Wise words from Wendy Kramer for donor conception parents

Walter and I are going walking in Madeira for a week from Friday so there won’t be a post from me next week.  But I am going to leave you with the thoughts of Donor Sibling Registry founder Wendy Kramer who posted the words below on her blog yesterday.  There is much in this that could well have been written by me but everyone has their own style and language and it is good to hear the same thinking put in fresh ways sometimes.  I think I would take issue with Wendy about the way she assumes donor conceived adults believe the donor and his or her relatives are members of the family.  I completely agree that donor conceived adults, rather than their parents, should be the ones to determine this, but there are others ways of deciding who is a family member or not and each are as valid as the other. It is perfectly possible to absolutely acknowledge a genetic connection to others, whilst not regarding those people as family members. Other than this, I thoroughly commend these thoughts to you.

The Challenges of the Non-Bio Parent: How to Create More Openness and Healthier Donor-Conceived Families

Posted on March 4, 2014 by wendykr

Many of us who are considering having a child face the possibility of not being genetically related to that child. Whether you’re a man, woman or couple dealing with infertility or a genetic abnormality that makes it impossible to have a biological child, or you’re a gay couple,  and you choose to use donor eggs or sperm, someone in your family equation will be in the position of being the non-bio parent.

Over the years, at the Donor Sibling Registry, we have learned that many non-biological moms and dads have not been adequately counseled or educated before using donor conception to create their families. It is vital that these parents deal with any grief and shame that they may have around their own infertility, work through any emotions they might be experiencing from this lack of biological connection, and educate themselves all about the needs and issues a donor child might have. If this doesn’t happen,  there’s a good chance that this parent will pass this discomfort and shame along to the child.

Often the couple or individual will choose anonymous donors as a way to ignore or negate the fact that the donor is a real person. Choosing an anonymous donor will feel less fearful to them because they might think that the chances of their children being curious about, searching for, or finding their biological parent will not be as high.

Many will withhold the truth from their children. And even if they decide to disclose, many will risk passing along their insecurities and fears in regards to their child having any type of curiosity about, and wishing to connect with, their unknown biological family. Not making peace with your lack of biological connection may create discourse within your child, when any natural feelings of curiosity arise within them.

Through my experience running the Donor Sibling Registry, I’ve learned that all these approaches can  have very serious ramifications for the donor-conceived child, and in fact, for the whole family dynamic. Family secrets are toxic, and these parents, expecting honesty from their children, owe their children the same. In these families, all too often the “secret” hovers just beneath the surface, creating distance between family members who don’t have a clue as to why and where this feeling of distance is coming from.

Sometimes offspring learn or figure out the truth, but they still shoulder the secret. In our research of 751 offspring, we learned that often, adult donor offspring found out that they were donor conceived, but we’re afraid to tell their dads that they knew for fear of hurting them. In this case, families create a double secret, as the children themselves are also struggling to keep the “secret” that the parents have shouldered for so long.  These donor-conceived people feel acutely aware that the methodology of their conception causes pain to their parent, and therefore willingly accept the weight of this pain to also carry themselves.  This only enforces the idea that the way they were created is somehow shameful. I suspect that in time, this will also be the case for the thousands of children conceived with egg donors, although currently, most are either unaware of their origins, or just too young to be dealing with these types of issues.

These issues come up for both straight couples and LGBT families. I hear all too often that the non-bio mom in an LGBT family, for example, is afraid of a child reaching out to half siblings and/or their donors, saying, “biology doesn’t make a family.” Their sadness is about not being able to give their child that genetic connection that he or she so greatly desires from people outside their nuclear family. All too often this is expressed as disappointment or anger, so that a child feels a great sense of betrayal, even just thinking about the unknown people they are genetically related to. This can be paralyzing to the donor offspring who have a longing or desire to connect with these unknown relatives and actually make efforts to do so.

Surprisingly, there are even some single mothers by choice who also experience fear as they contemplate that their child has genetic relatives out there that are not known. They sometimes want to think that their child is unique, and the thought that there might be 5, 10, 50 or more than a 100 others out there born from  ”their” donors is unsettling. Sometimes these moms even try to buy up all the available vials of sperm, so that no more children can be born from their donor. Even these moms sometimes want to keep their children from connecting with their half siblings and/or donors.

