Over the weekend there were (at least) two stories in the papers about donor conceived people. The first was young adult Natasha Fox featured in the Family Section of The Guardian and the second, six year old Max Silverwood, who was pictured with two of his half-siblings in the Daily Mail.
Max’s mother Ellie traced the half-siblings, and there are nine in total (so far), through the American Donor Sibling Registry (DSR). She was able to do this because she had the donor’s code number. The story is a little confused and it is hard to know if this is sloppy journalism or there is more going on here than we are being told. The donor, Dane 1421, came via the New York based agency Scandinavian Cryobank (known as Cryos in Europe and based in Denmark). The story states apparently contradictory facts – that Max is six; that sperm was imported to the UK under licence from the HFEA and that the donor will remain anonymous. If Max is indeed six then he would have been conceived after April 1st 2005, a date when all donors had to agree to be identifiable to children from age 18. This applies whether sperm was sourced from the UK or abroad.
A potential disadvantage to having an identifiable donor where sperm was imported from abroad is that there will be the extra layer of different nationality and probably different country of residence for a young person to negotiate, should they wish to make contact post 18. But this may be no different from trying to find a donor who was a UK citizen at the time of donation but who has since moved abroad, or indeed has died in the meantime. The huge advantage to importing sperm from abroad, be it from Cryos, European Sperm Bank or Xytex in the States (these are the banks that have supposedly UK compliant donors) is that when choosing the donor on-line you get to know his donor code. If making contact with half-siblings is something a parent is interested in or wants her child to have the possibility of in the future, then this is the way to go and the DSR is the agency of choice. Why can’t this happen in the UK? Well a few years ago the HFEA got terribly cold feet about half-sibling contacts when a couple of donors and recipients were able to find each other via social media. Legal advice said that donor codes could be considered identifying material and clinics were banned from giving them out. Little notice was taken of the fact that both donors and recipients had been looking for each other and were making positive choices about contact. Children conceived by UK recruited donors, who otherwise have considerable advantages over children conceived in other parts of Europe, are denied the opportunity of getting to know half-siblings whilst they are still children. For many solo mums, who often only have one child, this is a way of giving their child extended family connections that may benefit them hugely in the future. Ellie Silverwood is now a solo mum but was married at the time of Max’s conception. I understand his dad remains in his life.
Natasha Fox’s story is interesting in that she is the child of a solo mum and from an era when this was a less common choice – although there are a handful of solo mums with adult children in DC Network. Her mother was open with her from the start and during primary school years she was largely un-fazed by her lack of a father. Puberty changed all this and her longing for a father-daughter relationship grew. What she treasured most was her mum saying, “At least you know he must be a very kind person.” Learning her donor’s characteristics from the HFEA at age 14 (her mum applied) and then finding out when she was 18 that she had four half-sibs fuelled Natasha’s deep desire to know more about both her donor and her half-sibs. Adolescence was a difficult time, with Natasha resenting her mother for not supporting her more in finding her donor. Now in her second year at university Natasha has moved on and no longer feels defined by her fatherlessness. She is on the HFEA’s SibLink register but has to wait for contact until at least one other of her half-sibs expresses interest in knowing about her…and sadly from that era they may well not have been told. Natasha’s final wish is that her donor might be reading the article and get in touch, but without a clinic name this is a very vain hope. There were lots of DI clinics in London 21 years ago and if physical features do not ring a bell – and there is a lovely picture of Natasha – then connection is pretty remote hope.
What I found particularly interesting about this story was the shift in perspective – and language used – as Natasha grew up. As a small child she appropriated the language given to her by her mother. ‘Donor’ was used to describe her male progenitor. In her teenage years, longing to be like her friends, ‘father’ was the description of choice, but by age 20 she had moved back to donor. Natasha’s journey very much mirrors the experience of many donor conceived people who have been brought up within open families (of all family types) and where the parent or parents are supportive of their child going through different phases in their thinking and feeling about being donor conceived.
I do hope Natasha makes the connections she is looking for but I suspect she’s going to do OK anyway.