I am delighted to introduce my first first guest blog writer. Jane Ellis is a long-standing colleague and friend who also has two adult children by sperm donation. She is now retired from her career as a social worker, latterly in adoption and fostering, and as a counsellor for Relate. This piece is written entirely in a personal capacity.
“Olivia’s blog contemplating the possibility of open embryo, sperm and egg donation set off some connected trains of thought for me.
In the 1980s I was sent as a young social worker to tell the grandparents of a child we were about to place for adoption that they wouldn’t be able to see him again. An adoption was not just a legal fresh start but an absolute cut-off from all birth family links. Thank goodness adoption has moved on hugely, partly due to research giving voices to adopted adults and birth relatives, which gave those groups confidence to get together and speak for themselves. I want to be absolutely clear that adoption and donor conception are very different processes; however, that’s not to say that one field has nothing to teach the other. For both, some time after a legislative framework has been put in place, those who have the least say in the process are finding their voices. In our case the voices emerging are those of donor-conceived adults and – late to the party but really important – those of the donors.
The ‘Curious Connections’ research by the Morgan Centre at the University of Manchesterhas been presenting the views of all types of donors in the UK. (https://www.socialsciences.manchester.ac.uk/morgan-centre/research/research-themes/kinship-and-relatedness/being-an-egg-or-sperm-donor/). The researchers describe their findings that donors saw their status as being ‘relational’ and ‘embedded’ in their lives. In other words, the donors they talked to (irrespective of whether sperm, egg or embryo) didn’t just donate and forget all about it for 18 years or more. The researchers found that most donors felt a definite connection with recipient parents from the beginning, a difficult emotion to pin down but suggested as ‘an affinity’, and they cared about the resulting children, although they didn’t see themselves as parents. The research went on to suggest that from the donors’ perspective, the idea of donation is moving on from an altruistic act for someone you have had no say in choosing and will never know, towards donation as creating a ‘gift relationship’.
The researchers concluded their second webinar presenting their results by inviting us to consider a future option. This is of donor-recipient communication through a structured third party, which could lead by mutual consent to direct contact with parents and, most importantly, their children.
Adoption has been operating such a scheme, generally called Letterbox, for a long time. It works. It means that adopters keep in touch with other parents caring for their children’s siblings, and with birth relatives; as their children get older they can become more involved if appropriate, and start to form their own relationships. It means that adopters and their children have a much better idea of the others’ lives and the complexities should their children want to meet their birth relatives. Whilst no-one is any doubt that the children legally belong with their adoptive parents, it acknowledges that genetic connections are important for many people at some times in their lives. Letterbox helps to provide a foundation for adopted adults to take forward or not as they choose. It does, of course, call for skilful third party handling. Similarly, as one participant on the Curious Connections research observed, donor-recipient relationships might be complex and intense and need careful management. It doesn’t always work – people’s circumstances and views change – but the resource is there as a matter of course.
Many donor conception parents wrestle with the idea of a donor as an ‘outsider’ becoming involved in their family. Sometimes it makes their child all the more curious to find out who this mysterious person is. Perhaps it stops parents even disclosing to their child that they are donor-conceived.
I think we ought to be able to do better by all parties involved. Suppose parents begin to see their donor as an ally, one whose role might slide between minor to major at different times, depending on how the donor-conceived young person views it. In playing a minor role, the communication would at the least provide a reality check; there is far less room for fantasies on both sides. It validates a message that genetic connections can be important, and gives solid ground for a DC adult to decide for themselves whether and how to move this forward. They will be better equipped, for example, if they have known for ages that their donor has their own family, and therefore there are half-siblings from him, her or them in the mix.
This will only work if both sides are convinced it is good for the psychological and emotional health of the child in the centre. It reminds identifiable donors of the contract they signed up to and it reminds parents of the existence of the donor as a real person. Of course, some families with known donors are already finding their way together through all this. It would be great to know more about their experiences.”
If anyone reading this would like to have a guest blog spot, get in touch.