recognise similarities and after a short exchange of information do not pursue the relationship any further.  And we all know how bio relatives we are forced to see regularly because of ‘duty’ relationships are often people we would not necessarily choose to be in our lives.

My own sense is that Amy is at one end of a very broad spectrum of responses to discovering that you are donor conceived.  There is absolutely no one size fits all.  It is also interesting that she was raised in a family where there was love, warmth and security available from both parents.  Not honesty about the donor conception but it is important to recognise the era in which the conception took place…late sixties if I recall rightly, when no-one thought that openness was right for anyone.  Even though Amy discovered her origins via ‘innocent’ DNA testing rather than being told by her parents, I can’t help wondering if she was protected from the most extreme of responses by the fact that her upbringing provided her with the ingredients of resilience.  My own small scale informal research with people who have had their method of conception revealed to them as adults has shown that being told in a planned way by both parents, who were willing to keep talking afterwards and were responsive to their needs, resulted in family relationships remaining intact and even improving as a result of the secret (often a source of great distress to the parents) having been removed.  Professor Ken Daniels from New Zealand has had similar findings.

These are thoughts rather than conclusions.  Have a listen to the podcast and see what you think.

https://overcast.fm/+BmH_8Va2s

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Happy 25th Birthday Donor Conception Network

January is over and I find it hard to believe that I have not blogged for many weeks.  A virus that wouldn’t shift blocked my capacity to think for much of that time but now that my energy is returning it really is time to celebrate 2018 as the 25th Anniversary of the Donor Conception Network.

Back in 1992 an article appeared in The Times about a story book for young children called My Story.  Walter and I could hardly believe what we were reading.  A book that we could read to our children to help explain to them about being conceived with the help of a sperm donor!  We contacted Dr. Sheila Cooke from the Jessop Hospital for Women in Sheffield to ask how we could get hold of the book and also to offer ourselves in any research that was being undertaken into DC families (although sperm donation was called DI in those days).  Sheila invited us to come to Sheffield to meet with the two women, mothers to DI children, who had written the book.  A few weeks later, in early 1993, the three families who had responded to the article plus the two authors of the book, met in Sheila’s DI clinic and agreed to start a national organisation to support and link donor conception families.  Sheila was clear from the start that the organisation should be led by parents rather than professionals and this principle has remained.

It is possible that the initial enthusiasm would have faded over the next few months as we all returned to our own parts of the country and busy lives, except that it turned out that a BBC documentary team wanted to make a film about donor conception and had asked Sheila if they could film in her clinic.  Sheila boldly told the programme makers about the new organisation and the BBC arranged for all five families to be put up in a Sheffield hotel whilst they filmed us talking about our personal stories.  When we weren’t filming we were desperately trying to decide what to call this new organisation and what our constitution would be.  Luckily we all got along very well and were absolutely on the same page with regards to the wish to be open with our children.  The film, Seeds of Secrecy, was shown two months later with a Post Office Box number (no email or internet in those days) given so that people could get in touch.  And get in touch they did…DI Network was born.

Over the years, what started as a kitchen table charity has evolved into a professional organisation, but one with heart.  It became obvious that further books for children were needed as lesbians and single women were having children by DI in greater numbers and DI Network was beginning to be approached by families using egg donation.  Could they join please?  At this point it was clear that a new name was needed and alongside the change to Donor Conception Network came a fresh logo and identity.  Alongside more and more parents using the children’s books came requests for ways in which to introduce the books, questions about the right age to start and language that might be used in family conversations.  Raising money for projects like new books, or anything else, has always been difficult because of the niche nature of donor conception and because it isn’t a ‘sexy’ cause (not sexy having fertility treatment either!),  but DCN has been lucky in attracting government money from the Department of Education’s Parenting Fund for the first four books in the Telling and Talking series for parents; the Department of Health for the first workshops Preparing Parents for DC Parenthood and Telling and Talking workshops for those with children and the Nuffield Foundation for further Telling and Talking books and the wonderful novel for 8 – 12 year olds called Archie Nolan: Family Detective.  More recently, three funds have provided money for developing and refreshing the ‘Our Story’ range of books for children (release Spring/Summer 2018), the training of volunteers and, very excitingly, the NEW packs of materials for parents to give to nursery/primary school teachers in order to support their children in school.  There are also resources for primary age children to help them answer questions from friends.  These wonderful materials are being launched as part of the 25th Anniversary.  There is much to celebrate, although money always remains a problem.

