Debate on donor choice: Woman’s Hour 23rd January

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


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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10 Responses to Debate on donor choice: Woman’s Hour 23rd January

  1. Sarah Betts says:

    Ive just listened with interest to Womens Hour. Well done for putting across what I feel are the true feelings of becoming a parent using a donor. It made a welcome change from the normal sensational reporting. When we were looking for a donor our only concern was that he shared characteristics of my husband. What he liked etc didnt matter. The only info we were given was height, build, hair and eye colour. At the time this was all we wanted, its only now that we have very bright and eager 6 yr old twins that further information would be nice. We often talk about our need for a donor, who is now referred to as their sperm seed daddy (their words). The children ask lots of questions about who he is and what he does. Our donor is identifiable, so we have explained that when they are older they can find out information about him.

    • oliviasview says:

      Thank you Sarah. There was SO little time to get across everything I wanted to say. If you would like more non-identifiable information about your donor the HFEA MAY hold more than the clinic told you. You can of course also find out how many other children have been created via your donor, their years of birth and gender. Just apply to the HFEA Register section. They will require proof of identity/passport/driving licence or similar. And thank you again for your comments.

  2. marilynn says:

    “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.”

    Could you expand a bit on the statement above?
    The child is not the offspring of at least one of the people raising them. That is the truth. They are related to one and not the other.

    Knowing the truth would not make people question the child’s place in the family, it would make them KNOW it. They’d know the truth that the child is related to one and not the other or not related to either.

    Looking like a person that is raising you when you are not that person’s offspring will make people think they know the child’s place in the family but they’ll be wrong. They will believe the child is the offspring of both people raising them, but they will be wrong.

    So giving outsiders an incorrect understanding of who the child is the offspring of is important to the child’s security? How is it possible that a child’s security could hinge upon making sure they convince outsiders that they are related to the people raising them? It’s better for them for people to assume something about them that is false because – what? Woult they be mistreated by outsiders if they knew they were not related to one or both the people taking care of them?

    I know their is an inclination to say that it is nobody’s business and it is true. But your still going around leaving people with the impression that the child is someone other than who they really are. Don’t you think that can be damaging to a child’s sense of self worth after a while if they know the whole world assumes that they are the offspring of the people raising them when really they are someone else’s offspring but they have gotten the idea that they are not allowed to just live as the person they are someone else’s offspring with other relatives etc. Many of my friends mention that knowing the truth themselves was fine but they lived life acting like they were the child of their mother and husband when really they were the child of the mother and another man – but somehow that would be bad for them to let people know.

  3. marilynn says:

    Donor offspring get kind of a raw deal. They are taught that marriage to a person is what makes them a parent. Just having offspring is not enough to make a person a parent. The child has to be worthy of their parent’s involvement before their parent will be willing to raise them. They are worthy if they are the offspring of their spouse or if they pretend to be the offspring of their spouse, but not if they are the offspring of a donor or a one night stand or the offspring of a person who you sold/gave your genes to (those people are not your spouse). So the child of an unmarried couple gets chucked by both parents unless one parent agrees to go away and let the other parent pretend that they had a child with their spouse. The spouse will take care of their spouses iligitamate child only if they can pretend that child is their own, otherwise no dice the kid gets nothing. This is all punctuated by the donor raising some children of his own who are his spouse’s children so they are worthy and important unlike the children he had under contract for a sperm bank or with a one night stand or with a girl he only dated once or twice. Children have no value and are irrellevant unless they are the child of your spouse. The child can redeem themselves and be raised by at least one parent but only if they forsake their other parent and half their family in order to pretend to be the child of their rearing parent’s spouse.

    Its a harsh message to send a person, that they are worthless as who they are and that the only reason their parent and spouse was willing to raise them (the illegitimate child) is if they pretended not to be who they really were. Their entire family life is only secure if they give the impression that they fit into the family like a genetically related child. They might get lucky and find out who they really are but that’s after 18 years when their parent and spouse have gotten their mileage out of having the child put on aires.

    I hope you don’t erase this I made some good points and they are ones you should think about when teaching seminars because that is a pretty accurate breakdown of the message they get from what happens. There is really no other way to see any of it. Marriage is what makes children worth keeping. How sad.

