Donor Conception: a surprising view from Germany

If, as a non-German, you were asked to guess what the attitude to donor conception in Germany would be and what was allowed and not allowed there, I wonder what you would think?  Although both Walter and I have been closely in touch with those active in the donor conception field in Germany for a long time, I think we were both still taken aback at the conference we attended in Goettingen at the weekend to realise how much influence the church, and specifically the Catholic Church, has in debates around both the ethics and practicalities of third party assisted reproduction.

The conference, brought together in a collaboration between the University of Goettingen, DI Netz (the much smaller equivalent of DC Network) and the German Society for Fertility Counselling, aimed to address the challenges, different approaches and family realities of donor conception in Germany.  Sperm donation has been allowed in this country for some time.  Embryo donation has been approved only recently -largely on the basis that it gives the possibility of life to otherwise unwanted embryos created in IVF cycles.  Egg donation remains outlawed because of the separation of motherhood between egg provider and gestator.  This of course does not mean that German women do not have egg donation -of course they do, they go abroad – but it does mean that counselling and guidance about egg donation have to be carried out secretly and that it is difficult for families with an egg donor conceived child to be open about it.  Surrogacy is also against the law, but again couples go abroad and face problems on their return.

The presentations at the event were designed to offer a broad perspective, so we heard from German ethicists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers and counsellors (sometimes in German and sometimes in English) plus excellent contributions from Sophie Zadeh from Cambridge UK about her research on solo mums by sperm donation and old friend Astrid Indeku from Belgium on women’s experiences of pregnancy and birth following egg donation.  There was also an interview with Sven, a donor conceived adult, by Petra Thorn, another long-standing friend who has done so much for DC families in Germany.  Sven had only discovered his conception status two years ago in his early thirties.  His difficulties in getting his parents to talk to him about this, even after his confrontation of them, was painful and sad to hear.

Walter and I had been asked to speak about a number of topics.  First of all, an update on our own story, now that our ‘children’ are in their thirties; then something about our experiences of the dynamics in families in DC Network and finally to try and pin down how it was possible to ‘grow’ DC Network from a very amateur kitchen table charity twenty-five years ago to the professional organisation it is now. DI Netz, still only in it’s fourth year, is of course very interested in this. We identified a number of factors – five  ‘all of the same mind’ families, with different skills and committed from the beginning to the simple philosophy of being parent led/child centred support group for anyone using donor conception and interested in being open or exploring being open with their children; four of the families being willing to do high profile publicity; not afraid to charge for membership and not being afraid to show leadership.  Of course DCN started in a very different era when it was possible to grow slowly and learn as it went along.  The internet, with it’s instant information and connection, makes users more demanding and social media, whilst offering the possibility of talking with others sharing questions and dilemmas, also has potential for abuse, making putting your head above the parapet a much dicier game these days.  Walter and I are much admiring of Claudia B who does so much of the work, particularly around the lobbying of parliament, for DI Netz and were so sad she was unable to be at the conference.

Although we were unable to understand the presentations in German, a combination of whispered translations from friends and some parallel slides in English helped us to get the drift of what was going on.  But I think understanding the detailed content of the two days was probably less important than the spaces in between when we were able to re-connect with old friends and colleagues and make new connections with like-minded people who are all fighting for a system in Germany that will not only remove anonymity for donors – a law to clarify what has been a very complex situation on this will come into force on 1st July next year – but to end the stigma of donor conception for recipients, donors and those born from third party assisted conception.  And for this to come about it will mean the church being challenged as the ultimate authority on these matters.

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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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6 Responses to Donor Conception: a surprising view from Germany

  1. polly says:

    Thanks for this info Olivia! I am delighted to hear that Germany proceeds with caution about ART. Many years ago I heard an IVF practitioner say…”just because we can do it…doesn’t mean we should do it”. Wise words.

    • oliviasview says:

      Whilst I would agree with those words Polly, I don’t think it applies to not allowing egg donation in Germany. The ramifications for children being conceived abroad are much greater than if they were conceived under a regulated treatment regime in their own country. And I’m afraid people are not going to stop going abroad.

  2. m says:

    Good show! Glad to hear you are not slowing down educating the public even years after your kids are grown up and out of the house leading well adjusted productive lives.

  3. Stina says:

    Being a donor conceived adult from Germany myself, I am glad for the cautious approach regarding egg donation and surrogacy. I do not think that the church is responsible for this, but both churches are at least interested in the experiences of donor conceived adults in Germany and their initiative Spenderkinder (which was not officially invited to the conference). Regarding egg donation, I think people will never stop to go abroad for it. It is allowed in the UK, and still numerous people go to Spain or the Czech Republic because it is cheaper and faster. I hope the ban in Germany will at least get some to think about the reasons why it is forbidden in Germany – to protect the child from a split motherhood and also to protect the health of egg donors. Having said that, I would like to add that I really like your blog and especially value that you do not turn a blind eye to the possible negative effects of donor conception. That is something that DI Netz is generally missing, for example when they speak out vehemently against the claim to have mandatory counselling before donor conception.

    • oliviasview says:

      Thank you for your comments Stina. I am surprised that DI Netz would speak against mandatory counselling. Although I understand that the fundamental nature of the counselling contract between counsellor and client is that it should be voluntary, I do believe that preparation and an understanding of the implications for the child and whole family is necessary for potential parents before they have donor conception. Counsellors are often the best placed people to do this. Perhaps the name of the sessions needs to be changed.
      In the UK, recipients of donated eggs, sperm or embryos officially have to be offered counselling. In practice it is mandatory as no clinic will treat a woman (and her partner if she has one) unless they have seen the counsellor.

  4. I do disagree with Stina in more than one point, but I would like to comment only one fundamental misunderstanding now:

    DI-Netz does not speak for less counselling but for more! We demand legal obligations for clinics to recommend and offer counselling. We also want couples to get the legal right to have easy access to qualified and independent counselling. And we also strongly support the general right of getting infertility treatment only if patients are given sufficient information (There has to be an “informed (!) consent” which the clinic has to ensure).
    To suggest in any way that the German DI-Netz does not advocate counselling is completely absurd, because most of the tasks of DI-Netz consist of counselling and supporting. We are also happy if we are able to refer couples to qualified counsellors like those associated with BKiD (the German Society for Fertility Counselling), an organization we cooperate very closely with.

    When we talk about the need of more counselling we should also ask about the aim of the agent demanding it and about the intended effect of counselling. The organization of the German “Spenderkinder” has been campaigning against all kinds of donor conception in an extremely negative way (even against those forms of donor conception they have no experience with at all). Their fundamentally negative attitude is conveyed as subtext in their politics towards mandatory counselling too. If they demand pressing and forcing infertility patients into pre-treatment counselling they in fact intend discouraging and stopping couples from using donor gametes. The subtext message is: “You and your potential child are better off if you don’t do donor conception.” Mandatory counselling in this context is just meant to set another obstacle to hinder couples on their way to donor conception. DI-Netz wouldn’t call this counselling. In reality one possible outcome of counselling can be that couples become empowered, proud and confident about their own decision pro donor conception. “Spenderkinder” doesn’t like this. Seemingly, they prefer DC-parents and children to feel bad about feeling good. They are just dissatisfied, if parents and children feel not guilty but comfortable with donor conception.

    Claudia Brügge, chair of DI-Netz, (German Association for Families after Donor Insemination; http://www.di-netz.de)

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