‘Telling’ when the donor is anonymous

Extraordinarily, it is now six years since DC Network published the four Telling and Talking booklets supporting and guiding parents in sharing donor conception information with their children at different ages.  They sell well, particularly the first one for parents of under sevens and earlier in August the distributor (who is actually one of DCN’s Trustees and her DC son) realised that she was running out of stock.  An urgent re-print was needed but this was also an opportunity to include something about ‘telling’ when the donor is anonymous and of course these days (in the UK at least) this means that conception will have taken place abroad.  The updated booklets are being printed as I write but here’s a preview of the new section –

Identifiable or anonymous donor

Anonymity for sperm, egg and embryo donors ended in the UK in April 2005 with a transition period until April 2006 when anonymous sperm and embryos donated prior to April 2005 could continue to be used.  Since that time all UK donors have had to agree to be identifiable or ‘willing to be known’ to children conceived as a result of their gift once that young person has become 18.  The same rules apply to donors of sperm and eggs imported to the UK from abroad.

Most people reading this booklet who have had donor fertility treatment in the UK will now have children who will be able to ask for identifiable details of their donor from age 18 onwards if they choose to do so.  Some of you may also have an older child who was conceived prior to the ending of anonymity so that your children have different rights of access to information (see section on Dealing with Difference).

Anonymity for donors was ended because of overwhelming evidence that it is in the interests of donor conceived people that they should be able to have information about the person who contributed to creating their life if they feel this is important and they choose to have it.  Of course donor conceived people can only make this choice if they know about their conception.  Telling is always the right thing to do, whether the donor is anonymous or identifiable.

Many parents have ambivalent feelings about children making connections with their donor and fear another person potentially disrupting family life and displacing the non-genetic parent in their child’s affection.  They feel that an anonymous donor would remove this risk.  Sometimes because of this and sometimes due to an actual or perceived shortage of donated gametes in the UK, couples and single women (have been and continue to) seek donor fertility treatment, particularly egg donation, abroad.

Going abroad and ‘telling’

Most of the countries that UK residents travel to for egg donation retain strict anonymity for donors.  Some clinics in these countries give very little information at all about the donors.  As a consequence some parents wonder whether ‘telling’ their child about their donor conception overseas is the right thing to do as curiosity about the donor would only lead to frustration.  However, other parents believe that the imperative to be honest with their children remains strong and that learning later of a conception abroad might only add to the shock of late discovery.  Many have decided that a policy of pride about the country and culture of the donor (and this may be different to the country in which the child was conceived) will help their child to feel a connection to the donor even if his or her details are not available.  It has been shown that a child’s adjustment to information about their donor conception origins is influenced enormously by parental attitudes, so it is a great advantage for parents to aim to be as confident and comfortable as possible about their decision. But it remains true that children conceived via anonymous donation abroad will find themselves in a very different position to children conceived in the UK at the same time.

We don’t yet know how many donor conceived children, conceived abroad or in the UK since 2005 and ‘told’ in early childhood, will want information about their donor.  Informal and some formal research is showing that children ‘told’ early are likely to be much more comfortable about their origins than those who learn late, but curiosity of some sort is normal for them all.

Lessons from adoption

Although adoption is not the same as donor conception, experience from this field suggests that about half of adopted people seek information about their birth parents.  Adopted women tend to search earlier than men.  We can only speculate that a similar percentage of donor conceived adults will want information about or contact with their donor.  As donor conceived girls tend to ask questions earlier and more often than boys, it is likely that those conceived in the UK may seek contact with their donor sooner than will boys.

Whether conceived in the UK or abroad, interest in and questions about their donor are part of a very normal process of identity building in teenage and young adult years.  Young people often want as much information as parents are able to give them in order to learn more about themselves and not because they want to displace, upset or hurt you in any way.  Here again, the experience of most adopted people searching out their birth relatives is that the strength of their relationship with their adoptive parents remains intact throughout.  In families formed by donor conception too, the emotional ties that have bound you together for so long are likely to be strong, unless there are particular reasons for them to have been weakened.