It has of course not all been straightforward over the years.  When it came to ending anonymity for donors the DCN Steering Group (forerunners to Trustees) knew that many members would not be keen on this.  In fact one of the founders was quite vehemently against it (a dedicated ‘nurture’ man who, because he worked with doctors, disliked some people being proud of the fact that ‘their’ donor was probably a medical student).  The decision was taken to provide strong leadership to the members and declare DCN as being in favour of ending anonymity, this being in line with our principle of openness.  The human rights case taken by Joanna Rose on behalf of all DC adults undoubtedly pushed the government into consulting on the ending of anonymity for donors but the  position DCN took on this matter helped the Labour Minister of the time, Melanie Johnson, to take the brave decision to end anonymity from 2005.  This was in the face of opposition from almost all fertility doctors who could not believe that the government would go against their wishes and advice.

The concerns of 1993 and 2004/5 are by and large not the concerns of today.  Because of the nearness of 2023 when the first children conceived in 2005 become 18, one of the biggest challenges is preparing parents for this time by helping them to view the donor as a whole human being who may come into the lives of their children and the family if their child chooses to ask for identifiable information.  Helping parents not only to not feel threatened by this possibility but also supporting them in having conversations with their children about the realities of finding the information…which could be anything from a wonderful relationship developing to discovering the person does not want anything to do with them or is dead.  Children conceived abroad will of course not have the right to identifiable information and another challenge is supporting their parents, and potentially the children themselves, with this reality.

DNA testing is completely changing the landscape of donor conception and getting the message over to parents and others that anonymity prior to 18 cannot be guaranteed and that maybe half-sibling relationships before late teenage years could be very positive for everyone.  Personally I feel another big challenge is helping parents to understand that just because their young, school-age or even teenage child seems to have no issue whatsoever being donor conceived, doesn’t mean that they will not be a) curious and/or b) need to make links with genetic relatives when they get older.

I have no doubt that the Donor Conception Network fulfils a need for people who find that DC is their only way of creating a family, that could not be met by any other organisation.  It has far more resources and services than any other DC focussed group in the whole world and is the only one to have a permanent office with paid staff who pick up the phone daily to people in tears who are just so grateful to talk to someone who ‘understands.’

The views expressed in this blog are always my own and occasionally deviate from those of DCN, but at heart I remain completely at one with the original philosophy of ‘parent led; child centred’ support for all parties involved in donor conception and the belief that donor conceived people are shaped, like everyone else, by a combination of genetics and growing conditions.

It has been my pleasure and privilege to be part of the Donor Conception Network for the whole of its quarter century. Happy Birthday DCN.

 

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The tricky question of ‘matching’

When Walter and I decided to use a sperm donor to have a child thirty-five years ago our doctor took a photograph of us both and said he would use a donor who ‘matched’ with our general looks, and particularly the skin, hair and eye colour of Walter.  We were given no description whatsoever and asked for none.  That was how it was in those days.  The assumption of the staff at the clinic was that we would not be ‘telling’ our children and they were surprised when we said that we would be doing so.  Thirty years ago ‘matching’ was almost certainly done to disguise the fact of donor conception.  If a child generally fits in with the colouring of their parents then people tend not to ask questions.  Our children, despite being MUCH taller than their dad, are like each of us in terms of hair, eye and skin colour and no-one has ever asked…but we told everybody anyway!  I think it feels comfortable for us all that we do ‘fit’ in this way, although in many others ways we are all very different.

Of course we all know families where children look very little like their parents or there is one sibling who stands out with red hair or strong features of some sort.  Jokes about the role of the milkman abound but most families feel very secure in the knowledge that a child is the genetic offspring of the person or couple concerned and these differences mostly do not cause upset.   Donor conception families are different.  There can be great sensitivity about looks when there is an unknown (anonymous or identifiable) donor in the mix.

