Lessons for non-tellers from late tellers

I have recently been in touch with three families who have teenage or adult donor conceived children.  The ages range from 14 to 38.  Two of these families are preparing to tell their children for the first time that they are donor conceived.  One set of parents did the first telling over two years ago but now, at the request of one of their children, are looking for supportive family mediation so that they can all explore feelings that remain unresolved.  These families and their situations are all different but what they share is a regret that they did not share information with their children earlier in their lives.  The parents of the older offspring were both told by their doctor not to tell.  One of these couples was treated only on the condition that they would tell nobody else.  It is hardly surprising in the culture of the time that they did not tell, although the secret weighed heavily on the mind of at least one of the mothers. I wish so much that I could put these three families in touch with some of the women who have been declaring their undying allegiance to the not-telling camp on Fertility Friends recently.  Admittedly they are mostly women who have yet to have children and there is a  chance that they will change their minds, but their current fierce, blind insistence that any child they have will be THEIRS and theirs alone is frightening to behold.  And yet they betray the fragility of their position by wishing never to be exposed to even the declaration by anyone else that they are of the view that ‘telling’ is the right thing to do, let alone the reasons for why it might be best for both child and family. The three families I am in touch with have all experienced the stomach lurching moments when talk turned to likenesses and family traits and lied or evaded their way out of the conversation;  have survived teenagers and 20 somethings asking if they were adopted or conceived as the result of an affair and denied ‘difference’ to their children, the wider world and themselves.  Most of us dislike lying, particularly to those to whom we are close.  We teach our children to tell the truth yet at the heart of non-telling families is an untruth that is about as big as it could be.  The people who should be setting a child’s moral compass are deliberately misleading them about a genetic dis-connect in the family.  When left unsaid it is a huge and corrosive lump that grows larger by the year.  When talked about from early years it is a ‘difference’ that ebbs and flows in importance according to life stage and personality, always acknowledged, rarely unmanageable. Not-telling in the climate of twenty or thirty years ago is very understandable.  What is depressing are the number of people still sticking their fingers in their ears and la, la ing their way through donor conception insisting that an egg or a sperm is ‘just a cell’, that they don’t want to think of their child as ‘donor conceived’ or that they have half-siblings around the world. I know the three families would want to give them a very strong message.  Do it sooner than later.  Not only is it respectful to the child to tell.  It’s also so much easier than keeping a secret.


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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31 Responses to Lessons for non-tellers from late tellers

  1. gsmwc02 says:

    I think it’s really important for anyone making the decision to go through with third party reproduction to go through some type of counseling process more so infertile couples than same sex or single adults. Being someone who considered both sperm donation and adoption as ways to build a family whose opinion on disclosure evolved I will say that counseling helped working through a lot of my insecurities. Even though we aren’t going to be pursuing either adoption or third party reproduction, I feel like I am in a better position to parent a non biological child than I was two years ago.

    I hope future parents of donor conceived children are able to work through any insecurities they may have. I hope they can be honest with their kids and their kids are confident in who their parents are even if their parents aren’t the people who conceived them.

    • oliviasview says:

      Counselling is really important and if people have treatment in the UK they have to see a counsellor at least once…and UK counsellors always talk about the importance of ‘telling’. But you can’t make people listen. Also, unfortunately, a lot of people go abroad for egg donation. In other countries in Europe counselling rarely happens and people can have anonymous egg donation and completely avoid thinking about the donor as a ‘real person’ at all. There is so much bad practice that needs to change.

      • gsmwc02 says:

        This is why I’m a big believer in regulation and education rather than banning. When you ban something and people will want it bad enough they are more likely to go elsewhere where it’s not safe and where as you said openess is discouraged.

