Family building and donor conception: what does it mean?

So many interesting questions and issues were raised at the invitation only event put on by PROGAR (Project Group on Assisted Reproduction) at the Nuffield Foundation yesterday.  The main speaker was the wonderful Professor Ken Daniels from New Zealand and the title of his presentation ‘A research and practice-informed approach to family building using donor conception’.  One of Ken’s first observations was that so much research only gives a snapshot of what participants thought or felt at one moment.  Unless there is follow-up, and there have been no longitudinal studies of donor conceived people, although one or two of families, then it is impossible to show how attitudes, thoughts and feelings change over time…and change they do.  It is also not possible to do controlled studies in an area that is so personal and remains in the shadow of secrecy, if not actually shrouded by it any longer in most of the English speaking world.

One of the important things that all members of donor conception families have to do is manage the ambiguity and uncertainty of social and biological relationships and connections.  Ken played a video clip of a donor conceived man in his twenties in New Zealand exclaiming how little biology meant to him.  The security, warmth and inclusiveness of his parent’s love was all he felt he needed to feel whole.   His sister however, not featured in the clip, apparently feels quite differently.  Biology has great meaning for her. Some may ask, how is it possible for two children growing up in the same household to feel so differently, but they are of course different people, possibly with different donors, and, as we always say in DC Network, none of us can ever know how our children are going to feel, no matter how much we love them (and of course having an interest in biological or genetic background does not mean a rejection of parents).

Parents too have to manage these ambiguities.  People often say that they chose donor conception (say, over adoption) because, ‘at least one of us will be related genetically to the child’.  Many will then go on to say that they hope their love will be enough so that the child doesn’t want to know too much about the donor and his or her background.  Well, if genetics has been important for them, might it not also be important for the child too?    Ken posed a question that it is important for all donor conception parents to ponder…what does biological and social parenting mean to you?  I suppose in my own family we have always put relationships first.  There has never been a denial of the donors involved in creating two of our children but with three children all with different male progenitors but the same (social) father, it is the relationships we all value that has kept us together as a family.  My eldest son (conceived without help in my first marriage) did need to find his biological father to put ghosts to rest; our daughter has registered with UK DonorLink and is curious, particularly about half-siblings, but is a strong supporter from an anthropological perspective of the social family; our other son, at 29, remains completely uninterested in his donor.  His identity or ipseity to use the term I have referred to before, seems to come from a strong sense of family and his achievements in life.

I digress.  One of the things I found most interesting about Ken’s talk was when he told us about how embryo donation is managed in New Zealand.  The two families – donors and potential recipients – are brought together by the clinic and encouraged to get to know each other as it is assumed from the outset that the children, who will be full siblings, will be in contact with each other.  In order to facilitate this the families will need to get on together.  Sometimes, apparently, one of the couples will pull out of the arrangement because they just don’t feel it is going to work out.  How wonderfully transparent and civilised this is.  Everyone working together in the interests of the children.  Truly family building.

Which brings me to this term, family building.  What does it mean in the context of donor conception?  Well, it is certainly possible to talk about it as being opposite to a treatment based model, where a couple come to the end of the road with using their own gametes to conceive and the clinic recommends that they move on to donor conception.  This is then treated as the next logical option if they wish to have a baby and they are informed about the procedures that need to take place in order for this to happen.  The couple – or single woman – if they are lucky, then become parents of a donor conceived child who may be treated as different or odd in some way because of their origins. Parents have no opportunity to see themselves as a donor conception family, but instead are people who have a donor conceived child.

A family building model understands from the outset that people who wish to become parents are holding a child ‘in mind’ even before conception takes place.  Ellen Galinsky, in her important 1987 book The Six Stages of Parenthood, calls this the Image Making stage when would-be parents plan and fantasise about their child and the family they will become. When conception does not happen easily – or in circumstances they would have preferred, as happens with a lot of single women – then there is a process of grief and adjustment to go through.  A family building approach in a fertility clinic would recognise the need for support, grieving and adjustment as part of thinking about the future of the family to be created.  Also understood would be the need for preparation for donor conception parenting where recognition of difference and acceptance of certain responsibilities needs to sit alongside all the other qualities and skills required of new parents.  A family building approach would fundamentally not be just about ‘making a baby’ but creating conditions in which couples and single women were encouraged to think about the future and balance their own need to nurture with the needs of the whole family for the rest of their lives.  Just as a couple or single woman hold in mind a child, the clinic would be holding in mind the needs of the whole family and supporting the would-be parent(s) in adjusting to a slightly different future from the one envisaged…but no less fulfilling or wonderful.

I’d be interested to know what it means to you.


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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2 Responses to Family building and donor conception: what does it mean?

  1. Janice says:

    Really good to hear your thoughts, Olivia. I would have really liked to have been able to be there at Ken’s talk. As the offspring of a sperm donor, who was only identified in my middle age after significant research –and serindipity–, I can identify with much that is written here about the complexity of social and biological connections. To get one’s head around one’s unusual way of being conceived takes time to sort out and settle before being embraced to become part of one’s identity. Thank you for posting this, and I look forward to more from you!

    • oliviasview says:

      Thanks J. At the last session yesterday we had two donor conceived adults on a panel. The older one, who had not learned of her DC status until age 23, was one of B and D’s sibs I hadn’t met before. Lovely woman.

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