Well it looks like I’m going to be giving the talk on Long Term Outcomes for Donor Conceived People at the British Fertility Society conference after all. In my blog post on November 8th I said that I had asked a donor conceived adult to take my place but unfortunately, after a month of thinking about it, the BFS declined to accept a new speaker. We can speculate about their reasons and I suppose I could have taken a principled stand and said that I was not prepared to speak, but I think that would have led to a lost opportunity. Instead I am going to do my best to present the complex picture that makes up the spectrum of what is known about the experiences and feelings of donor conceived adults from the small amount of available research, from the ‘grey literature’ available on the internet and from my own experience of contact with a large number of people conceived this way. In addition I have re-watched Anonymous Father’s Day and Sperm Donors Anonymous and have talked in depth with three British women from different eras of donor conception about identity, how they feel about themselves, their families (who they consider to be family) and their donor and am grateful to them for being so open and honest with me.
Of course all the research has been conducted with people who know they are sperm donor conceived and mostly from a period where anonymity for donors prevailed. Almost all found out or were told about their beginnings as teenagers or adults and often in difficult circumstances. It was also a time when potential parents were not offered opportunities to think about what they were doing, and men continued to feel the shame of infertility without being able to talk about it. No wonder these unexpressed feelings impacted on their parenting. The oldest of the women I talked with described to me how her parents were simply told by their family doctor not to worry about infertility as there was a way to ‘cure’ it…with a referral to one of the first clinics where sperm donation was carried out. She said it was clear to her that even on his death-bed her father had still not overcome his feelings about being infertile and needing to use a donor to help his wife become pregnant.
The conditions of donor conception are different now, particularly in the UK (and a few other places) where anonymity for donors has ended. Very many more donor conceived children are learning about their beginnings from a young age and as they grow into adulthood we will begin to learn how many of the feelings of those from a previous era they share and how many were to do with the unprocessed emotions of parents being passed down the generations and secrets being kept in the family. Things are still far from perfect. Only a relatively small number of potential parents have really explored what it means to have a child by donor conception, too many children are still not being told and some UK fertility doctors are knowingly sending people abroad for egg donation to countries where anonymity reigns unchallenged.
There is also still much to do in educating parents about freeing their children to be able to feel curious, angry, sad or upset about aspects of their conception by donor. Our own daughter has recently said that she has more complicated feelings now about her conception and particularly would love to know the motivation of her donor. Like Michael Griffin in Sperm Donors Anonymous she is grappling with ‘this very peculiar way that I came into being’, although she stands by her dissertation on identity, written when she was an Anthropology student. It can feel painful to listen to her but listening is what I will continue to do because I love her almost more than life itself.
Some of you reading this will be very sceptical about my ability, as a parent, to be able to convey anything of value about the experience of being donor conceived…and at one level you must be right. I am not in that situation myself. But I do have an open mind and I am able to hear the difficult stuff. I will do my best to convey to the BFS, in ways that they are able to hear, that lessons must be learned from the mistakes of the past and that the donor conceived adults of the future are relying on them to use their power and influence to change practice for the better.
Happy Christmas. Let’s all hope for many good things in 2016.