When Walter and I decided to use a sperm donor to have a child thirty-five years ago our doctor took a photograph of us both and said he would use a donor who ‘matched’ with our general looks, and particularly the skin, hair and eye colour of Walter. We were given no description whatsoever and asked for none. That was how it was in those days. The assumption of the staff at the clinic was that we would not be ‘telling’ our children and they were surprised when we said that we would be doing so. Thirty years ago ‘matching’ was almost certainly done to disguise the fact of donor conception. If a child generally fits in with the colouring of their parents then people tend not to ask questions. Our children, despite being MUCH taller than their dad, are like each of us in terms of hair, eye and skin colour and no-one has ever asked…but we told everybody anyway! I think it feels comfortable for us all that we do ‘fit’ in this way, although in many others ways we are all very different.
Of course we all know families where children look very little like their parents or there is one sibling who stands out with red hair or strong features of some sort. Jokes about the role of the milkman abound but most families feel very secure in the knowledge that a child is the genetic offspring of the person or couple concerned and these differences mostly do not cause upset. Donor conception families are different. There can be great sensitivity about looks when there is an unknown (anonymous or identifiable) donor in the mix.
‘Matching’ – at least in the UK – these days is supposed to be all about helping a child to fit in with their raising family, rather than as a way of keeping inquisitive questions at bay. Information beyond a basic phenotype is given about the donor. There may be a pen portrait and even a letter to the child. Some choice about the donor is seen as being helpful for the intending parents to accept and adjust to using DNA from another person and for the child to be able to have knowledge about the man or woman who contributed to their existence available for them as they grow up. But I know one donor conceived young adult who hates the idea that she might be the result of a shopping list that her parents set out as requirements. She feels that as little as possible information should be available to recipients of donated gametes so that there are no expectations laid on the child and they are free to be who they want to be. This of course raises the spectre of ‘designer babies’ and the potential for choosing features and talents in the donor that do not exist in the make-up of the recipients. My experience in talking with intending and actual parents is that they don’t usually want exceptional IQ, looks or prowess in music or sport. They want a child that will ‘fit’ with their family. The problem is that if they happen to have a particular talent or interest, or are even educated to a particular level, and seek to replicate this in a donor, what happens when the resulting child does not appear in the slightest bit interested or is not academic? Genetics plays tricks like that.
I have written before about a family I know where the existing child in the family is pale skinned and sandy haired and the younger child, conceived via an egg donor in Spain, has olive skin and dark brown eyes. This child’s difference stands out, particularly in a rural part of the UK, where dark skins are rarely seen. Before she was told of her donor conception the little girl was very confused about her difference to the rest of the family. At meetings of DC Network many children with typical Spanish colouring can be seen running around. They are all being told of their conception abroad and very often their origins are being celebrated in support of football teams and interest in Spanish language and culture. We don’t yet know how these children will feel about this ‘difference’ as they grow older and have thoughts and feelings of their own, but at least parents are being upfront about it and are open to their children being curious. Mostly these parents will have understood that it is likely that their child will share some features with their Spanish donor. But what if parents are ill-prepared or just surprised at their own reaction when their child has dark skin, eyes and hair? As I said before, genetics plays tricks like this.
In Spain, recipients of donated eggs are rarely given more information about a donor than her age and her blood group. Many N.European intending parents are anxious to have a light-skinned donor so that a child will fit in their family (and sadly sometimes to hide the fact of egg donation), but as Dr Raul Olivares of Barcelona IVF points out in an article on the website of this clinic, matching takes place with the donor but not with her sister, mother, father or grandmother. There can be recessive genes that show themselves in the next generation, so absolutely no guarantees can be given that a light skinned donor will contribute to the birth of a light skinned child.
Whilst attempts to match for skin colour may produce a child who is obviously different, the same principle is true for any child, conceived with donated gametes or not. There can be absolutely no guarantees that any child will have the features, talents or abilities of the two people who contributed their DNA to his or her existence. Those who long for a mini-me are bound to be disappointed.
So ‘matching’ is complicated. ‘Fitting’ in a family is on the whole a good idea, although obvious difference can be managed with openness. Information to give to the child is likely to be helpful but a list of required assets in a child is not good for anyone. A disappointed parent is unlikely to raise an emotionally healthy child. A child who has expectations placed on them because of features chosen in a donor (or in the unassisted conception world, parental demands) is unlikely to be a happy person.
Donor conception has always seemed to me to be an opportunity to raise a child or children in wonder and awe at their developing features and talents and to nurture them whatever they are. Our son has become an amazingly successful business man; our daughter a therapist and healer, a truly spiritual person. Are Walter and I like that? No we are not, but we enjoy and celebrate the differences, loving our children for whoever they are.