At the viewing of Donor Unknown in Oxford last night there was a donor conceived adult that Walter and I had met about twelve years ago in Australia. She is British but was studying there when we visited the then headquarters of the Donor Conception Support Group outside Sydney. She greeted us warmly and was entirely genial throughout the Q & A session whilst at the same time making it clear that ‘telling’ early was not good enough and that she felt it was wrong to intentionally separate a child from one (or more) of their genetic parents. When I asked her afterwards if she felt that donor conception should no longer be practiced, she said ‘Yes’. She added that as we still don’t know how those told early and who appear to be comfortable with their origins will feel when they have children of their own, she felt that continuing to create children by donor conception was putting the offspring at risk.
It is undoubtedly true that there is much more we do not know about donor conception families than we do know. It is also true that in using donor conception for family creation couples and individuals knowingly set out to raise a child apart from the person who contributed their eggs or sperm to help with conception. But what of the intentions of the donor? Do these matter in this equation? From what little we know of donors and I have met a few and read some of the research on others, parenthood is absolutely not their intention. In the past they donated mostly for the money, now in the UK the profile is of a mature person who can empathise with the pain of infertility and is capable of understanding that any child he or she helps to conceive may well need to have information about them. Alan Pacey from Sheffield University, who was also at the Oxford Q & A session, said that the majority of donors he knows of in Sheffield refuse the compensation and expenses that they could have. They are good men and women who want to help others, but they do not intend to become parents.
And then there is the young woman I spoke to on the ‘phone this morning. Finding herself in her early thirties with low ovarian reserve and a poor responder to drugs, plus a husband with azoospermia, she is considering double donation. She could not be more thoughtful in the way she is going about it. The intention to parent, and parent well is strong and I have little doubt that any child would thrive given this environment.
I do not discount the importance of genetic inheritance, nor of a coherent life story that includes a donor and the possibility of contact with him or her. However, given a child’s basic need for warmth, love, security and trust, the strong intention ‘to parent’ and to be an honest one, seems to me to provide the constituent nuggets of a resilience that is likely to be able to counter or at least manage future risk as an adult.