‘Matching’ – at least in the UK – these days is supposed to be all about helping a child to fit in with their raising family, rather than as a way of keeping inquisitive questions at bay.  Information beyond a basic phenotype is given about the donor.  There may be a pen portrait and even a letter to the child.   Some choice about the donor is seen as being helpful for the intending parents to accept and adjust to using DNA from another person and for the child to be able to have knowledge about the man or woman who contributed to their existence available for them as they grow up.   But I know one donor conceived young adult who hates the idea that she might be the result of a shopping list that her parents set out as requirements.  She feels that as little as possible information should be available to recipients of donated gametes so that there are no expectations laid on the child and they are free to be who they want to be.  This of course raises the spectre of ‘designer babies’ and the potential for choosing features and talents in the donor that do not exist in the make-up of the recipients.  My experience in talking with intending and actual parents is that they don’t usually want exceptional IQ, looks or prowess in music or sport.  They want a child that will ‘fit’ with their family.  The problem is that if they happen to have a particular talent or interest, or are even educated to a particular level, and seek to replicate this in a donor, what happens when the resulting child does not appear in the slightest bit interested or is not academic?  Genetics plays tricks like that.

I have written before about a family I know where the existing child in the family is pale skinned and sandy haired and the younger child, conceived via an egg donor in Spain, has olive skin and dark brown eyes.  This child’s difference stands out, particularly in a rural part of the UK, where dark skins are rarely seen.  Before she was told of her donor conception the little girl was very confused about her difference to the rest of the family.  At meetings of DC Network many children with typical Spanish colouring can be seen running around.  They are all being told of their conception abroad and very often their origins are being celebrated in support of football teams and interest in Spanish language and culture.  We don’t yet know how these children will feel about this ‘difference’ as they grow older and have thoughts and feelings of their own, but at least parents are being upfront about it and are open to their children being curious.  Mostly these parents will have understood that it is likely that their child will share some features with their Spanish donor.  But what if parents are ill-prepared or just surprised at their own reaction when their child has dark skin, eyes and hair?  As I said before, genetics plays tricks like this.

In Spain, recipients of donated eggs are rarely given more information about a donor than her age and her blood group.  Many N.European intending parents are anxious to have a light-skinned donor so that a child will fit in their family (and sadly sometimes to hide the fact of egg donation), but as  Dr Raul Olivares of Barcelona IVF points out in an article on the website of this clinic, matching takes place with the donor but not with her sister, mother, father or grandmother.  There can be recessive genes that show themselves in the next generation, so absolutely no guarantees can be given that a light skinned donor will contribute to the birth of a light skinned child.

Whilst attempts to match for skin colour may produce a child who is obviously different, the same principle is true for any child, conceived with donated gametes or not.   There can be absolutely no guarantees that any child will have the features, talents or abilities of the two people who contributed their DNA to his or her existence.  Those who long for a mini-me are bound to be disappointed.

So ‘matching’ is complicated.  ‘Fitting’ in a family is on the whole a good idea, although obvious difference can be managed with openness. Information to give to the child is likely to be helpful but a list of required assets in a child is not good for anyone.  A disappointed parent is unlikely to raise an emotionally healthy child.  A child who has expectations placed on them because of features chosen in a donor (or in the unassisted conception world, parental demands) is unlikely to be a happy person.

Donor conception has always seemed to me to be an opportunity to raise a child or children in wonder and awe at their developing features and talents and to nurture them whatever they are.  Our son has become an amazingly successful business man; our daughter a therapist and healer, a truly spiritual person.  Are Walter and I like that?  No we are not, but we enjoy and celebrate the differences, loving our children for whoever they are.

https://barcelonaivf.com/en/egg-donation-because-light-plus-light-could-be-dark/

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Donor Conception: a surprising view from Germany

If, as a non-German, you were asked to guess what the attitude to donor conception in Germany would be and what was allowed and not allowed there, I wonder what you would think?  Although both Walter and I have been closely in touch with those active in the donor conception field in Germany for a long time, I think we were both still taken aback at the conference we attended in Goettingen at the weekend to realise how much influence the church, and specifically the Catholic Church, has in debates around both the ethics and practicalities of third party assisted reproduction.

