Searching for a biological father: looking for order in the chaos

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/

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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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13 Responses to Searching for a biological father: looking for order in the chaos

  1. gsmwc02 says:

    Sounds like it’s a powerful film. Though some in the DC community would oppose it like you I hope the Dad is involved in his grandchild’s life and it’s something he desires as well his daughter desires. I hope the donor or daughter doesn’t push the Dad.

    It would be a poor life lesson that would be taught to that child that only biology has a place in a family.

  2. I was watching ‘What a girl wants’ the other day (comedy about a young woman whose mother has never told her who her father is for fear of her being hurt, however she has a photo so she tracks him down and jets off to meet him). She does give a moving description of why she wants to know this man and have him in her life which rang true to me. It’s a very powerful narrative and not just for DC people.

    • oliviasview says:

      It is powerful indeed Christabel. I suspect it has more power if information is deliberately withheld or is revealed after many years of being kept in the dark and potentially lied to.

  3. We have donor-conceived girls as we are a same-sex family. Very interested in your fantastic and informative blog. Thanks.

  4. marilynnad says:

    This was well written and empathetic.
    In your previous post you asked me why a person with an infertile spouse should have to share parental responsibility with someone who is not their spouse just because their spouse is infertile. The answer is that they should have to share parental responsibility with someone who is not their spouse because they did not have a kid with their spouse – they had a kid with someone else. It’s not that their spouse is infertile that they should have to share parental responsibility with someone else it’s that their spouse is not their child’s other parent….that happens to people with fertile spouses all the time! No it’s not the way they necessarily want it to be but it happens to be their reality. Parental responsibility is not an option for biological parents who are not classified as donors its a legal mandate which means the offspring of donors are legally entitled to less than those whose parents were not labeled donors. Other people’s bio parents are obligated to cooperate and take care of them while their bio parents are not equally obligated.
    You tend to view this parental obligation of biological parents as stemming from having had a romantic relationship but that is illogical and is not the case time after time in court cases where some informal donor type agreement is arranged so clearly lack of romantic connection is not a determining factor when it comes to someone deserving their biological parent’s care and support.

    I just think for some reason people feel their relationships can’t handle the stress of having one spouse have a kid with someone else when in fact they can and should bear that stress for the benefit of their child when one spouse does in reality have a kid with someone other than their spouse. They just should not be allowed to pretend their spouse is the other parent if they are not.

    • oliviasview says:

      I think ‘conscious intent’ is my answer to you Marilynn on this question. The conscious intent of donors is NOT to become a parent. The conscious intent of recipients of donated gametes IS to parent. In the UK the law backs these conscious intentions. In all other situations there is often no conscious intent but instead a lack of thought and intention. The law acts accordingly. The law, in the UK, also now recognises that knowing about your genetic background may be important for people conceived with donor help. This in no way implies that donors are parents. They are people with a biological connection to the person conceived and as such may be considered on a scale of unimportant to vitally important by donor conceived people, who rarely think of these people as ‘parents’ other than in a biological sense. I think you would say that biology trumps long years of attached and committed relationships. I would see it the other way round.

      • gsmwc02 says:

        Agreed Olivia. If the donor intended to become an active parent they would enter a co parent agreement prior to donation. There are many situations where co parent agreements are made but these cases you are referencing are not one of them.

  5. marilynnad says:

    I think your review of this film is empathetic and compassionate. I like that you believe it feels wrong to withhold information from people about who their biological parents are.

    You vacillate between the term biological father and the term donor though and I wondered if you could expand upon that a little.

    If there is a logical time to refer to a person as a donor it would seem to be prior to the birth of their child and the beginning of their biological parenthood.

    • oliviasview says:

      I think it is up to donor conceived people to determine what they call their donor. I tend to use the terms ‘donor’ and ‘bio father’ randomly reflecting the variation in language that I hear within the donor conceived adult community.

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