In the beginning, we as parents make all the choices about how our child will come into the world. These are choices that will affect our children for their entire lives. At some point, it isn’t about us, or what makes us most comfortable. We need to be asking, “what is in the best interests of this child to be born?” Reading research and testimonials from donor conceived people should be required before making any decisions.

And at some point, it will be up to the child to define his own sense of family. What may be just a “donated cell” to the parent, often means a lot more to a donor conceived person. If a child grows up in a family where half of their genetic, ancestral and medical background is minimized, or negated, they can feel a lot of guilt if and when they become curious about this invisible side of themselves. We as parents need to be very careful not to put our own fears and biases onto our children and allow them to process for themselves the meaning of “family” as they mature.  This is not about our fears as parents. We brought these children into the world using a methodology that cut them off from one half of their genetic background. We owe it to them to honor and respect any desires they have to seek out this unknown or “invisible” family.

If connections are made between donor-conceived people and their half siblings and/or donors, some parents have responded with fear, saying, “those people are NOT your family!” Although they are not your genetic family as a parent, they are indeed your child’s family. Fearing that, and insisting that it isn’t so, just won’t make the genetic connection invalid. Negating the importance of a genetic connection is absurd.  Lets think about the day that our children were born. As parents, we didn’t just go into the hospital nursery and choose any baby to take home.  No, we wanted the baby that was biologically ours. Biology does indeed matter. And although it is not the only way to form a family, it has been throughout the ages, the most common way that humans have defined family.

Even if you don’t feel any connection to your child’s new found relatives, it is your job to be open, warm and accepting. Having your complete acceptance will allow your child to fully explore and define these new relationships.

Adequate counseling and education and working through one’s own grief and fear as well as understanding our children’s desire to know about their ancestry, medical background and roots before pregnancy would save a lot of donor families from heartache. Making peace with the concept of not being genetically related to your children is essential to creating an honest, respectful and healthy family with strong bonds. Exploring what it means to be a parent and asking the questions such as “is it genetics or taking care of, raising and nurturing a child that makes a parent? ” is an important part of the process.  Having a deep understanding and respect for the fact that knowing where you come from is an essential ingredient in the formation of your donor conceived child’s current and future identity and is therefore a vital step towards having a healthy family.

At the Donor Sibling Registry we celebrate all of these family connections!



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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57 Responses to Wise words from Wendy Kramer for donor conception parents

  1. My parent's donor is my father says:

    This is excellent advice by Wendy!

  2. Silver says:

    While I totally agree with much of what Wendy has written, I question to whom it is addressed. One part reads, “Even if you don’t feel any connection to your child’s new found relatives, it is your job to be open, warm and accepting” which seems to be speaking to the non-bio parents. In which case, why include these sentences: “Lets think about the day that our children were born. As parents, we didn’t just go into the hospital nursery and choose any baby to take home. No, we wanted the baby that was biologically ours. Biology does indeed matter”? Because, actually, I did NOT take home a baby that was biologically mine and it was precisely my acceptance that biology, while part of of what makes up some families, is NOT the be-all and end-all of family that led to my decision to use donor eggs. If this post is addressed to the parents of donor-conceived children, the latter quote is an odd inclusion – it feels very “them and us”! Just my tuppence-worth.

  3. oliviasview says:

    Thank you for this perspective Silver. I just think it’s all very complicated. Donor assisted conception, in all its forms, challenges conventional and traditional notions of kinship. I have found it helpful to read the Relative Strangers research by sociologists Petra Nordquivst and Carol Smart and am currently reading After Kinship by anthropologist Janet Carsten. Both are very enlightening.

  4. “And at some point, it will be up to the child to define his own sense of family.”

    The above is interesting. I liked this piece but it’s spoken about how bio and social parent may feel. Would this change when thinking of it from the perspective of the donor and his family? I remember an episode of Oprah, 60 Minutes, and Style all profiling donors. In each case, the donors did not classify the offspring as their own children but of those that raise them. The reason I bring this up is because the donor’s possible perspective is often missing. Is it beneficial to our children that we encourage them to feel that the donors are family when the donors themselves may not feel the same? The fact that most donors go into this wanting anonymity says a lot.

