January is over and I find it hard to believe that I have not blogged for many weeks. A virus that wouldn’t shift blocked my capacity to think for much of that time but now that my energy is returning it really is time to celebrate 2018 as the 25th Anniversary of the Donor Conception Network.
Back in 1992 an article appeared in The Times about a story book for young children called My Story. Walter and I could hardly believe what we were reading. A book that we could read to our children to help explain to them about being conceived with the help of a sperm donor! We contacted Dr. Sheila Cooke from the Jessop Hospital for Women in Sheffield to ask how we could get hold of the book and also to offer ourselves in any research that was being undertaken into DC families (although sperm donation was called DI in those days). Sheila invited us to come to Sheffield to meet with the two women, mothers to DI children, who had written the book. A few weeks later, in early 1993, the three families who had responded to the article plus the two authors of the book, met in Sheila’s DI clinic and agreed to start a national organisation to support and link donor conception families. Sheila was clear from the start that the organisation should be led by parents rather than professionals and this principle has remained.
It is possible that the initial enthusiasm would have faded over the next few months as we all returned to our own parts of the country and busy lives, except that it turned out that a BBC documentary team wanted to make a film about donor conception and had asked Sheila if they could film in her clinic. Sheila boldly told the programme makers about the new organisation and the BBC arranged for all five families to be put up in a Sheffield hotel whilst they filmed us talking about our personal stories. When we weren’t filming we were desperately trying to decide what to call this new organisation and what our constitution would be. Luckily we all got along very well and were absolutely on the same page with regards to the wish to be open with our children. The film, Seeds of Secrecy, was shown two months later with a Post Office Box number (no email or internet in those days) given so that people could get in touch. And get in touch they did…DI Network was born.
Over the years, what started as a kitchen table charity has evolved into a professional organisation, but one with heart. It became obvious that further books for children were needed as lesbians and single women were having children by DI in greater numbers and DI Network was beginning to be approached by families using egg donation. Could they join please? At this point it was clear that a new name was needed and alongside the change to Donor Conception Network came a fresh logo and identity. Alongside more and more parents using the children’s books came requests for ways in which to introduce the books, questions about the right age to start and language that might be used in family conversations. Raising money for projects like new books, or anything else, has always been difficult because of the niche nature of donor conception and because it isn’t a ‘sexy’ cause (not sexy having fertility treatment either!), but DCN has been lucky in attracting government money from the Department of Education’s Parenting Fund for the first four books in the Telling and Talking series for parents; the Department of Health for the first workshops Preparing Parents for DC Parenthood and Telling and Talking workshops for those with children and the Nuffield Foundation for further Telling and Talking books and the wonderful novel for 8 – 12 year olds called Archie Nolan: Family Detective. More recently, three funds have provided money for developing and refreshing the ‘Our Story’ range of books for children (release Spring/Summer 2018), the training of volunteers and, very excitingly, the NEW packs of materials for parents to give to nursery/primary school teachers in order to support their children in school. There are also resources for primary age children to help them answer questions from friends. These wonderful materials are being launched as part of the 25th Anniversary. There is much to celebrate, although money always remains a problem.
It has of course not all been straightforward over the years. When it came to ending anonymity for donors the DCN Steering Group (forerunners to Trustees) knew that many members would not be keen on this. In fact one of the founders was quite vehemently against it (a dedicated ‘nurture’ man who, because he worked with doctors, disliked some people being proud of the fact that ‘their’ donor was probably a medical student). The decision was taken to provide strong leadership to the members and declare DCN as being in favour of ending anonymity, this being in line with our principle of openness. The human rights case taken by Joanna Rose on behalf of all DC adults undoubtedly pushed the government into consulting on the ending of anonymity for donors but the position DCN took on this matter helped the Labour Minister of the time, Melanie Johnson, to take the brave decision to end anonymity from 2005. This was in the face of opposition from almost all fertility doctors who could not believe that the government would go against their wishes and advice.
The concerns of 1993 and 2004/5 are by and large not the concerns of today. Because of the nearness of 2023 when the first children conceived in 2005 become 18, one of the biggest challenges is preparing parents for this time by helping them to view the donor as a whole human being who may come into the lives of their children and the family if their child chooses to ask for identifiable information. Helping parents not only to not feel threatened by this possibility but also supporting them in having conversations with their children about the realities of finding the information…which could be anything from a wonderful relationship developing to discovering the person does not want anything to do with them or is dead. Children conceived abroad will of course not have the right to identifiable information and another challenge is supporting their parents, and potentially the children themselves, with this reality.
DNA testing is completely changing the landscape of donor conception and getting the message over to parents and others that anonymity prior to 18 cannot be guaranteed and that maybe half-sibling relationships before late teenage years could be very positive for everyone. Personally I feel another big challenge is helping parents to understand that just because their young, school-age or even teenage child seems to have no issue whatsoever being donor conceived, doesn’t mean that they will not be a) curious and/or b) need to make links with genetic relatives when they get older.
I have no doubt that the Donor Conception Network fulfils a need for people who find that DC is their only way of creating a family, that could not be met by any other organisation. It has far more resources and services than any other DC focussed group in the whole world and is the only one to have a permanent office with paid staff who pick up the phone daily to people in tears who are just so grateful to talk to someone who ‘understands.’
The views expressed in this blog are always my own and occasionally deviate from those of DCN, but at heart I remain completely at one with the original philosophy of ‘parent led; child centred’ support for all parties involved in donor conception and the belief that donor conceived people are shaped, like everyone else, by a combination of genetics and growing conditions.
It has been my pleasure and privilege to be part of the Donor Conception Network for the whole of its quarter century. Happy Birthday DCN.