The conference, brought together in a collaboration between the University of Goettingen, DI Netz (the much smaller equivalent of DC Network) and the German Society for Fertility Counselling, aimed to address the challenges, different approaches and family realities of donor conception in Germany.  Sperm donation has been allowed in this country for some time.  Embryo donation has been approved only recently -largely on the basis that it gives the possibility of life to otherwise unwanted embryos created in IVF cycles.  Egg donation remains outlawed because of the separation of motherhood between egg provider and gestator.  This of course does not mean that German women do not have egg donation -of course they do, they go abroad – but it does mean that counselling and guidance about egg donation have to be carried out secretly and that it is difficult for families with an egg donor conceived child to be open about it.  Surrogacy is also against the law, but again couples go abroad and face problems on their return.

The presentations at the event were designed to offer a broad perspective, so we heard from German ethicists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers and counsellors (sometimes in German and sometimes in English) plus excellent contributions from Sophie Zadeh from Cambridge UK about her research on solo mums by sperm donation and old friend Astrid Indeku from Belgium on women’s experiences of pregnancy and birth following egg donation.  There was also an interview with Sven, a donor conceived adult, by Petra Thorn, another long-standing friend who has done so much for DC families in Germany.  Sven had only discovered his conception status two years ago in his early thirties.  His difficulties in getting his parents to talk to him about this, even after his confrontation of them, was painful and sad to hear.

Walter and I had been asked to speak about a number of topics.  First of all, an update on our own story, now that our ‘children’ are in their thirties; then something about our experiences of the dynamics in families in DC Network and finally to try and pin down how it was possible to ‘grow’ DC Network from a very amateur kitchen table charity twenty-five years ago to the professional organisation it is now. DI Netz, still only in it’s fourth year, is of course very interested in this. We identified a number of factors – five  ‘all of the same mind’ families, with different skills and committed from the beginning to the simple philosophy of being parent led/child centred support group for anyone using donor conception and interested in being open or exploring being open with their children; four of the families being willing to do high profile publicity; not afraid to charge for membership and not being afraid to show leadership.  Of course DCN started in a very different era when it was possible to grow slowly and learn as it went along.  The internet, with it’s instant information and connection, makes users more demanding and social media, whilst offering the possibility of talking with others sharing questions and dilemmas, also has potential for abuse, making putting your head above the parapet a much dicier game these days.  Walter and I are much admiring of Claudia B who does so much of the work, particularly around the lobbying of parliament, for DI Netz and were so sad she was unable to be at the conference.

Although we were unable to understand the presentations in German, a combination of whispered translations from friends and some parallel slides in English helped us to get the drift of what was going on.  But I think understanding the detailed content of the two days was probably less important than the spaces in between when we were able to re-connect with old friends and colleagues and make new connections with like-minded people who are all fighting for a system in Germany that will not only remove anonymity for donors – a law to clarify what has been a very complex situation on this will come into force on 1st July next year – but to end the stigma of donor conception for recipients, donors and those born from third party assisted conception.  And for this to come about it will mean the church being challenged as the ultimate authority on these matters.

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The ordinary but extraordinary experience of another DCN conference

Next year is DC Network’s 25th Anniversary but before everyone gets their glad rags on to celebrate, let’s just acknowledge the success of this small but vibrant organisation by describing the 49th family conference that took place in Bristol this last weekend.  The venue is a secondary school, the only space that can accommodate all the people and activities that take place; a hall for presentations; a refectory for refreshments; many classrooms for small discussion groups; a large space or spaces for a creche to care for babies to twelve year olds; and more intimate spaces for a workshop for 8 – 12 year olds and a facilitated group for teens and twenties.  Members are welcomed warmly as they arrive – first-timers (particularly men and single women) looking anxious, and directions given to loos, the cafe and the bookshop and lending library, creche and children’s group.

After people, some with babies in buggies, are gathered in the auditorium and following initial welcomes and remarks, the Chair of DCN invites people to turn to the person nearest to them that they didn’t come with and introduce themselves.  What a contrast to the strained silence and eye contact avoidance of a clinic waiting room…and what a buzz of conversation as 120 people’s stories begin to be told.