Telling when you have an anonymous donor

In the UK before 2005 all donors were anonymous, although there may have been significant non-identifiable information about them available.   As their children grew up, parents from this era who had been talking to their children from a young age, had to explain to their questioning 7 or 8 year olds that the sperm or eggs that helped make them came from a man or woman that they were unlikely ever to know.  Parents sometimes added that they were sure this was a good person because they wanted to help another family have a child.   As the rest of this booklet has indicated, if this information is shared early and often then the child is likely to feel comfortable, at least until teenage years when further questions can arise.

Parents of children conceived abroad with gametes from anonymous donors can follow this model and add from time to time the information that they do have, including interest in and excitement about the donor’s country of origin and anything connected to it, like places of interest, the weather, music or sporting achievements.  A child may or may not choose to follow this up as they grow older but positive comments about the donor and anything connected to him or her are likely to help a child feel good about how s/he was conceived.

Dealing with difference

If you have one child or children conceived by an anonymous donor and another by an identifiable donor (through legislative changes or through overseas conception) you may be anxious about explaining the differences in the possibilities for contact.  This can also occur when a family has one child conceived without help and then adds to their family by donor conception.  The issue is only likely to arise as your children grow older (say 8 or above) and potentially start to ask more sophisticated questions about their donors or likenesses in the family.  At this sort of age they are capable of understanding about changes in the law (explained simply) or circumstances that pertained at the time, and how you would not necessarily have planned for this difference, but that it has turned out this way.

It is also possible that a child conceived abroad will become aware as they grow older of the rights that UK donor conceived children have and ask about these.  It is likely to be helpful to think about this in advance and have a simple explanation that is congruent with the facts and is not defensive in any way.

Whatever the difference, the more matter of fact you are about it, the more your child is likely to accept the situation as just one of those things.  Listening to and accepting feelings, whatever they are, will help your child integrate information and adjust.

See the booklet for ages 8 – 11 for more help with responding to feelings about difference.  Parents with children who have been conceived both with and without donated gametes will find further information and support in the booklet, Mixed Blessings: Building a family with and without donor help, available to download from http://www.dcnetwork.org

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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15 Responses to ‘Telling’ when the donor is anonymous

  1. RachelP says:

    Have not read all of this but just caught this sentence, “It has been shown that a child’s adjustment to information about their donor conception origins is influenced enormously by parental attitudes”.

    Erm, no, it hasn’t, not by academic peer-reviewed research.

    I also don’t like the use of the word ‘adjustment’ in this context, as it implies that there is a normative response to donor information and therefore, conversely, an ‘abnormal’ or ‘maladjusted’ response. It is not the first time you’ve insinuated this Olivia.

    Was this run past any DC adults before being published?

  2. oliviasview says:

    I’m sorry if this does not accord with your experience Rachel but it is true for the DC adults brought up within DC Network that I have talked to (and those told early who were interviewed by our daughter Zannah for her dissertation) and for many others. If parents are confident, comfortable and open then children are likely to feel the same way. If you read the rest of the chapter you will see that I acknowledge that different levels of curiosity are of course very usual and to be expected for all DC children/young people and adults.

  3. donor conceived says:

    This just seems like more of the same script.

    “gift”, “children who will be able to ask for identifiable details of their donor from age 18”, “donor conceived people that they should be able to have information about the person who contributed to creating their life “, “Parents sometimes added that they were sure this was a good person because they wanted to help another family have a child”

    There is no gift in pre-conception intentional relinquishing on behalf of the child/person created. There is no magic age of 18 – infact that age of disclosure might be even more difficult. That missing person who contributed to creating their life IS their biological father/mother. As the children mature they might see past this ‘happy talk’ and realize that ‘the good person who wanted to help’ is actually their father (or mother) who along half of their family, has been denied to them. And that is a recipe for disenfranchised grief – no script can cure that. All people eventually think for themselves.

  4. donor conceived says:

    I certainly would never ever want to try to convince/persuade a ‘donor’ conceived person who is happy with the script they’ve been raised with to ever question it. I want more than anything for dc people to be fine with it. BUT that script is often pushed as an ‘ideal’ way to think and handle the situation. As a consequence, more often than not, those people who dare to publically challenge that script are shamed as malcontents, not raised the right way, have issues that are non-related to what they say their issue is. What I read here for the most part supports the script and down grades the ‘malcontents’ as having issues beyond the fact that their parent(s) used a sperm ‘donor’. ‘If the parents followed the script then those malcontents would have any bone to pick with the nature/ethics of their conception and the practice.’ Respect that there are actually serious ethical issues and losses involved. Respect that the script actually works for some people.

