It happened again the other day. Talking to a woman who is building up to ‘telling’ her six year old daughter she is donor conceived, this very caring mum said, “I was so naive when we went to Spain for egg donation. They told me that the baby would probably look like the father and as that is what I wanted to believe, I went along with it, blindly not questioning what was obviously a ridiculous statement. I wish I had understood earlier what all this might mean for my child.” ‘All this’ is that the little girl concerned looks Spanish, very unlike her fair haired parents and older sister. The family lives in a rural part of the UK where her olive skinned good looks are rare, and she is constantly being asked about where she comes from. Worse still, she has twice said to her mum, “I don’t feel I fit in this family.” Heartbreaking. Hopefully once she is told about her origins at least there will be an explanation that makes sense but she is still going to have to manage the random and uncalled for remarks from others.
Marion, as I will call her, is a very loving mother and desperate to support her daughter in regaining a sense of security in her family. She is also keen to help her develop a sense of pride in her half-Spanish genetic identity. This family’s story is not an unusual one. They had one child easily and then on trying for a second had a long period of infertility followed by several late miscarriages. Egg donation became the only option and Marion researched treatments on the internet, somehow just assuming that eggs would not be available in the UK. She chose a clinic in Spain where she was not offered counselling, and did not seek it in the UK, assuming that this was not necessary. After all they just wanted a baby. The couple were overjoyed when a pregnancy resulted from the first cycle of treatment. When their daughter was born they fell in love with her immediately but soon realised, when people started asking, that she looked very different to them.
Marion and her husband are by no means the first to worry about the choice they made in going to Spain (or anywhere where donors are anonymous and there is little information). For some it is the question of looks not fitting in, for others it is the lack of information and/or the anonymity of the donor. Another woman I am in touch with at the moment is pregnant with a child from egg donation treatment in Spain. She was told the age and blood group of the donor but the clinic says that they are not allowed by law to give any further information at this stage. For this woman it is the nationality of the donor that is important but the clinic have twice told her that they consider this to be identifying information and will not be included in the physical description she will get when the child is born.
Spanish clinics are actually allowed to give all non-identifying information to recipients – and I would argue this includes nationality – but most choose not to do so. They choose instead to keep control over the whole process, selecting donors for recipients without giving them a choice and giving as little information as they can get away with. Of course recipients by and large collude in this by not asking questions and simply being grateful they are being given the chance to have a baby at all. British clinics also collude in the system by sending UK patients to Spain and elsewhere without explaining the differences between treatment there and in the UK. Of course would-be parents should be asking more pointed questions and demanding information but I know, as a long time ex-fertility patient, that when you want a baby tunnel vision takes over and it is very hard to take the long view when the short term goal of being pregnant is so pressing. This understandable short-sightedness makes fertility patients vulnerable to not putting the interests of their child first…something they only wake up to later when they realise how very different the rights of their children are to those conceived in the UK at the same time.
There are several points (and probably many more) that can be drawn from the stories above. I believe that we need European legislation – or at a minimum guidance from the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology – about the amount of information that should be given to recipients about donors, and this should include nationality. Implications counselling in a recipients own language should be mandatory so that they at the very least understand what they are taking on. This should cover, amongst many other things, the fact that a child might look very different to the rest of the family. British clinics should not be allowed to send patients abroad without explaining the differences in legislation in other countries and the implications of this for the child. They should also have to tell people that egg donation is available in the UK with short waiting lists, even if it is not at their clinic. Some people believe that because their British clinic sent them abroad and their child will be born in the UK, that the child and donor will be on the HFEA register. This is not true.
Going abroad to conceive a child is not a problem in itself. What is a problem is that so many people do so without the proper information and understanding the implications.
I have not attempted to recommend the ending of donor anonymity in other countries because contacts have told me that this is so highly unlikely in the near future that even approaching the subject would be to undermine attempts to get other reforms. This goes against the grain as it is something I believe in strongly, but I suspect it will take the future rising up of many donor conceived people claiming their human rights, to force conservative countries and the massed ranks of the fertility industry to move to identifiable donation. But if it can be done in Victoria, Australia, why not Europe too. Sadly I don’t think I will live long enough to see that day.
DC Network produces a document that should be essential reading for anyone considering going abroad for egg, sperm or embryo donation. http://www.dcnetwork.org/home-or-overseas