  2. marilynn says:

    I really agree with you. It is frustrating to read the no tell group posts on fertility friends. They do believe they are within their rights to lie to the child they are raising and unfortunately they are correct. People can lie to one another and the government won’t send them to jail over it. Telling the truth is not the law of the government except when it comes to what you tell the government or in the course of performing work under a professional license. At home we can tell children that there is an Easter Bunny or tell someone we did not hear the phone ring when we did not feel like picking it up. For that very reason I feel strongly that nobody should have a legal right to lie about this subject on the child’s birth record. This would not be to encourage anyone to tell or not tell it would simply be to record the identity of a person’s biological parents as their parents on their birth record no different than we do for the rest of the population. There is no movement to stop doing that in the rest of the population and nobody feels that having that information written down mandatorily is an invasion of privacy, it’s just a legal obligation and if a person lies about it on record and it’s found out it’s not impossible to have the error corrected. There are even fines for lying if they can prove it was deliberate.

    We can’t force anyone to tell the truth about things they tell the kid’s they are raising but we can make them tell the truth to the government on record – we do that all the time and we do if for this exact issue with everyone whose parents are not gamete donors so let’s make the rules the same so that the rights are the same. Then they can lie to donor offspring all they want but knowing that the records don’t support that lie and that at some point the person will understand who they are and who their biological relatives are. Also by putting their bio parent’;s names on the birth record like everyone else their relatives will have access to their vital records and they will have access to their relatives records as well. No member of a family unit should have more authority than another when it comes to information about who they all are kin to. The rest of the population operates that way and so should bio parents who are gamete donors.

    I know you believe that it is their right to know which is why you advocate telling. And really there should be no exceptions due to religion or anythting like that because there are no exceptions for the rest of the population who are obligated to tell the truth on record and then lie all they want about it at home. Sometimes they lie on record but it’s clearly illegal and there is recourse against it. Does DCN take the position that telling the truth means not just to the child but to the government as well the same as bio parents are obligated to do in the rest of the population? It would make your job of getting people to tell the truth that much easier if they knew they had no extra special ability to lie about parentage that the rest of society does not have. Sure they could lie on the record but shouldn’t it be illegal to do no different than a woman trying to lie and say one guy is the father when someone else is really? When we start making exceptions about who gets to know the truth and who does not it becomes very unfair. The truth is the truth even if someone finds it not as pleasant as a lie right?

    • oliviasview says:

      A birth certificate (in the UK at any rate) is a record of legal rather than biological parentage. They are often the same but not necessarily, as in the case of donor conception. DC Network is not against there being some kind of system for birth certificates for EVERYONE having a notice attached saying that there may be further information available about the child named. This would be available privately (UK birth certificates are public records and copies can be looked at by anyone) and could be accessed by a child from 16 or 18. This could help with putting pressure on parents to ‘tell’ but DCN does not want it to be made illegal to withhold this information as it could act as a deterrent to people changing their minds about ‘telling’ later, for fear of prosecution.
      As I said in my comment to gsmwc02 above, many people go abroad for egg donation. There are no UK treatment records to prove donor conception. How could you possibly stop people from simply failing to mention donor conception to a Registrar of births?

      • gsmwc02 says:

        A birth certificate is a record of legal parentage in most places on earth yet it continues to be called something it isn’t by some to make up points do support their arguments. The issue here is disclosure and if people want to address the issue their argument should be to advocate for anonymous donation to be banned. It’s pretty simple.

        • m says:

          Actually Olivia is intensely aware of the correlation between telling and birth records. The transcripts of her discussions on fertility friends regarding birth certificate disclosure would fill an entire file drawer. FF members are horrified by the thought of having the names of the biological parents on birth certificates and Olivia warned that it’s a distinct possibility since the government does not want to be party to or complicit in committing fraud by lying about people’s parentage on vital records. Reading these transcripts its clear that she’s emotional about wanting to protect the rearing family unit as being the same as biological parents but she’s grounded in the practicality of knowing that the vital records are suppose to contain medically accurate information and understands that the government has posed the question of whether they should certify birth records that are medically false for parentage.

          So thanks for your input Greg but she’s ear deep in the issue and knows what I’m talking about.

          • gsmwc02 says:

            Oh Olivia is aware of what a birth certificate is and means. As she states above it is a certificate of legal not biological parentage. Thanks for your commentary but we understand what a birth certificate is and isn’t.

