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.