The first item on the agenda this time is a panel of five children and young people – three male, two female – ranging in age from eleven to twenty-three and Chaired by a female donor conceived adult.   Whilst all panel members are donor conceived, they come from different family and donation types – two from solo mum families, the youngest boy from a same sex couple family and with a known donor and a brother and sister (same donor) from a heterosexual couple family.  One of the solo mum young people knows two of her half sisters (same donor) and the boy who has a solo mum is embryo donor conceived.  After they introduced themselves they were asked about their experiences at school – some having been open about being DC, others not – and about the materials that DCN have started to produce for parents to give to teachers in nursery and primary schools.  They had had time prior to the event to read the leaflets and most felt they were enormously positive and could be helpful for parents and teachers and very supportive for children.  Probably because of their invisibility as part of a ‘standard family’, the siblings from a heterosexual couple family were the only ones whose origins were not known about by their school and who felt there was little reason to share the information with teachers.   The most interesting part of the panel for me was when the Chair asked the young people about any times when they had had mixed or negative feelings about being donor conceived.  All except the youngest could recall incidences or periods of time when they had questions in their head that could not be answered or had felt unsure about themselves because of being donor conceived.  But they also recognised that being a teenager is difficult anyway and that feelings that were normal for that stage in life could become confused with feelings about being donor conceived.  I think everyone in the audience felt privileged to hear from such articulate and thoughtful young people.

This was a very hard act to follow, but two counselling psychologist researchers from the University of the West of England and The Open University did their best to give headlines from research into the well-being of DC children and their own research into embryo donation donors and families.  For me, the most interesting part came at the end when they said that differences between egg, sperm and embryo donation families and their children were beginning to emerge.  This is something that has been hinted at but not clearly identified before and I will be following up.

Hour-long facilitated small groups followed with participants divided into family type groups of around ten people to introduce themselves and talk about what they had heard in the morning.  As usual, everyone in my group ended up talking about ‘telling’ and a lively discussion about the word ‘sperm’ ensued.  Parents just don’t like it!

Lunch time is always a special moment, not just for falling on food following an early breakfast, but for catching up with old friends, making new ones and generally chatting with people who ‘get it’.  Parents are reunited with children who have been in the creche or children’s group and those without children yet are filled with hope that their time will come and that DC children do not have horns or ‘I am donor conceived’ tattooed on their foreheads.

Back in the hall, with most children safely back in the creche, the day continues with Network news and huge thanks to representatives of the Van Neste foundation for funding the writing and production of the leaflets for schools.  Nina also announces that DCN has had a grant for producing new story books to include surrogacy for all family types which gives an opportunity to update the illustrations in all the story books, and also some money to improve the training of volunteers working within the organisation.

And then, as Nina said, now for something completely different.  Repeating a performance she gave at the DCN London conference in April, one of the members, someone from a non-Western culture who has had a fascinating career in music and performance art, told the story of how she came to conceive her son by egg donation at the age of 56.  This is not an uncontroversial thing to have done and I personally have mixed feelings about it, but it was hard not to be completely charmed by her story-telling which included some fairly bonkers video clips from her earlier life.

We then adjourned to small groups again, this time topic based, mine being Telling and Talking with very young children.  Most of the people present had little ones by egg donation and one woman was pregnant with an egg donor baby.  Those with children said that they had started talking with their babies about how they were conceived but that now the children were verbal they found it very hard to continue.  After a few minutes of wrestling with why this might be, one woman very honestly and insightfully said that she thought it was because now her child could speak she was afraid of rejection.  There was a lot of nodding from others.  This fear is so visceral for parents.  We talked about being kind to ourselves but at the same time setting little challenges to get some of the words out there, using the Our Story book as an example of keeping the language very simple.  And talking of language, everyone in this group, apart from one, hated the word ‘sperm’ too!

The end of the day.  Lots of hugs, exchanges of contact details, last minute bookshop purchases, flurries of lost items of clothing, gathering up the books and flowers, taking notices down from the walls and a feeling of huge satisfaction at being part of something truly wonderful and ground breaking.  Just another DCN conference.

The Schools Project materials referred to are currently available only to DC Network members.  When the project is completed the leaflets will be made available to anyone via the DCN website dcnetwork.org probably for a small fee.

 

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