            • marilynn says:

              No seriously – she actually understands and you don’t. There are literally hundreds of her posts on Fertility Friends where she does accurately describe the government’s stance that they did not want to be complicit in the lying on people’s birth records as happens with the presumption of paternity knowing full well the presumption is inaccurate
              She does not like it but I don’t think she has any illusions about the fact that they are supposed to be medically accurate.

      • m says:

        for you and greg both though

        “Offline olivia m
        Gold Member
        Re: Parted-at-birth twins ‘married’
        « Reply #15 on: 17/01/08, 17:43 »
        Just for information, it is donor conceived adults who are behind the push to annotate birth certificates. They don’t seem to mind that others will see the information, they just want to make sure that parents ‘tell’.
        The Scrutiny Committee felt that donor conception was not like a one night stand in that the latter is making a personal decision and the former involves third parties, ie. a fertility clinic and the state apparatus of the law (HFE Act). They felt that the state should not be complicit in a lie.
        I say this as it is important to understand where people are coming from in order to be able to counter their arguments effectively.

        Which is clear you at least totally understand the situation where Greg may not. I Know as a personal matter you might not agree but intellectually you get it.

        • gsmwc02 says:

          I understand where the situation clearly but don’t agree that it’s an effective way for getting people to tell. All you are doing is pushing aside the non biological parent and family creating more insecurity.

          As someone who can really speak from the perspective of the type of person who could have pursued sperm donation I will tell you that it won’t work nor will it get people like me on board.

          If I may Marilynn ask that you please stop patronizing me like I don’t know what I’m talking about.

          • marilynn says:

            Why do you think that naming people as parents on their own offspring’s birth certificates would only be done for the purpose of encouraging people to tell the kid’s they’re raising that they are another person’s biological child? It needs to be done simply because that is the way its done for the rest of society and donors and their offspring are identically human and the result of normal human sexual reproductive behavior no matter how much help their parents got conceiving them, the end goal is the same – the people who have offspring need to be identified on their offspring’s birth certificates as parents not so it will encourage telling but because its a matter of public health and record keeping and a matter of treating everyone equally and granting them the benefit of legal recourse in the event their parents of the biological kind attempt to avoid being named or in the event someone else tries to be named.

            What donor offspring need is legal recourse when they are being raised by individuals who chose not to tell. They need the legal right to have their biological parents named and they need the right to have errors of medical and biological fact corrected. Giving them equal rights in this regard is not supposed to encourage telling so much as it’s suppose to ensure access to information that is on par with everyone else. Other parents lie about parentage too but its a crime to lie about it on a birth certificate and that small amount of respect should be extended to the offspring of gamete donors too.

      • m says:

        Yeah I’m talking about people’s vital records and the fact it’s actually not really legal to name someone as a parent who is not biologically the parent on an original birth record. That’s why all the egg and sperm agreements include a fall back of promising to give the kid up for adoption if the legal parenthood of the spouse of a bio parent raising donor offspring is called into question. It is not equal for some people to have a bio parent listed and others not. Not for the stated purpose of the document which is not to establish legal parenthood at all….read it what does it say? Who orders that the records be collected and what department of the government maintains the files? Not family courts or family services but the department of health, center for disease control. The records are required to be signed by physicians no different than a death record. Birth records establish fertility rates for the country based on the age of the parents named. The government relies on the accuracy of info on the birth record and so do the people named on them. You know that though. You know parents can have their rights terminated without having their names removed from the birth record – that is true for all kids in foster care. So the birth record is not a statement of current, legal parental authority. It just identifies people as having reproduced and having offspring. It establishes who people are in relation to the world.

        • gsmwc02 says:

          Foster kids also don’t have any legal parents. I don’t think their situation is comparable to kids that have parents.

          • marilynn says:

            I’m sorry what? Foster kids do have parents. Everyone has parents everyone has a mother and father. They don’t always raise their kids tragically and when they don’t and they loose their legal parental authority their names remain on their children’s birth certificates. Their names are only removed (and pointlessly so) to make way for the name of adoptive parents on ammended certificates if the adoptive parent wants – they don’t have to and frankly should not be allowed to but at the moment its still an option. But the fact that many people have their parents named on their birth records and those parents are not legally empowered with parental authority anymore when kids are in foster care.

