I have just watched the Australian film Sperm Donors Anonymous. It is about donor conceived adults wanting to understand more about themselves by finding their biological father and also about donors who want to make connections with the people they helped bring about. For those whose hackles have been raised by websites where angry voices clamour for their rights and parents are berated for their poor decision making, be reassured that this film is a very different experience. It is gentle, thoughtful and reflective. All the people seeking information speak lovingly and respectfully of their parents, although I felt worried about the one dad who was interviewed. He and his wife had divorced but he clearly still felt the stigma and pain of his own infertility; the advice ‘not to tell’ compounding his sense of being second rate. He also has to manage his feelings around his daughter Myfanwy having found her donor, who now plays an important part in her life. It was the ‘donor’ we saw welcoming a new grandchild, not the dad that Myf grew up with. I hope very much that both grandfathers are involved in the lives of these children and that it was simply the ‘novelty value’ that the film makers wished to capture in showing ‘donor’ grandad with the new baby. In a separate interview the film-makers do pay tribute to Myf’s dad and say that it was very difficult to get parents to take part.
It was clear that donor codes have played a very important role in donors and offspring making a connection. That, and the willingness of Australian clinics to play a part in making these links. Of course not all Australian states are as co-operative as each other and those people who were conceived in Victoria have a considerable advantage over many others. The very progressive Victorian Assisted Reproduction Treatment Authority (VARTA) promotes and enables linking between donors and offspring, offering a mediation service run by the wonderful Kate Bourne, as well as facilitation for donor conceived people to come together to talk about their situations.
In the UK the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority took the unfortunate decision several years ago to actively prevent recipients (and donor conceived people) from finding out their donor code. This was supposed to protect donors from being found and sibling connections being made informally via social media etc. During the furore surrounding this and prior to the decision being made, it became clear that donor codes could not be relied on for accuracy anyway. Many clinics had used the same coding system so that the codes given to donors could not be assumed to be unique. Also, sometimes donors donated at one clinic under one code and were then assigned another when the sperm was sold on to a different clinic. The HFEA set about giving each donor a unique number but as a result of an undisclosed legal opinion, declared that this could not be known by any of the parties to the donation. The result of this decision is that those donors, recipients and offspring who would willingly be known to each other have to resort to descriptions and ultimately DNA testing to make connections. As the existence of DNA testing companies proliferate, more and more genetic links are going to be made. Why not make it possible for people to connect in a supported and organised way rather than pushing genetic linking into the uncertain world of the internet.
Many people have very mixed feelings about finding their donor and half-siblings and we saw this in the film. One donor is very sad that a ‘daughter’ made initial contact, only to withdraw to silence. He hopes she will return one day. Most of the DC adults wonder about the level of contact they would like and when connections are made for two of them, they hesitate before proceeding…slowly. We see the wonder on musician Michael’s face when he learns that his donor’s parents were both pianists and Jeff’s mixture of ambivalence/excitement when his donor is tracked down in Canada, having started his life in the UK but donated in Australia.
All the donor conceived people on this film were told about or discovered their origins when they were in their twenties or thirties. Michael found his mother’s autobiography that indicated what had happened but didn’t let his parents know that he knew for a long time. He loved them very much but couldn’t understand how they could have kept the secret. Jeff was told by a relative as his dad was approaching death from early on-set Altzheimers. Myfanwy’s parents divorced and she was raised by her mother who was mentally ill and died prematurely. Michael Linden, her biological father, has become a very important person in her life, a role he is very happy with. It is clear that understanding more about the person who helped with their conception is important to them all, although there are welcome nuances of difference. Ross is very keen to know the donor in person but Michael just wants to make peace with his folks and the feeling of “isn’t it peculiar the way I came into being”…the bigger picture as he calls it.
On a separate menu as part of the film CD there is the story of Alexander and his solo mum Anna. Alex was told about his conception from the word go, talks about it in a comfortable way and has made contact with six of his twenty known half-siblings. Will Alex in future years have the same questions as Michael, Jeff, Ross and Myfanwy? How much does early telling change how children/young people/adults feel about being donor conceived? Alex gives us a snapshot in time of him age 13. The adults are able to reflect about changed feelings over time but their insistence that information about their genetic background is their right to know remains consistent. Towards the end of the film Michael talks about his search as being part of a need to make order out of the chaos of what life throws at you. I suspect at some level we can all empathise with that. It just feels so wrong that the information that could help so many people untangle just some of that chaos should be deliberately kept from them.
It’s a very moving film. I do recommend it. Available from http://sensiblefilms.com/portfolio/sperm-donors-anonymous/