This morning I watched the film Anonymous Father’s Day. Made by the US based Center for Bioethics and Culture it explores the stories of women and men who are conceived by sperm donation or, tellingly, as the film sleeve says, ‘are the children of sperm donors’. And I guess the difference between these descriptions of people conceived by sperm donation sums up the different approaches and attitudes to the acceptability of donor conception as a method of family creation. Those offspring who think of their donor as a father (and this film is only about sperm donation) and of gamete donation as a deliberate separation of biological parent and child, are almost bound to come to the conclusion that this is an unacceptable way for children to come into the world. Those who view their donor as someone with whom they have a definite genetic link, but owe no more to than gratitude for the gift he made to their parents, are comfortable with donor conception. Some have even said they would be happy to use it themselves should the need arise. How do these differences come about?
Stephanie, whose story is told in the film, wondered whilst she was growing up about why she didn’t look at all like her father. Her mother told her about her origins when she was 32, already a mother herself, and only when Stephanie enquired about her father’s on-going health problems and how they might affect her family. She was naturally deeply shocked. Interestingly enough, she says she is pleased that she did not know as a child as she feels she may have been unkind to her father, whom she loves, as a result of this knowledge. She does not seem to know that young children are highly unlikely to behave in this way, even if a parent is cruel, because of the attachment bond between parents (whether or not they are genetically connected) and children. Stephanie would like to find her ‘father’ whom she knows is Jewish and is one of those adults who believes that donor conception is a wrongful separation between kin.
Alana is the second adult we hear from at length. She is in her early twenties and was first told about her sperm donor origins at around age 5. She recalls her mother being stressed at the time of telling. Alana has a sister who was adopted from Korea. Both children came into the family during their mother’s first marriage. When this marriage ended the girl’s ‘father’ wanted custody of Alana’s sister but not her, because she reminded him too much of the woman he was divorcing. This must have been an enormously painful rejection for Alana. On re-marriage Alana’s mother and step-father went on to have a biological child between them. I have met Alana, enjoyed talking with her enormously, and know that the situation in her family affected and continues to affect her profoundly. What is unclear to me is how much this has to do with her being conceived by sperm donation.
The third adult we hear from is Canadian film-maker Barry Stevens who has made two very impressive documentaries himself about his search for his donor and half-siblings. I find Barry’s testimony the most convincing of all, partly because again I have met him personally and DC Network has played a part in bringing his half-siblings to light, but mostly because his position seems less polarised and more nuanced than the others. He is very clear that no-one has a right to withhold significant information about a person from a person, but he stops short of saying that donor conception per se is wrong. In fact he has been quoted in the past as saying that he has both a dad and a donor and that it is the man who raised him who deserves the first title.
Both Alana and researcher Elizabeth Marquardt speak of the anger that donor conceived people can find themselves at the receiving end of when they speak out about their feelings. It is as if what they say touches something very raw that many adults do not want expose themselves to. I know that Alana suffered badly at a meeting of psychologists and counsellors. This is inexcusable. As a parent of donor conceived adults and counsellor myself I abhor this behaviour. It is vital that we listen to all donor conceived people with respect. But my problem with this film was that, apart from Barry Stevens, we were hearing from those who had had very poor experiences. Where were the DC adults who do not feel that their donor is a father or that they have been deliberately separated from people who are family to them. I know lots of them as well as those whose views support the thesis of this film…which in the end is that donor conception is inevitably damaging for the ‘children’.
Anonymous Father’s Day provides very powerful evidence for changes to be made in the way that donor conception is carried out in the United States, referred to by more than one contributor as the Wild West of assisted reproduction. It is a potent plea for the very greatest care and consideration to be given to the needs of children conceived with the help of a donor. The fact of donation AND information about who that person is IS meaningful information and belongs to the donor conceived person and no-one else. But I was sad that in the end that the film moved beyond calling for changes in policy and practice and more in the direction of recommending abolishing donor conception altogether.
Researchers and ethicists can debate the rights and wrongs of creating children this way till the end of the century but in the meantime people will be finding ways to have the child they desire so deeply. Donor conception could go underground but is not going to go away. Why not concentrate on banning anonymity, ending payment for donors (shame on the HFEA for introducing payment in the UK), setting up central registries, supporting parents in being open with their children and keeping the needs of donor conceived people at the heart of everything we do.