That difficult word ‘donor’

In my blog of July 8th about the new Telling and Talking book, Continuing the Conversation I referred to introducing a new way (for parents) of thinking about the word ‘donor’.  So many of us think and use this term with reference to ‘our children’s donor’ when in fact the person providing their gametes was giving them to us, not our children.  Some fascinating research from the Morgan Centre at the University of Manchester* (in the UK) has very recently shown that both egg and sperm donors in the UK often feel an affinity with the recipients of their gametes.  They definitely do not think of themselves as parents.

As a taster of the new booklet, here is one of the sections on Terminology.  For some DC adults it may feel that I haven’t gone far enough but please remember that the people being addressed in this booklet are parents.  Some of them may not have come across these ideas before and a gentle introduction is likely to achieve more than language that feels judgemental of their choices.


It is likely that you have always referred to the man or woman (or both) who contributed their eggs, sperm or embryos to help create your child as the ‘donor’.  As children reach adolescence they may start to try out different language.  Don’t panic… as in so many areas, young people are trying out different ideas and ways of being.   Teenagers, and indeed adults, can struggle with trying to find appropriate terms.  Some young people come up for a while with ‘real mum/dad’.  They might say of the donor: ‘Technically, that’s my dad.’  Or ask ‘Does this mean you’re not my real parent?’  Although many parents dread this question, in DCN’s experience it doesn’t get voiced as often as you might think.  Young people, no matter how they struggle with the language, are unlikely to see the issue as ‘real parent’ vs ‘not real parent’.  It helps a great deal to keep in mind that this question, however phrased, is not a personal attack, but part of your child’s attempt to make sense of the information they have about being donor conceived. Generally young people are not looking for an alternative parent. One response to the use of the word ‘real’ could be something like:

‘That’s an interesting word to use, how did you get to make that connection?’ The end result will be that the story gets re-shaped by the person who is ultimately going to own it.

You might be asked: ‘What made you pick this donor?’  Depending on your circumstances, you could talk about any personal statements or pen portraits, the fact that you trusted the doctor who made the match or personal characteristics of the donor.   If you have more detailed information about your donor than you have given your child so far, this might be the time to ask your child if they want to know more right now. Those with known donors (particularly from within the family or a close friend), often ensure that their child knows about them, even if they don’t understand the connection, from a young age.  If you are in a heterosexual couple and have a known sperm donor, it is important to ensure your child is clear that their mum did not have sex with this person. It might also help to ensure that conversations about characteristics of the donor also includes looking at what traits your child shares with you as a result of you having spent time together whether you are the non-genetic or genetic parent.

Language around donor conception has always been a minefield as we struggle to find new words for new relationships or try to make old ones fit. You might like to think about the term ‘donor’.  We have historically attached ‘the donor’ to the child so that we refer to ‘your donor’ when talking to them.  The truth is however, and this is borne out by the Morgan Centre research with gamete donors (see section on Donors) that the donor(s) gave his or her gametes or embryos to us so that we could become parents, so logically the donor is ours and not that of our child. Our donor(s) is actually our child’s biological parent(s), so perhaps the word ‘donor’ isn’t the right one to use.  However, using the term ‘biological parent’ in a social context can feel unwieldy and formal so ‘donor’ feels like useful shorthand in many circumstances.  Changing how we use the word ‘donor’ seems to be part of a movement away from euphemistic language and towards even greater clarity and openness about donor conception, led by some donor conceived adults.  But there is no orthodoxy here. Whilst all of us need to think about the language we use, it is probably best to let your teenage or adult child find the terms they are happy to own, and remember that these may evolve over time.

Those young people who are interested in their beginnings and want to explore the terminology around donor conception may end-up referring to the donor as their bio-dad or mum.  But many will continue to use the term donor, sometimes inter-mingling it with other terminology, perhaps even a nickname, depending on the context.  Whatever words are used by you or your child it is highly unlikely to be of real significance if the relationships and communication in the family are good, and if they are, then all is likely to be well.

Where surrogacy has been used, donor conception is almost inevitably part of the picture, unless an embryo created with the gametes of the intending parents has been used.  In traditional surrogacy, the egg of the surrogate is fertilised with sperm from the intending father (so the surrogate is the egg donor).  Gestational surrogacy usually involves a separate egg donor as well as a surrogate. The language used in surrogacy sometimes revolves around referring to the surrogate as the ‘tummy-mummy’ or alternatively using her first name to make it clear that mummy and daddy are the raising parents.  In her interview with Canadian journalist Alison Motluk, 21 year old UK surrogate-born Gee Roberts talks about knowing from a young age that she had two parents but also her ‘tum-mum.’ She now sees her surrogate (who is also her genetic mother) as an “auntie-type figure” or close family friend.

As with other family types, the language you use to describe your surrogate and your egg donor is likely to change as your child grows. It might be that the egg donation part of the story has felt like a minor role compared with that of carrying and giving birth to the child, particularly if you have an on-going relationship with your surrogate. If your egg donor is not also the surrogate, both you and your child might find yourselves wondering about what traits and likenesses she might have contributed, and a discussion about the complexities of the roles of surrogate and egg donor might be helpful.  You might want to revisit together with your child the place in your family life for both the surrogate and the egg donor as your child becomes old enough to have their own views.  

*For information on resources about the Morgan Centre project:

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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