It has been a fascinating week but one that is very difficult to blog about in the detail I would like to share, because of the confidential nature of some of the encounters I have had. Suffice to say that some parents are feeling much more confident now about telling their young adult children about being donor conceived after talking with Walter and me. And following a conversation with a psychiatrist who at the behest of the court is trying to support a family with a known donor, PLEASE anyone who is thinking of taking this or the co-parenting route to parenthood, seek counselling and legal advice BEFORE going ahead. Changes of mind or expectations – this time on the part of the mother – are so common in these situations.
What I can talk about is the day I spent in Southampton on Monday as part of my tour of UK fertility clinics…but this visit had a number of other elements too. I was met off the London train by Natalie Gamble and Helen Prosser from Brilliant Beginnings, the off-shoot of law firm Natalie Gamble Associates, that is attempting to facilitate surrogacy and egg donation in the ethical and legal way that they believe it should operate in the UK. Over a delicious lunch we talked of many matters donor conception and in particular the needs of those using surrogacy and egg donation to found their family. Amongst the changes they would like to see in UK law are enforceable contracts between intended parents and surrogates and a framework that sets a reasonable amount, say £15,000 ‘inconvenience’ compensation for surrogates, instead of the current under-the-counter payments that sometimes amount to bundles of notes being handed over in brown paper bags. In the States, where a considerable amount of surrogacy takes place, the financial side is completely up-front, the services are run professionally (instead of the well-meaning but perhaps rather amateur agencies in the UK) but, I am assured, relationships between surrogates and intended parents are, as in the UK, largely warm, friendly and intensely personal. That sounds like a good balance to me. Payment is of course controversial in this country, but carrying a child for another person is a massive undertaking, involving much actual expense and also time and commitment as well as sacrifice and good-will. Maybe it is better, and cleaner if you like, to acknowledge all this with an up-front financial gift rather than continuing to try and pretend that surrogacy must be completely altruistic whilst leaving each party open to pressure from the other about what is expected.
We also talked about the need for DCN’s family of books for children and parents to expand to include surrogacy.
After lunch Natalie and Helen took me to the Princess Anne Hospital where I was to meet Ruth Wilde, the counsellor at the Complete Fertility Unit and Victoria Ryder, senior embryologist and standing in as Donation Co-ordinator prior to an appointment being made. The Complete unit was, in a physical sense, a distinct contrast to the other clinics, all in the private sector, that I had visited over the previous couple of weeks. No glitz here. Instead, a small, slightly but not badly scruffy NHS unit where you could sense a lot of ‘making do’ with inadequate space, furnishings etc., but with a huge heart and wish to do well by patients and donors at the centre. Victoria and Ruth spoke with warmth about getting to know the patients and donors individually and showed me (without names attached) some wonderful pen portraits that had been written by sperm and egg donors. They never take on a donor that any member of staff feels uncomfortable about and have anxieties about sperm donors who originate in the States or Denmark, feeling that they are unlikely to comply with UK regulations about the amount of compensation, numbers of families created (world-wide) and probably understanding of the need to be available to offspring in 18 years time, despite their details being on the HFEA register as identifiable. Ruth is the only counsellor in this clinic. She sees all donor recipients and donors and her door is open for as many sessions as people need.
The unit recruits local altruistic/compensated egg and sperm donors but have a current shortage, there being 67 people on the egg donation waiting list. In order to meet the needs of people on this list, the unit is about to re-start their egg-sharing scheme and I was invited to sit in on a planning meeting for this, chaired by the effective but scary Dr Ying Cheong. During this meeting, attended by representatives of all the types of workers within the unit, we ate a wonderful picnic provided by Ruth, who I can see fulfils a kind of motherly role (she won’t like me saying this!). Although the meeting was chaired by a medic, all team members views were sought and treated with respect. It felt very democratic.
No sooner had the egg-share meeting finished but people started arriving for the evening support group meeting devoted to donor conception. Many more people than the 35 expected turned up and chairs from all corners of the unit were commandeered and squashed into a clinical space that had been turned into a meeting room. Ruth introduced the evening as one she was going to run ‘Graham Norton style minus the filth’ by interviewing four of us, including Natalie who had returned for the event, who were parents of donor conceived children about our feelings and experiences. I am proud to say that all the speakers were DC Network members and between us we covered egg and sperm donation in heterosexual couple families and lesbian parenting. There were some potential single mums present and Ruth said that the unit would be running a special event for them later in the year. I enjoyed re-visiting some of my personal story (including showing a photo of Will and Zannah – real people who grow up do result from these procedures!) and answering questions from the audience that drew on my wider experience within the Network. It all seemed to go swimmingly and made me wonder why so many fertility clinics seem to have stopped having support group events, when this one was obviously so popular, and presumably needed. The evaluations of the evening, I am informed by Ruth, were exceptionally positive.
It was midnight by the time I got back home in London but had been an enormously worthwhile day.
Meanwhile, excellent news this week is that Ken Daniels, long-time friend and supporter of DC Network and world-wide expert on the well-being of donor conception families, has been awarded the New Zealand equivalent of the OBE. So very richly deserved. It was good to be able to congratulate him over the ‘phone from within London as he and his wife are passing through the UK as part of a three month tour around Europe whilst their house in Christchurch is being re-built following the earthquake of nearly two years ago.
Further good news is that DC Network is to revive the SibLink register on their website in order to facilitate half-siblings connections. This will initially be for members only but with ambitions to open it up to all who have conceived in the UK or countries outside the US. The Donor Sibling Registry based in the States is the best way for US conceived people and families to make links.
We are off to Salcombe for a week with our sun cream and wellies for a family seaside holiday with our wonderful grand-daughter and her parents, so see you all again from Monday 16th June.