    So maybe redefining kinship is not so bad after all?

    • oliviasview says:

      Thanks Lorraine. Good point. My experience of donors – even those who are happy to be identifiable when the child is 18 – is that they do not consider themselves to be parents. They give their gametes so that others can raise the children. I know my indomitable correspondent Marilynn has things to say about this, but personally, I think this perspective needs taking into account.

      • I think I know what Wendy’s referring to regarding the family issue. There was an episode of Generation Cryo where a dad in Atlanta (speaking of his donor) declared “He’s not family.” That was probably the only thing he said that I agreed with since I think of family as a verb rather than a noun. On the other hand, I identified with most of the moms when thinking of the donors. They may not be “family” or “Dads” but they are an extremely important part of our children’s existence. That part is just as important as mine not in the sense of raising them but for existing.

        But I realize that’s easy for me to say considering I’m a single mom using my own eggs rather than donor eggs or as a dad using donor sperm. I hate to think that I might feel differently if this were not the case. That’s what makes Wendy’s statement so important.

      • marilynn says:

        Olivia did you say that you think the perspective I voice needs to be taken into account? Really? Or am I misunderstanding? I know that I only deal with parents and offspring who are looking for one another or who have found one another and that these are the people whose voices I hear most I get that. They are saying things that seem pretty logical.

      • gsmwc02 says:

        I agree Olivia. The donor’s perspective is the forgotten one. Obviously the child is the most important but I think there is much to be learned from them.

    • marilynn says:

      Loraine a person’s family don’t have to want to be their family in order for it to be a true statement.

      Everyone has maternal and paternal family/relatives, theirs are just absent from their lives. Clearly they exist so their maternal and paternal relatives must also exist and they are family. It is not like a mother’s husband and his relatives become the child’s paternal relatives just because the bio father is not around doing the work of raising them. The mother’s husband and his relatives would occupy the maternal side of their family tree as the husband is helping her with her bio child. Then the kid still has the paternal side of their tree they just don’t know who they are. Their bio father may also be married and she and her relatives would be on the paternal side of the tree as they would not be thought of as maternal relatives. Not dangerous to imply they are family technically they are.

      • I disagree. To me a family is a lot deeper than simply being genetic relatives. My point is looking at it from the perspective of donors. Most of them choose to remain anonymous which means they feel no connection to the children conceived via their sperm/eggs. As Olivia pointed out, many donors still don’t feel a parent/child connection upon meeting the children. As a result, I see no logical reason to think of someone that had no intention of being a father/mother to you as a father/mother. If we must call them such, at least add bio or genetic to the title. While I agree that 99% of what Wendy said was spot on, I disagree that it’s necessarily healthy for the donor conceived to think of donors as mothers and fathers. Assuming that’s what she means by DI children forming their own definition of family (different from their parent/social parent).

      • gsmwc02 says:

        “The mother’s husband and his relatives would occupy the maternal side of their family tree as the husband is helping her with her bio child.”

        The mother and father are not biologically related. So how in the world would the father’s relatives be on the mother’s side? It makes no logical sense.

  5. My parent's donor is my father says:

    Lorraine wrote:
    “My point is looking at it from the perspective of donors. ”

    There is no way to really draw any definitive conclusions from studies and surveys (or anecdotes) of selected groups of people’s opinions on these issues. Every situation will be different and most likely evolving and probably carry with it quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. This is true for ‘donor’ conceived and ‘donors’ as well as intended parent(s), half siblings, grandparents and extended bio, social and bio/social family involved in these arrangements. In the most technical sense, a sperm ‘donor’ is a father. But I would agree with you that to use that term, especially with young children, can be unhealthy in that it might mislead them that this person is supposed to care about them but doesn’t and/or is intentionally missing because they don’t want a relationship with them.. (Which they might actually find to be true once they become autonomous adults but at that point in their lives should be able to better understand why this was not in their best interests and/or why it was not possible from other’s perspectives)

    Damian Adams, a ‘donor’ conceived man and activist, writes a bit about the lexicon issues here:


    • Lorraine Nowlin says:

      Good point about young children. An adult might be able to use the term father understanding that the donor may not feel the connection. But on the other hand, I wonder if when they say they “aren’t my kids” do they mean in the legal sense or if they really feel nothing at all. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have a hard time believing that donors and children feel no connection whatsoever.