            So it simply is not true that the birth certificate reflects the “current legal parents” because parental authority of people named on birth records is reduced or eliminated for cause all the time and it has no effect on the names being on the birth record. Plus it says it’s a damn record of vital health not a certificate of parental authority granted by the powers that be.

      • m says:

        I’ve really studied what DCN’s position was on the previous proposals and I would not have been a fan of the prior proposals either because I think they were something of a mark on the birth certificates of donor offspring which is, indeed a horrid kind of scarlet letter thing. But simply entering their biological parents names on the birth records of their offspring no different than anyone else with offspring certainly does not stigmatize either the biological parent or their children with a big flashing symbol that one or both parents were gamete donors. Certainly for the stated purpose of birth records as medical and vital records of individuals named on the certificate there is really nothing at all important about the fact that one of the listed parents was a gamete donor. And then donor offspring would have exactly the same legal treatment as anyone else with regard to what gets written down and what info they and all their relatives have access to. We all know that people named as parents on birth records can and do have their rights terminated by courts without their names being removed from the certificates as this is the case in foster kids and wards of the state and in may cases where one parent wins sole physical and legal custody.

        By rights people should be going to court and having the rights of the estranged bio parents terminated and then also undertaking step parent adoptions if they want their spouses to have parental authorities and responsibilities that outlast their marriages if they were to fail. I am personally not a fan of step parent adoption for many reasons but it would bring donor offspring’s rights into alignment with the rest of the population insofar as recording the names of their parents on their records accurately or being in violation of the law. And would eliminate the confusion of people on fertility friends who think the child is “all theirs” forgetting that donors are just people and when they have offspring they are the parents of their offspring at least for health and record keeping reasons.

        You are right that laws don’t keep people from doing things. I don’t think anyone has that illusion. The point of law is to set parameters and consequences for behavior that everyone can rely upon. There will always be people who break the law and get away with it, but that does not mean that law has no benefit. We want to give people some legal recourse if their parents don’t meet legal expectations.

        It’s hard trying to convince people to tell the truth that someone is not being raised by their bio parent when they’ve been sold this hogwash that this is so different from being adopted and that they are the child’s only parents and that they conceived the child with their spouse blah blah. When that is not true at all and your telling message is as valid for them as anyone raising a legally adopted person. Sad.

        • gsmwc02 says:

          Actually the DCN advocates for disclosure and the truth that the child has parents and that they have a donor with who they have a biological connection to. That’s the truth. They don’t need to put down or demonize the non biological parent or eliminate them from the child’s life the way you and other opponents of donor conception wish to.

          The DCN is heading down the right path by educating those who need to be educated.

          • marilynn says:

            No demonizing of anyone at all was suggested or even implied by me or anyone I know. The topic of this post is getting people to tell the minors that they are raising if they are someone else’s biological child. Telling focuses on the minor and letting them know they have a bio parent who is not raising them and bio family that they are not being raised around. That is not demonizing anyone it’s just a fact.

  3. marilynn says:

    If DCN takes the stand that it is the offspring’s right to know early and often then is there something that can be done so that they also have a right to know who early and often? The law is not jiving with your approach by withholding the identity of the absent parent for 18 years because if they have the right to know, why not now like other people do when they are under the age of 18? That bio parent may be raising their siblings or the identifying information might allow them to meet other children that bio parent has but is not raising and really grow up with them as siblings and bond as family the way normal siblings do and their medical information could be freely shared amongst their doctors and what not. Do those late disclosure families also wish they had been able to get them in touch with their relatives earlier or is just knowing their current focus? Generally do you find people who tell early recognize that not telling them who is like another like or withholding of information that they have to address as well? Knowing might trigger the desire to search and if they don’t know the identity to tell the kid, it’s like the law is tying their hands. If they had to be identified and the information was never concealed and always available they could freely communicate growing up and it would make the process of telling less daunting I’d think.

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  5. So heartbreaking. For all involved.

  6. Sarah says:

    Counselling is extremely important prior to making the decision on how to create a family. It helps to talk through a lot of what ifs, to talk about the pro’s cons, telling not telling. It’s such a shame that it is not mandatory everywhere.

