At the risk of repeating myself or being boring I’m going to test your patience with yet another blog about known donors. The impetus this time is an article in the Guardian on Saturday’s Weekend section where Shawn Hitchins recounts his Experience of being a sperm donor for friends. Shawn is gay and his friends are a lesbian couple. My first shiver of anxiety came with the paragraph, “On the day my friends….., asked if I would donate sperm, I was delighted. I didn’t think about the reality of what that would entail; I just impulsively said yes. In fact, I was grateful to be asked.”
I am not saying that arrangements like this can’t work, they clearly can and do and this one seems to be going well…so far (the baby is now 10 months old), but what we now know – and could easily have been predicted – is that unthought through sperm donor arrangements can go horribly wrong. And one of the things that is rarely taken into account is the changed feelings of all parties once a child is born. Men, particularly those without children of their own (being raised by them with a female or male partner), are often ambushed by the strength of their own feelings when a child created with their help comes into the world. Women, gay or straight, may also become more protective of their relationship with a child and begin to see the donor as a threat, no matter how good a friend he was before. Shawn does not tell us the nature of his arrangement with his friends (frighteningly he does not mention having come to any agreements about his role in this child’s life) or the legal status of the couple which would indicate whether or not he is the legal father, but he does talk about finding himself sobbing on the floor after the baby shower because of being an outsider, “I was physically having a baby, but I wasn’t part of it.” We are not told who’s name is on the birth certificate.
It would appear that both his friends and Shawn’s parents are supportive of the way this family has come into being and that is something that bodes well for the future. The Relative Strangers research from Manchester University’s Morgan Centre talks about how parents of gay and lesbian people have often resigned themselves to never becoming grandparents and when this expectation is overturned, they are overjoyed. This seems to be so in this case and parental support can be a very important feature of any successful family.
Shawn is clearly involved in his baby daughter’s life. He sees her regularly but says that he is ‘certainly not “Dad”‘. Whilst this little girl is a baby there is no problem but what happens when she grows up? What if she wants to call him Dad? What happens if the mums want to privately educate her but Shawn believes this is an unethical choice? If the mums and Shawn fall out badly over responsibilities, decision-making and access and it all ends up in court, what is the judge likely to decide? A judgement made in February this year gave the right to apply for contact to a known donor (through a clinic) who had had been seeing the child he helped to create at the beginning of the child’s life. It would certainly seem in the case of Shawn and his baby daughter that this child has three parents. Parents are people who have responsibilities. Would Shawn be willing to take these on? It would make him a dad if he did so. He seems to be fulfilling the social and emotional roles already.
What Shawn says is that ‘they’, presumably meaning her mums and him, will ‘always be open about my connection to her. I don’t want a “Darth Vader moment” when she’s older. It’s important for her to know that she was born in a special way, and that her arrival helped to change ideas of what a family can be.” Laudable sentiments certainly and let’s hope all does go serenely, with everyone being generous, flexible and altruistic in their approach and with this little girl’s welfare at the heart of everything they do. But so much better to have done a LOT of talking things through beforehand and put in place at least an outline agreement of roles and responsibilities that could be re-visited as times change. It could save so much heartache for all concerned later on.