The Anatomy Theatre at University College London was packed to the rafters last Thursday evening for the last of Progress Educational Trust’s events, ‘When it Takes More than Two’. Previous events had focused on donors and recipients, now it was the turn of donor conceived people.
It is interesting the frisson of anticipation and excitement that the presence of donor conceived people causes. I know that many people coming to DC Network conferences for the first time say…in a mixture of wonder and relief…how ‘normal’ all the children look. There is somehow an expectation of exoticism or of neon flashing lights exclaiming their beginnings. In this, the history of secrecy surrounding donor conception is revealed as not yet having faded to the acceptance of IVF as being ‘just one of the ways that families are founded.” But boy did we give that expectation a shaking on Thursday. The two donor conceived adults on the panel were models of level-headedness, warmth and insight, addressing the large audience with confidence and much humour.
Jess Pearce is 31. Her mother told her three years ago that she was donor conceived. Her father had had a vasectomy after having two daughters in his first marriage. An attempt at reversal of this operation failed. It is interesting that it is important to Jess than neither she nor others were directly lied to about her conception. Everyone was simply told that her dad had had the operation, but not what the outcome was. It is also very important to her that she was clearly a very much wanted child. Her mother had even carried the sperm that she was to be inseminated with across London from the Middlesex Hospital where it was donated to St. George’s Hospital where she was being treated.
When her mother said she had something important to tell her, Jess feared she was to be told that her mother was dying. It was a great relief to be told she was donor conceived. Her mother had prepared herself by talking with others before sharing the information with Jess and very wisely made herself available on any occasion to answer Jess’s questions…and there were many of them.
Jess said that she had never been angry at not having been told before. There have clearly been ups and downs in her family – she is estranged from her father – but she understood that her parents had been told by the clinic not to ‘tell’ and that it had been difficult to find the right time as an adult. She was adamant that she had no sense of having lived a lie all these years. She has registered with UK DonorLink “out of curiosity” and has enjoyed getting to know other donor conceived people, respecting those who feel damaged by the deception, but not sharing their feelings.
Kevin Moore was donor conceived in Florida to parents who already had a son without help, but for reasons to do with his father’s health decided to use a donor for a second child. He was told about his conception in a rather awkward conversation on holiday when he was seven and recalls thinking that this was definitely their problem, not his! His parents are both medical professionals and approached the whole issue with rather clinical detachment. However, Kevin’s upbringing was inclusive and warm and the fact of his conception had no major impact on family relationships. When Kevin became interested in the arts rather than sciences he fantasised that this proclivity must come from his donor, but later discovered that his donor was a lawyer. Before Kevin moved to the UK for further education and work, he registered on the Donor Sibling Registry and within five minutes had found a half-sister. Together they requested further details from the clinic where they were conceived and were able to trace their donor via Google from information that had been poorly redacted. Kevin has had some contact with his donor, but they have not met. He is in intermittent contact with his half-sib, but does not feel the need for this to be closer as they are very different people who would not have chosen to be friends under other circumstances.
Fascinatingly, Kevin has become a sperm donor himself since living in the UK. He said he would never have donated without being identifiable and looks forward to being contacted if that is what the children he has helped come into being want from 18. He knows that six live births have already resulted from his donations. As he was recommended to speak at this event by the co-ordinator of the sperm bank where he donates, I can only presume that they know he is donor conceived.
The other two speakers at the event were Dr. Tabitha Freeman from the Cambridge Centre for Family Research and Chrissie Gunter from UK Donor Link.
Tabitha Freeman’s headline message was, ‘the children are alright’…the quality of parenting is often warmer and more involved in donor conception families and is much more important than the structure of families or how a child has been conceived. She paid tribute to DC Network, saying that in families researched by her organisation who are telling, the materials produced by DCN are greatly valued. Children who have not been ‘told’ are also doing well. However, she acknowledged that they have only studied children and young adolescents in small numbers and that the risk of de-stabilisation following inadvertent revelation of donor conception is high.
Chrissie Gunter felt that it was left to her to be the doom monger on the panel, bringing the perspective of all UK DonorLink registrants, some of whom feel profoundly affected by both their method of conception and the deception that has been practised in their family about it. She spoke of historical cases of men who had donated over a period of twenty years or more, who are almost certainly responsible for hundreds of offspring and of anxieties about consanguinity and genetic sexual attraction. With the UK DonorLink service about to be handed over to the NationalGamete Donation Trust, Chrissie is very anxious about who is going to be doing the kind of intermediary work she and other UKDL staff have been so involved in. In response to a question about who is protecting the interests of the children, she expressed further worry about children conceived abroad and about commercial surrogacy. Kevin’s response to the same question was to hope that intermediary services would be available if and when any of his offspring wanted to be in touch with him in the future. This issue really cannot be ignored for much longer.
There were several questions from the audience about issues to do with talking with relatives, friends and others about donor conception. I was able to give some news about the booklets I am writing and the help that DCN can give in helping prepare parents for ‘telling’ their donor conceived adult children, as well as supporting parents of young children.
Well done PET for another great event and a wonderful series. I look forward to seeing the official reports on the website http://www.progress.org.uk/home
Back to the booklets….