    We found it extremely beneficial in making our decision to use a donor, and later, the conversations that we had have really help to shape the way we raise our children.

    We are very firmly in the telling early camp, our children who are now 8 have been given information since they were about 3, and more recently we went through the information provided by the HFEA (thank you Olivia for advising we could get this). I have to say, it was a bit of a nervous time introducing to them that they have half-siblings and more information about our donor. But as usual they took it in their stride, accepted the information, went away and processed it and asked questions when they popped into their heads, bedtime is a favourite time!. It’s curious how my daughter is interested already in who her half siblings are and who her ‘tummy daddy’ is, my son on the other hand isn’t that interested. Our hands are now tied in what information we have, and we have to work with what we have, I do wish our donor had completed a pen letter, as we only have very basic information.

    Having read some of the thread on Fertility Friends, it concerns me how little consideration these people have for a child’s feelings. No child has ever asked to be born, we are born as a result of our parents desires to be parents. As such, I believe that we owe our children the truth. This in no way takes away any of the relationship with our children, it enhances it by the fact of being open and honest and not building a family based on lies. Coming from a family where paternity has been called in question on 2 occasions, the truth will always come out.

    • oliviasview says:

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment Sarah. Delighted to hear that all is going so well in your family.

    • m says:

      Since I reunite families separated by gamete donation I’ll tell you that you can spend years researching and digging and then by simply joining a second dna website, find a full first cousin on the very first set of results returned. Olivia one of our dear friends and donor activists found family on 23 and me just yesterday and the match was so close that there is no question of their father’s identity anymore. I had zero to do with this reunion other than being very happy that they are no longer wondering and happy they are not rejected. Sarah please consider having the children join sites like 23 and me or FTDNA because their absent bio parent and siblings may well already be members and their other relatives may be members not knowing the gigantic family they are apt to find if they don’t know they are related to a person who donated! Just a suggestion. Glad you are allowing them to know their siblings while young. Think of how helpful it will be to have their physicians or dentists and teachers be able to share info the way they would in any other sibling situation. Nice going.

      • m says:

        Oh i did not mean Olivia as in Olivia Pratten – I was telling our host here, Olivia – like hey someone we both know hit the jackpot yesterday. Found their Dad finally on their own by the way. Just to clarify I don’t want anyone to think I said Olivia P found her Pop.

      • Sarah says:

        Thank you. My children don’t know who their siblings are, as we only have limited information from the HFEA. They do know how many there are, year of birth and their gender. We will most definitely explore and talk to them about joining sites to locate siblings when they are older, but it will ultimately be their choice.

        Our children are much more experienced than the majority of their peers about how different families are made, we have friends who have adopted, and we have also had experience of pregnancy within a same sex couple, they deal with it all with such grace and maturity for their age, and I do believe this is because we have created a norm that all families are different but equal. As they get older their questions become more complex, we always answer honestly and never lie, but sometimes our answers are limited due to the level of information we have.

        When the time comes we will support our children fully, should they choose, to locate and meet their ‘tummy daddy’ and their siblings.

        • marilynn says:

          I only meant that if you were struggling yourself with not having access to pertinent information that the DNA websites can be a work around for you and them if you ever feel helpless due to a lack of info. It does sound like you are doing what you can and I was just letting you know of tools that other people are beyond consent registries.

    • gsmwc02 says:

      I lI’ve your story Sarah and the approach you took. I hope that you can be more vocal in sharing your story with potential and current parents of DC children. I think they can be encouraged by someone like yourself and in the long run it will benefit all parties involved especially the children.

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  8. Sarah says:

    Marilynn, I’m sorry if my post appeared in any way critical, it wasn’t meant to. I do appreciate your advice. As our children are only 8 years the thought of a DNA register is something we have only briefly thought about. Our donor is an identity release donor, so when the children are 18 they can find out who he is. We wanted to make sure they had that option, and delayed our fertility treatment by 2 years to wait for the change in the uk law. The registers may be helpful for siblings, ours are the oldest from our donor, so I think it may be some time before any info would be available and I suppose it will also depend on how the other families are dealing with the telling. But I will keep a note of the sites you have given. Thank you

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