I’m not quite sure why but Progress Educational Trust has chosen to put the spotlight on donor choice for its second When It Takes more Than Two event The Recipient Perspective on Thursday 24th January. Anyway, Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 has picked this up and geneticist Marcus Pembrey and I have a seven minute slot towards the end of the programme tomorrow morning 23rd January.
I am devoting only a small amount of the (also) seven minutes I have on Thursday to this topic as I think it is not the most important issue for recipients, but it seems to excite a lot of interest in the media, much of which seems to assume that given a choice of donor most potential parents are going to be gleefully taking the opportunity to by-pass all the undesirable traits of the non-genetic parent and put together a designer list of desired characteristics.
What seems to be poorly understood (or does not make good copy) is that certainly for heterosexual couples donor conception is not a first choice. In fact for most it is way down the line and follows many unsuccessful cycles of fertility treatment and much heartache. It is rarely a first choice for single women either, most of whom would have preferred to have a child with a long-term partner. Lesbian and gay couples are the only ones for whom donor conception is the only possibility of having a child with a genetic connection to at least one of them. What these different family groupings have in common is that they just want to be parents, they feel they have something to offer a child and would prefer, in the case of all but gay couples who have no choice but to use a surrogate, to go through a pregnancy and give birth to a child. If the child fits generally into the family in terms of ethnicity, build, colouring etc then that is a bonus because fewer people will question that child’s place in a family and a child will feel more secure as a result. Building a perfect specimen baby from a donor catalogue is the last thing on their minds.
Parents often now understand rudimentary genetics and know in their heads that many traits and talents are not directly inheritable and that environmental factors (epigenetics) turn genes on and off, but in their hearts they need to feel comfortable with a donor. Knowing that he or she is a Samaritan or runs an after-school football team for disadvantaged youngsters helps them to feel good about the person who has contributed to their family by helping give life to their child. Knowing something about the donor as a person helps them build a story for their child and the parent who feels comfortable and confident about donation as a process and about their donor in particular is much more likely to be open with their child and others. In this way a second choice becomes very much NOT second best. I think parents are able to hold in their minds an apparent paradox – intellectually knowing that children are often very different to their parents (they may be themselves), but psychologically wanting their donor to have qualities that mirror the non-genetic parent and might be inherited. And where there is no second parent I have seen no evidence whatsoever of solo mums choosing characteristics that are out of tune with their own family of origin.
For the future I think it is likely that potential parents will want more rather than less information. Some already want it to be available for their child rather than themselves and decline further non-identifying information at the treatment stage if it is offered by a clinic. Some who have gone abroad are anxious about the lack of information for their child in the future. Me, I’d like to think we were moving towards an age – probably still some years hence – when donors and recipients would be brought together in a not-for-profit environment to choose each other. How about that?
BBC Listen Again http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pztjh