      • marilynn says:

        What do minors deserve from their bio parents generally though? Assuming a worst case scenario where the bio parent does not want to raise their offspring and there is no line out the door of unrelated people who want to do the job for the absent parent shouldn’t all minors be entitled to their bio parents care and support and accountability as parents? Whether they think of themselves as parents or not should not be of any concern to anyone because having offspring means what you want need and desire is less important than the wants needs and desires of your offspring. Having offspring means their needs are now more important than our wants.

      • For some reason, I can’t hit reply to Marilyn’s comment. In any case, no. Children do not deserve nor are they entitled to love and care from biological parents but that wasn’t my point. They are entitled to be provided for, loved and cared for by whomever is legally recognized to be their parent. In most cases it’s the biological parent, in others, it’s an unrelated parent. In other words, I feel it is always the parent’s call to be involved in a child’s life whether right or wrong.

        So a donor may not feel a parent/child bond with the offspring but I have a hard time believing that no feelings exist at all…even if it boils down to having something in common. A better person to get insight on this is the donor him/herself. I can only speculate.

    • gsmwc02 says:

      You’ve provided information on studies done on DC, are there any that strictly focus on the donors point of view?

  6. My parent's donor is my father says:

    Lorraine wrote:
    “but on the other hand, I wonder if when they say they “aren’t my kids” do they mean in the legal sense or if they really feel nothing at all. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I have a hard time believing that donors and children feel no connection whatsoever.”

    Personally, I would guess that the reaction of the ‘donor’ will vary depending on how and when and in what context he (or she) is asked and their personal situation. Just like intended parent(s), there can be knee jerk, defensive responses. But I know for fact that there are many biological fathers (‘donors’) who care deeply about their ‘donor’ children, feel a loss in never knowing them, have cognitive dissonance over what they feel/how to feel. And the more people added to this equation the more likely they might be to have anxiety, fear and confusion. I can’t imagine how painful it would be for a ‘donor’ to feel that he needs to reject/push away his biological child that contacts him when he is not in a position to embrace them.

    • Lorraine Nowlin says:

      That’s definitely true. But as much as I’d like to believe that most donors feel that way, numbers suggest otherwise. Now there are options for them to be open but most donors are still choosing anonimity. The DSR and other such forums are filled mostly with parents raising the children, not donors. I don’t believe for a minute that most are unaware that there are ways to find children and families. No matter how difficult it may be to accept, there is a lot of ambivalence among donors to reach out to offspring and that needs to be addressed. I’d hate to see false hope given to children and adults when the affection isn’t returned.

      • Lorraine Nowlin says:

        I wanted to add that I suspect overall that donors have a lot more to risk when reaching out in terms of affection not being returned. Maybe the fear of rejection is part of the problem.

    • marilynn says:

      My parent’s donor is my father – spot on.

  7. oliviasview says:

    Thanks K for posting the new article on the Victorian research on donors…fascinating.

  8. oliviasview says:

    Lorraine – I very much agree with your last comment on 18th March (it’s annoying isn’t it that it doesn’t seem possible to directly respond to some comments). Have a look at the research on donors in Victoria Australia posted by My Parent’s Donor is My Father for views of former sperm donors.

  9. I found this to be quite an eye opener:

    “A survey of UK semen donors from the early 1990s, conducted at the time of donation, found that almost half would like to know whether there were any births from their donations, but only 15% wanted contact with their donor offspring (Cook and Golombok, 1995).”

  10. oliviasview says:

    Can you say more Lorraine…eye opener in what way?

