I’m feeling rough again so in no state to gestate and write new material, so here is a ‘think piece’ I wrote for the magazine of another organisation back in Autumn 2004 just before anonymity for donors ended in April 2005 in the UK.
Donor Conception: Transition times are never easy
When I was expecting my first child over thirty years ago I remember my ante-natal class teacher talking about ‘transition’ (between the end of ordinary contractions and the irresistible urge to push) as the stage of childbirth where a woman often wants to give up and go home. This is the time when the mildest and most modest of women turn the air blue with their language and if they could actually move an inch, would be inclined to throw sharp instruments before leaving the scene with a flourish. No transition time is easy.
And this is what is happening in the world of donor conception. We are going through a time of transition. Moving from a world where donors were encouraged to give their eggs or sperm to help others but where any thought of the children to be conceived and their needs was discouraged. Moving to a world where the indisputable genetic link between donor and offspring is recognised along with the fact that although the donor may be acting altruistically to help others, this does not in any way diminish their responsibility to be available in the future. This is a big leap, but it brings donor conception into line with adoption where it has long been possible for adopted people to find information about, and potentially meet up with, their birth parents. Let me explain why Donor Conception Network is clear that, despite the bumpy road of change, ending donor anonymity is the right thing to do.
We start from the position that gamete donation is a responsible act that has life long consequences. A donor is not merely helping a childless couple to conceive a longed for baby, but assisting in the creation of a unique person. The key question seems to be, why should donors be excluded from a generally accepted rule that responsible acts carry accountability? Why is it in this age of transparency and open records that donors should need or seek anonymity?
The argument used by fertility clinics is that donors might not come forward if they were identifiable. However, this seems to be a reflection of the status quo., and perhaps a reluctance on the part of some, if not all, clinics to put more effort into recruiting a different sort of donor. Donors who have been attracted by the escape from responsibility offered by anonymity are likely to have been encouraged to think that way and are not the people who should be donating now. Undoubtedly, donors who are able to put themselves in the shoes of their offspring and recognise that they need to remain available for them as they grow into adults, are special people. But in other countries where anonymity has been removed it has proved possible to recruit identifiable donors. There seems no reason to assume that this will not be possible in the UK . But it will need more effort on the part of clinics. Part of work needing to be done in this painful transition time is supporting clinics in changing first their attitude to removal of donor anonymity and then their recruitment methods. Those who understand early that things are really going to be very different from now on will find it easier to recruit the right people. Those who remain resistant to change run the risk of failing would-be parents.
In the meantime there is bound to be a shortage of donors. The uncertainty caused by the consultation period (before anonymity was removed) plus the outrage felt by some clinicians at not having won the argument has created a climate of hopelessness and those couples and individuals needing donor conception to create their families are the losers. DC Network is certainly getting calls from people who are being told that a sperm donor cannot be guaranteed for their IVF attempt and that some egg donation waiting lists are closed. We do not endorse this situation. We know more than any organisation how important it is for donors to come forward…..but from this time on they need to be ‘willing to be known’ .
An easy response to these circumstances might be the primitive rage of childbirth transition. If ending anonymity has made the supply of donors dry up then clearly anonymity should be reinstated! But this response would be forgetting the very principles enshrined in the decision to remove anonymity in the first place.
People born as a result of donor conception have a right to our respect and we don’t respect them by keeping secrets from them. Gamete donors have needs and rights too, but they do not have the right to walk away from their donation as if it had never happened. Giving the ingredients for life is not the same as giving a pint of blood.
These are strong statements and I can understand if some people feel that they do not sufficiently take into account the needs and rights of infertile couples. The pain of infertility is great. As parents of two donor conceived young people my partner and I have been there too. But at the end of the day we are adults and have to take responsibility for the context in which we conceive our children and for the climate in which they grow up. If we wish our children to be truthful and honest, can it be right that they have hidden from them the person who helped to create them? Adopted people have shown us that wanting to know about the person/people they are genetically connected to is normal and does not in any way reduce the love felt for the people who have raised them. A good proportion of them simply need to know about, and sometimes meet, the people with whom they have a genetic link. Social parenting is hugely influential but genetics are important too. Who we are is a complex mixture of both. Finding out this information may or may not bring happiness but it certainly seems to bring closure and a stronger sense of self.
If you are caught in the traps of this transition time it must be difficult right now. But things will settle down. Clinics will adapt and donors will be found. And in a changed climate where stigma and secrecy are left behind, parents, children and donors will benefit when donor conception is accepted as just one of the many ways that modern families come into being.
Postscript: It took some time for doctors to understand that it was perfectly possible to recruit identifiable sperm and egg donors. It is good to report that in Autumn 2012 not only is there a good supply of sperm donors – including those whose semen is imported from abroad but are compliant with UK rules – but that for the first time in very many years egg donation is available from both altruistic and egg-share donors without a waiting list. Not everywhere – some clinics are still telling people that UK waiting lists for egg donors are two years long and they need to go abroad – but there are sufficient donors at clinics throughout England and Wales to meet most demand. It will take time for this news to filter through and many people will go through the anguish of thinking that they have to accept an anonymous donor with very little information instead of being able to have an identifiable donor, thus leaving the door open for their children to choose to make the connection or not.
As I said at the beginning, transition times are never easy.