New findings on acceptance of ‘difference’ and telling behaviour

My preferred reading over the long Christmas and New Year break was Scandinavian noir but my attention was diverted from time to time by a fascinating doctoral thesis written by Astrid Indekeu, the clinical psychologist who brought together the new group of Belgian donor conception families.  Her subject is Parenthood by Donor Conception: Exploring (Intended) Parents’ Experiences of Disclosure Behaviour.  Typically, I have failed to read the whole thing but have cherry picked the parts that looked most interesting.  One finding that really struck me was how potential and actual parents managed the re-negotiation of the meaning of family when having a child by donor conception and how different perspectives manifested in ‘telling’ or non-telling behaviour.  It seems that those who were able to integrate the ‘difference’ of using donated gametes into a new narrative about their family BEFORE they actually conceived a child, were more likely to ‘tell’. They were also able to benefit from the confidence that actual parenting brings when acknowledging differences in looks or interests between themselves and their children.  Those who found difficulty in acknowledging the ‘difference’ of using donated gametes prior to conception and/or saw it as a ‘medical procedure’ that was simply helping them conceive, went into parenthood without recognising any special responsibilities with regard to ‘telling’ but experienced insecurity with regard to their child’s physical traits, fearing that they could reveal them as being donor conceived.  Nineteen couples with children by donor sperm took part in this study which followed couples over their transition to parenthood and into the first two years of their child’s life.    The conclusion was drawn that this finding has profound implications for counselling in both the pre-birth period and throughout parenthood. I could not agree more.

It is undoubtedly one of the aims of the Preparation for Donor Conception Parenthood workshops run by DC Network to help couples and individuals attending to think about the ‘difference’ in creating a family by donor conception.  Those who ‘get it’ immediately feel reassured and comforted that donor conception is the right way forward for them.  Those that don’t go away with a lot to think about and facilitators occasionally (privately) hope that  they will make the decision not to go ahead.  For those who do ‘get it’, it is almost as if by focusing on and accepting this ‘difference’ early on and recognising the on-going responsibilities of openness, it is possible in the everyday whirlwind of parenting to mostly forget about it.  Physical or any other dissimilarities between parent and child are not a problem because everyone knows about donor conception and there are no awkward silences or exchanged looks when there is talk of family habits or traits.  Family life proceeds as normal with the occasional raising of the issue in an age appropriate way as children progress through their stages and start asking questions and thinking for themselves.

Using donor conception to help with family creation is not the right solution to infertility for everyone.  Even people who understand the differences and responsibilities straight away, have anxieties about how they are going to go about ‘telling’ and sometimes about the responses they are going to receive from some family members or friends.  This is normal.  It is a big thing to do (actually becoming any sort of parent is about the biggest challenge anyone ever takes on in their life) and to be without any sort of fear would be odd.  But for those who continue to feel personally threatened or deeply undermined by the idea of  having a child without a genetic link, it would seem best for everyone concerned that they find some other way of having a family or fulfilling their nurturing side.  What is so difficult is when it is just one half of a couple that feels this way.  It is usually the person who has the fertility difficulty, but not inevitably.  Sadly, sometimes the fertile partner will put pressure on their other half to go ahead with treatment.  Men will often do anything for a quiet life and to save a relationship but I can only see a situation like this as storing up trouble for the future…and mostly for the offspring in having a parent (probably a dad) who is distant and/or troubled and a secret that sits like a timebomb in the heart of the family.

Selection of those suitable to be parents by donor conception has never seriously happened anywhere.  In the UK we have a Welfare of the Child clause in the HFE Act, but it has no teeth and rules out only current hard drug users, paedophiles or the criminally insane.  Things will only change if clinics shift their focus from high-tech baby making to an understanding that it is families that are being created and that confidence around the decision to use donor conception and openness with children and others are essential ingredients of functional relationships in donor conception families.  I stop short of saying that those who don’t have or can’t manage these qualities should be banned from using donor conception.  But I do think that counsellors, clinics and those of us involved in helping prepare people for parenthood by this method should be very honest with potential parents about the responsibilities they need to be prepared take on, and help them think of alternative routes to parenthood if the ‘difference’ of donor conception does not sit comfortably with them.  All children deserve the best start in life.  Starting with parents who want to keep secret something as fundamental as donor conception is far from ideal.