    • Only 15% wanted contact with offspring. I’m surprised it’s that low. For me that’s an eye opener.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        This was only based on 42 participants. It isn’t really that telling. I didn’t see any details on how they were recruited other than through ‘advertising’.. ‘advertising’ where?. Also it takes a certain kind of passion and motivation to respond. What might be that passion and motivation? Also what do *we know* about the authors of this study, their personal biases, affiliations and motivations? They claim ‘no conflict of interests’. Is that really true? Can any ‘study’ really claim not bias? It’s all relevant when this claims to influence public policy: I respect this conclusion however, “the complex interests of ‘donors’ should not be over looked…” it goes on…I didn’t find any reason to disagree with any of the conclusions.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        And this is the money quote: “In just a over half a century, we have moved from a narrow view of the donor as merely a vehicle for enabling other people to have children to understanding that donating gametes can have life long effects on the donor”

        Policy can’t change that. ‘Donor’ offspring can and will use resources available now, that were never available before, to find their missing biological father/family. Policy can only change ‘informed consent’. It can’t ‘protect’ the ‘donor’ beyond that.

      • Lorraine Nowlin says:

        In my opinion, offspring didn’t sign any contracts so a donor’s identity shouldn’t be protected from them. However, as much as offspring may use the technology a donor should be protected from having continued contact or direct contact. There are laws that will protect everyone from that.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        Those laws already exist for anyone and everyone. There is no need for new laws.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        There are no laws of man that can outlaw Karma.

      • Lorraine Nowlin says:

        I was referring to the fact that if someone doesn’t want contact, continued pursuit could rightfully be viewed as stalking and donors could take legal action. In that case it’s best to respect the donors wishes, recognize it as their loss and move on.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        That’s already happened. A ‘donor’ conceived offspring of a ‘donor’ reaching out in a heartfelt way to his father and receiving a court ordered, legal – do not contact again -response. Very nice. Sure. They can do that. But the karma behind that can hurt both ways. Also, the ‘donor’ can’t speak for anyone else but himself. Are *we* now going to define ‘stalking’ as any mystery inquiry? Or will *we* even further discriminate against the so called ‘donor conceived’ and make special no no exception to just them?

      • Lorraine Nowlin says:

        I don’t know who would define stalking as any inquiry but *I* define it as continued inquiry after being told no contact is wanted. If the DC adult you speak of wrote a heartfelt letter reaching out to this donor as a father, I can see why the donor might have been put off. They never intended to be fathers and offspring must keep that in mind when they reach out to donors.

      • Re: Karma… I come from a very Christian background so I’m more of a reap what you sow type of person.

        But yes, I do believe that any donor that rejects well-intentioned offspring will reap what he/she sows so to speak. If you reject someone, you can’t complain if you are later rejected.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        No, that DC person was not told to not contact, he made a few attempts at contact and the only response he received back was a legal threat. Also, no one ever attempts contact by suggesting that they want a daddy – to play catch with, pay their college tuition, walk them down the isle at their wedding etc. BUT the reason why the ‘donor’ is being sought out is because he is their father biologically, obviously NOT socially.

      • gsmwc02 says:

        “But the karma behind that can hurt both ways.”

        You aren’t suggesting that a donor that rejects a DC person should then have bad things be brought upon them are you?

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        Dictionary. com
        kar·ma [kahr-muh] Show IPA
        1. Hinduism, Buddhism. action, seen as bringing upon oneself inevitable results, good or bad, either in this life or in a reincarnation: in Hinduism one of the means of reaching Brahman. Compare bhakti ( def 1 ) , jnana.
        2. Theosophy. the cosmic principle according to which each person is rewarded or punished in one incarnation according to that person’s deeds in the previous incarnation.
        3. fate; destiny. Synonyms: predestination, predetermination, lot, kismet.
        4. the good or bad emanations felt to be generated by someone or something: Lets get out of here. This place has bad karma.

      • gsmwc02 says:

        It appears as though you are implying that. Well if that’s the case then why do bad things happen to good people? You once told me everything in life is either a gift or a lesson. So in the case of a good person having something bad happen to them, then I guess that is a lesson that being a good person means little in the big picture.

      • That puts a different perspective on this. The donor simply could have responded the first time and respectfully declined contact. To respond with a legal threat is mean-spirited.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        Greg, I’m sorry, but I feel that you consistently misrepresent my intentions in a very negative way. I don’t see any point in engaging. I can’t dialogue with you further . Lorraine, I completely agree with you. Could you imagine if that was your child?

      • I’d be angry if that were my child…both at the donor and myself for choosing a donor that didn’t want to be contacted. Thus the reason why I know I would not have chosen to use a donor in an era where openness and information were not an option (not only for the child’s sake but I would not feel comfortable personally).

