Belgium has a very mixed reputation. It’s the country that went for 589 days without a government in 2010/11 but without many people outside of that country noticing…and that seems to be because, despite the European parliament being situated in Brussels, Belgium is considered grey and boring by its neighbours, including Britain. We are very happy to drink its beer, eat its chocolates and wolf down moules and frite, but apart from that most people are happy to let Belgian affairs pass them by. But Belgium – at least the Flemish speaking part of the country – has a new distinguishing feature. A group of parents by donor conception have formed and are gathering strength to challenge the orthodoxy of secrecy within the country. Last Saturday Walter and I took the Eurostar to Brussels in order to meet with parents from eight different families and with the clinical psychologist who, as part of her research in this area, has brought the families together. Walter and I have talked with DC parents in many countries but I don’t think we have ever been as royally entertained as we were at the house of two of the parents, mum and dad to two sperm donor conceived young children. The organisation is called Donor Families and has a web site http://www.donorfamilies.be but as yet none of the people involved has put their head above the parapet, so to speak, publicly.
I had been vaguely aware that Belgium was a country that had two languages, Flemish and French, but I had not realised just how wide the divisions are between the two languages and cultures. With regard to fertility clinics, there are just four in the Flemish sector. In only one of these clinics is it possible to have non-identifying details about a donor, but then only if you know to ask for them. In the other clinics donors are chosen by the medical team and parents are given no information whatsoever. All the doctors are hostile to any changes in the way their procedures operate. They do not think that children need to know that they are donor conceived and certainly do not believe that ending anonymity for donors would be in anyone’s interest. In other words, they like to be in control. Challenging this orthodoxy is going to be extremely difficult but the parents we met are convinced that openness is right and best for their families. Although some areas of Belgian Flemish society seem quite liberal – we were told of a spa where mixed sex nude swimming was available and popular – donor conception is kept under wraps with little written or spoken about it in the media. There have been one or two articles over the last couple of years sparked by donor conceived adults speaking out about wanting to have information – there are two organisations for DC adults – but nothing about families with young children. The new organisation know that the media would be very interested in writing about them but all the parents are anxious about exposing their children to stigma, prejudice or bullying. One of the difficulties that those who pioneer new ways of doing things have to face is that of not knowing how they are going to be received and not having had others pave the way for them. They are the first and will be blazing a trail for others. This is not an easy position to be in but it is necessary for someone, or preferably a group of people, to take the plunge. In the UK 20 years ago four of the five founding families of DC Network appeared on a film made by the BBC partly about the formation of our organisation. In retrospect this seems rather a brave thing to have done but I’m not sure that any of us at the time thought that there would be a problem. Our children appeared too, talking about being donor conceived and Zannah reading the very first story book for children to camera. None of our children – or indeed the adults – ever had any adverse remarks made to us. In fact we were admired. All the children who appeared are now adults and getting on with their lives, donor conception taking it’s place along with everything they have experienced along the way, as contributing to who they are.
So Walter and I spent five hours in the company of a delightful group of people (all speaking excellent English as our Flemish is not up to much) telling tales of the beginnings of DC Network and how we had developed as needs changed over the years. Sensibly they are planning to start small, concentrating on encouraging openness and to this end probably translating the Telling and Talking 0-7 booklet for parents, much as the German DI-Netz has recently done. We wish Donor Families so very well and look forward to seeing some of the families at the DC Network national meeting in April. I wonder which country will be next?