Lots of interesting things around at the moment. The Donor Sibling Registry’s new book Finding Our Families is published today. I’ve written about it before (link below) and can only reiterate that it is essential reading for everyone involved in donor conception, including the professionals who could learn a lot! I have also just received a copy of donor conceived adult Alana Newman’s book Anonymous Us. As I’ve only read a few pages so far, I haven’t yet formed an opinion but as the Conclusion starts, “Clearly 3PR (third party reproduction) is not an ideal family scenario for anyone. It causes serious anguish for every group-from social parents to donor to children, and even to extended family,” I am expecting a challenging read. Knowing that Alana comes from the end of the spectrum of feelings about donor conception that concludes that the outcome is inevitably damaging, makes me think that I am unlikely to be recommending the book with the same enthusiasm that I have for Finding Our Families, but I nevertheless feel it is important to understand that some people do feel this way. I’ll write more later about this when I’ve finished the book.
In the meantime I have been proof reading DC Network’s Autumn Journal which contains, amongst other fascinating articles, two items written by nineteen year old donor conceived adult Lara. Lara was conceived with the help of donor sperm and has known about her beginnings from when she was very little. Unlike my own children she did not like the topic being talked about during primary school years as it made her feel over-whelmed but she is pleased, in retrospect, that her parents told her so early and that there was never ‘a sit down moment’ of revelation. She did, however, feel that it would have been helpful if her parents had talked with her teachers as an awkward situation arose when her class was asked to complete an ‘All About Me’ book which included characteristics inherited from each parent. Her advice is that parents should keep an eye on the syllabus or curriculum so that they can talk with their children about their options when a topic around families or reproduction comes up. From the age of 12 or so Lara became much more comfortable around the topic of donor conception. This she felt was because she could now understand it much better and was able to explain to school friends without feeling confused. She says she was lucky to have friends who were well-educated and open-minded and adds that being donor conceived was actually often a source of pride for her.
Lara had been volunteering in the DC Network office over the summer holidays and during this time she attended a meeting at the HFEA with Nina the office manager. She was disturbed by the focus of one of the groups at the event which seemed to be advocating for would-be parents to have increased amounts of information about their donor…to the point that could almost be seen as attempts to create ‘designer babies’. Lara felt that having such choice might lead parents down a path of having expectations of a child – their looks and their talents – that would be unfair for a child to have to live up to; that a child might feel uncomfortable coming into a world where such things were important to their parents. As she says, “Being donor conceived is not a ‘burden’ which parents have a duty to alleviate by a choosing a ‘perfect’ donor for them, but a gift that we can learn and grow from.” Lara believes that a child should be given room to “live freely” rather than being expected to conform to expectations that may come from the characteristics of the donor or from some ideal in the mind of the raising parents. She is personally very happy with the amount of information she has about her donor (height, blood group, hair and eye colour and profession) and does not wish for more. She understands that others might want more information but that is up to them to seek this if they feel they need it. For Lara, the value of removing donor anonymity is in making the information available, not necessarily in accessing the information itself and not in trying to choose the features of future children – the value is in the freedom of the donor conceived individual to live a life that is not defined by the way in which they were conceived. I don’t think anyone would be surprised to learn that Lara’s course of university study is Philosophy and Applied Ethics.
Which leads me to a paper called Genetic Knowledge and Family Identity: Managing Gamete Donation in Britain and Germany by Maren Klotz from Humboldt University, Berlin. The research was in two parts, firstly a comparison of the modes of regulation in Britain and Germany and then how interest groups, such as DC Network and the newly formed DI-Netz in Germany, contribute to the moral framing of the decision on if, when and how to ‘tell’ children. The whole paper is worth reading but what struck me was one of the conclusions which seemed to show that German parents felt that sharing information early with their child was likely to divert their interest in or curiosity about the donor, and indeed that curiosity might indicate that something was not going well at home, whilst British parents were much more open to the idea that curiosity on the part of their child was entirely natural and to be expected. Klotz ascribed this difference to the uncertainties inherent in the German legislation around donor conception (see previous blog German Parents Speak Out) but I see it much more as openness still being in its infancy in that country. For many years in DC Network I would hear British parents talking in exactly the same way and some still do. Becoming comfortable with the idea that children will be curious and indeed may want to make connections with genetic relatives, has come only with time and familiarity with the subject in the UK…and many parents remain anxious about it.
As Lara says, parents are likely to find the process of donor conception much more challenging than their children are ever likely to. Although I suspect this sentiment would be heresy for Alana Newman, Lara’s relaxed but thoughtful perspective on being donor conceived is, in my experience, far more common. To quote Sam, another young donor conceived adult, “If parents want to do the right thing (tell early) then they are likely to do it. They should stop worrying and chill out more.”