      • gsmwc02 says:

        “Greg, I’m sorry, but I feel that you consistently misrepresent my intentions in a very negative way. I don’t see any point in engaging. I can’t dialogue with you further . ”

        I asked you a direct question. Rather than give me a direct response, you gave me a copy and pasted definition. Maybe I wouldn’t have assumed what your position was if you answered my question directly.

        I’ll give you another chance to respond: You aren’t suggesting that a donor that rejects a DC person should then have bad things be brought upon them are you? Please answer directly. Thank you.

      • Liz says:

        Comments can be confusing. The post about Sam and his “history,” for example. I wasn’t sure how it was meant. There is a construction of that saying that is quite negative, and after your post, I assumed you were attempting to communicate that negativity. But your follow-up post indicated either positivity or neutrality. It was a confusing comment, as is the karma comment (and the comment about monkey-robots, but I assume that was in fun.)

        Clarity removes the chances of misperception.

      • Not very many DI conceived people comfortable with their origins speak out like Zach Wahls. I joined a fb group and for the first time, I read the sentiments of such adults. So if anyone has adult DI kids that don’t have issues with sperm donation, DO encourage them to speak out, write, etc.

      • oliviasview says:

        Wonderful video. Think I have seen it before but SO well worth re-visiting.

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        It would be wonderful if all ‘donor’ conceived felt the same way as Zach Wahls. But they don’t. I could link to many many many other ‘donor’ conceived POV’s that do not support the Zach Wahls of the world. But that wouldn’t be PC. Zach Wahls is not a spokesperson for ‘donor’ conception anymore than any other ‘donor’ conceived person is.

      • Liz says:

        Zach is representative of Iowa, that’s for certain. I saw the video over the weekend for the first time, linked to a post about the Michigan marriage decision. I had not realized his family attends a church that my family had visited. Small world. 6th generation Iowan. Hawkeyes Representing. 🙂

        “Hey, Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa.”

      • My parent's donor is my father says:

        I was speaking of his ‘donor’ conception experience. I think you are speaking of the ‘marriage debate’? This was decided by the courts not by vote – so ‘representative of Iowa’ actually is not at all for certain. But that’s besides the point.

      • Liz says:

        I meant that Zach is representative of his town in Iowa, in every way.

        It is not surprising to me that his family, his church, his schools, and the local community institutions produced a person with the personality, resilience, and healthy emotional life of Zach Wahls.

  11. oliviasview says:

    I’m not sure when those UK former donors were interviewed Lorraine. If they were still young then I would not be surprised. In the Australian research many years had passed since the men donated, they had been through many life experiences (including having or not having children themselves) and would be able to reflect on their donation with different eyes. Because of the ending of anonymity for donors in the UK it is really important that both men and women are given real opportunities to put themselves in the shoes of offspring and understand how important it is to remain open to contact in the future.

    • Yes, I do agree that age probably had a lot to do with the response. I also suspect that there are fears on both sides of the fence. Donors may be fearful of what might be expected of them and parents fear that a donor may “take over” or something. I’ve heard that expressed. Perhaps donors need to understand that they are not obligated to take on a parenting role they didn’t intend to have and parents should understand that donors do not intend to remove them from their children’s lives. It’s all about answering questions and putting a face on the other half of their genetics.

  12. oliviasview says:

    In response to your post of March 22nd Lorraine –
    “I’d be angry if that were my child…both at the donor and myself for choosing a donor that didn’t want to be contacted. Thus the reason why I know I would not have chosen to use a donor in an era where openness and information were not an option (not only for the child’s sake but I would not feel comfortable personally).”

    When Walter and I were making decisions about donor conception over thirty years ago the climate and culture around donor conception was so different that asking for information about a donor would have been unthinkable. As it was, we were going way against the tide by saying we were going to be open with our child(ren) from the start. In those days you just didn’t question the doctor. This remains true for many today, but there is lots of information around to counter that attitude now. There was NOTHING thirty years ago.
    Part of me is amazed that we didn’t ask to know something about the donor (we know nothing so our children have no information whatsoever) but we didn’t, even though we had no shame about using donor conception. It’s just the way it was then.

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