About oliviasview

Co-founder and now Practice Consultant at Donor Conception Network. Mother to two donor conceived adults and a son conceived without help in my first marriage.
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4 Responses to New findings on acceptance of ‘difference’ and telling behaviour

  1. Tracey says:

    ‘Accepting and comfy’ are two of the most important terms I use in my Implications Counselling sessions, which at the clinics I’m based at are part of the initial consultation 0 so before treatment, not just prior to parenthood. Another great blog Olivia.

  2. I agree Tracey. For both to be comfortable with the decision is a word I use in sessions and for the couple to agree and communicate before they start treatment. Thought provoking and a really good blog.

  3. marilynn says:

    Olivia if you could educate me on these laws about the UK restricting access to donor gametes to criminally insane and whatnot. It might surprise you to know that I’m not against people donating their genetic material or against people choosing to mate with those individuals and the reason for that is that donors are still just regular human beings with bodily autonomy and should not be restricted in their reproductive freedom they should be able to have as many children as they want with whomever they wish so long as their partner in having children consents as well. Even if they were not to consent, say some nasty lab mix up or misappropriation of their gametes or where their reproduction was forced by another third party or whatever, in the end regardless who pushes them to do it, it will be them that reproduces and their offspring running around. I don’t feel it is appropriate for the government to restrict anyone’s reproductive or sexual behavior or personal freedoms. Lousy people reproduce all the time they are free individuals with bodily autonomy. On the surface it seems fine to say that criminally insane individuals ought not be allowed to reproduce but what you are describing sounds nearly tantamount to forced sterilization. I mean not as bad obviously because they are not taking action upon their bodies to medically prevent them from reproducing themselves, but if they wish to find a mate in this way and reproduce with them is it really the government’s place to say they won’t allow that?

    Is the screening for the people who are having the child together or for unrelated individuals who would be in the same position as someone needing to be approved to adopt the a child in order to have full parental authority over the child? It would make sense in that instance to want to try to screen people that might get parental authority over someone else’s offspring for sure. Spouses of people who have offspring with donors are of course legal step parents that would normally have to go through a step parent adoption to have full parental authority granted to them. In cases of double donation and embryo donation the woman who gives birth is not biologically related to the child and neither will her spouse be related. Single older women now often give birth to babies that are totally unrelated to them. These individuals would normally be in the position where they would need to adopt in order to have parental authority as well. Gamete donation sadly allows people to kind of agree up front to conceal the fact that the people on the birth record are not related to the child and so it looks like the child is born to them/biologically theirs. People have to go through court approved adoptions to get parental authority over other people’s kids in order to vet graft, corruption, trafficking etc and donor offspring never have that due process yet they are not the offspring of at least one person with parental authority over them. Is the screening you refer to an abbreviated attempt to protect the kids that are born similarly to the third party investigations that they would normally have if the full adoption procedure was followed?

  4. marilynn says:

    I know that raising donor offspring is moving towards the adoption model in terms of disclosure but it is miles away from adoption in terms of the legal protections people normally have before granting someone other than a biological parent parental authority over them. If it’s moving toward adoption anyway they should really still require a normal court approved adoption before allowing anyone to have parental authority over another person’s offspring. If they are married to a rearing biological parent and they wish to have parental authority over their spouse’s child rather than the authority that comes with being a step parent, they are supposed to have a court approved step parent adoption rather than just writing their name in on the birth record as if they were the child’s biological parent. An enormously important step is being missed there and it does involve criminal screening of the spouse although no home study because they live where the rearing bio parent lives. With double donation and embryo donation they should of course still require them to go through the adoption process before granting them parental authority over another person’s offspring for the child’s protection. Skipping that step makes it look like they are the biological parents and that just is not true or safe for the child. These screening methods you are talking about sound as if they are hoping to emulate the screening that occurs in adoption but how can they give the child full due process without positively identifying the bio parent, obtaining their consent, determining if another member of their family can take the child on prior to allowing the child to be adopted into another person’s family. All those protections are missing for the donor offspring in addition to the police back ground checks.

    It’s almost as if people think the fact that they are born to unrelated people means its the same as if those people reproduced and they are the original parents. They still are getting parental authority over aother person’s offspring so the rules should be just the same lest the child not be equally protected to others raised outside their bio families.

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