  4. oliviasview says:

    Marilynn – You are welcome to have your views on my blog, but I really cannot take seriously your suggestion that it would be better for a child’s emotional well being to stand out from the looks in their family and have it recognised by everyone that s/he was clearly not the child of both parents. No-one is trying to hide donor conception from those who need to know. DCN advocates openness with the child and others. It is also completely recognised and accepted that as DC children grow up they have a range of thoughts of feelings about their conception that belong to them alone. In families where parents are comfortable and confident about the decision they made to use a donor, these feelings are acknowledged and the child/young person/adult supported if necessary. No one is asking people to pretend anything. DCN is doing it’s very best to raise awareness and educate potential and actual parents about the need to prepare for the challenges of donor conception parenting. I’m afraid it’s what I find your rather twisted view of it all that I find sad.

  5. RachelP says:

    “No-one is trying to hide donor conception from those who need to know” – I don’t like this whole need to know thing. It suggests an acceptance of the shame attached to donor conception/being donor-conceived, and we should be challenging that. Donor-conceived people should be out, loud and proud. I think that’s what marilynn was trying to say.

    • oliviasview says:

      Hi Rachel
      As you know Walter’s and my family have been ‘out and proud’ for thirty years. But I don’t think it is right to (inevitably) equate caution or a wish for privacy with shame about donor conception. Many, many families are open with their children and a small circle of family and friends. They feel that there is no need to go beyond this, unless there is a good reason that benefits their child. Of course it is up to older children, young people and adults to be as up front or as private as they like. It is their privilege to choose.

  6. Sarah Betts says:

    We are a family who are ‘out, loud and proud’. All our family, friends and anyone who has anything to do with our family know that our children are donor concieved.

    I am somewhat troubled by marilynns take on family life. Whilst our children are not genetically related to my husband, in every other way he is their father. We did opt for a donor who shared the same charatistics as my husband, and maybe this was so our children could share something of their father, but DNA alone does not make a person, the nurture and imput a parent has is as important if not more than the DNA we share, or as in our case, dont share.

    We do not ask our children to pretend anything, they know that a donor was used, and that there is another person responisible for their creation. But at the end of the day, had we as a couple not decided to use donor our children would not be here. They are very far from being seen as ‘worthless’, the fact that we chose to create our family in this way makes them much more special, it wasn’t an easy or pain free choice, and they were most definatly wanted by both of us.

    Families come in all sorts of shapes and configurations in todays society, there are many families where both parents are biologically related, but yet their relationships are awful and children end up getting hurt. There are families who adopt children, where neither parent is biologically related and make amazing families.

    It is important that we all be honest with our children about their creation, but equally we must remember that every parent, biological or not, has the capacity to be an amazing parent or a rubbish one. Its what you give to your children in time, love, honesty and teaching that makes a good parent child relationship, not the DNA!!!

  7. marilynn says:

    Thank you Rachael. Yes of course telling the truth is best. But there are many mixed messages, like you said about need-to-know, like the family would prefer not to draw attention to this aspect of the child’s identity.

  8. marilynn says:

    You’ve misunderstood my feelings about non-biological parenthood entirely. My point is that it should not matter that they are not the offspring of one of the people raising them and so there is quite a mixed message in going out of the way to make sure they look like they could be the child of their mother’s husband, for instance. It’s true that being genetically related to a child is no guarantee a person will do a good job of raising them and certainly many people do a lousy job of raising their own offspring and plenty of people do just a fantastic job of raising other people’s. So its a real mixed message to then act as if not being related to that half of the family is an aspect of their identity “not everyone needs to know about” or that “is not everyone’s business” or that “its better to keep private” or that is “up to them who they let know”. Everyone else just gets to exist as who they are, these kids have to like manage this information about themselves as if something terrible will happen to them if the whole world knew that they were someone else’s offspring and had a bunch of other relatives they don’t live with. If it is not important to be their mom’s husband’s offspring then they should not be taught that it’s a good idea to leave outsiders with a false impression about that. It sort of perpetuates the very prejudice that they are being taught to worry about. My feelings are quite the opposite of what you got the impression of. I’m sorry that it came off that way

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