    • marilyn says:

      Well donors are just people agreeing not to raise their offspring when they are born. The release forms they sign don’t just say they agree to give up their eggs or sperm, the release forms say they give up their children to be raised by others when they are born, if born from their donated genetic material. You don’t get to donate for reproductive purposes unless you first agree to give up the resulting children. So although those release forms are not approved by a judge they are filed in a Doctor’s file cabinet as proof of purchase. Donor offspring are the object of the agreements, not sperm or eggs or embryos. There would be no buyers for sperm, eggs or embryos unless they got to keep and raise the resulting children. Of course there are ethical issues to contend with here like people being traded and objectified and not born free. I’m sure they get use to hearing that its normal for genetic parents to be compensated for their time to give their offspring to others as gifts. People get use to the smell living on a dairy farm after a while too.

  5. donor conceived says:

    type o correction “would NOT have any bone to pick…”

  6. oliviasview says:

    I’m sorry you read it this way. The message DCN always gives parents is that we can never know how our children are going to feel. I suspect you may be one of the donor conceived people who believe that this way of creating families is inherently wrong. I don’t of course agree with this, but I would always respect your right to your own views and feelings.

  7. RachelP says:

    As you probably know, a summary of all the research done to date with donor-conceived people has just been published (Blyth, Crawshaw, Frith and Jones, 2012). Blyth et al. cite a study by Marlstedt, LaBounty and Kennedy (2010) which found that donor-conceived people’s views about their donor conception were more closely related to their perceptions of their mother’s mental health and the quality of their relationship with their mother than with either earlier or later disclosure, with participants who perceived their mother’s mental health and their relationship with their mother as good being more likely to have a positive attitude towards their donor conception and those who perceived their mother’s mental health and their relationship with their mother as poor being more likely to have a negative attitude towards their donor conception. Note the neutral talk of positive and negative attitudes, rather than the use of the loaded word ‘adjustment’ with its implication that there is a healthy (right) way and an unhealthy (wrong) way to respond to finding out that you’re donor-conceived (funnily enough, the ‘right’ way – being comfortable with and unquestioning of your donor conception – corresponds with the parental view of donor conception and is, dare I say, how our parents want us to feel). This is the only study to have looked at the effect of being told early or late on donor-conceived people’s attitudes towards their conception – other studies have looked only at the effect of being told early or late on their relationship with their parents (an area in which early telling is associated with a good outcome i.e. a positive impact on parent-child relationships).

    I will happily concede that DC people who are told early tend to be more accepting of the practice of donor conception than those who are told late when I see some evidence, other than anecdotal evidence, that it is actually the case (note the use of the word ‘tend’ because we both know there are DC people who were told early who don’t agree with its practice).

  8. RachelP says:

    P.S. That is to say, the ‘right’ way as in what you seem to perceive as the right way.

  9. oliviasview says:

    I have no quarrel with this Rachel. I agree the word ‘adjustment’ isn’t necessarily helpful but it was used in innocence. These are very interesting findings which make complete sense to me.

  10. marilyn says:

    There are ways for them to find their family anyway. Its complicated tedious time consuming work but it can be done with the help of websites like the DSR when their family is looking for them. FTDNA can help you locate them even if they are not looking for them but its really difficult work. I spend a good 6 hours a day volunteering to work with donor offspring’s FTDNA cousin lists building out family trees and trying to ascertain who their parents are and how they fit into their families. Its super difficult work. But people with estranged bio parents should not be kept in the dark reasoning they can do nothing about locating their families due to strict anonymity laws. Nobody really has the right to not be someone’s kin and if they really wanted to hide they’d change their identity right? Besides you can’t change your TRUE identity, every cell in your body identifies you as a member of a particular family and there is nothing any of us can do about that or to conceal that. FTDNA type websites get people on the road to determining their true identities so people raising donor offspring have some options available if they are telling a child that their bio parent was anonymous.

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