Donor conceived adults with new ways of telling us how they feel

I belong to a couple of Facebook groups that welcome donor conceived adults, donors, parents and intending parents to post.  Conversation on these boards can be bracing and challenging at times but recently there have come along some young DC adults who have found ways of saying exactly how they feel without alienating others and it’s like a breath of fresh air.  Interestingly two of the most prominent posters are young women from Australia, a country that has a tradition of speaking plainly.  Could it be that these young women have somehow caught the confidence of a country that has, at least in the State of Victoria, the most progressive legislation in the world, giving full rights to DC adults and providing support to all parties to donor conception?

Chloe, one of the women mentioned above, is a young DC adult with a difficult background.   She struggled with mental health issues as a teenager and has only found peace now she has discovered her donor  via a search company.  Chloe puts her plea to parents and others to think about the language they use, in moderate tones.  Read below and then watch her wonderful video.

  1. Be grateful you are alive.’
    It is unfair to make this comment because as many have said before, a human being not created cannot suffer-plus you do not go around telling people created through one night stands,rape or adoption, to be grateful, so please, it may be nice to refrain from using this.
    2. ‘He is not your biological father, he is just your donor’
    For me this is minimising the donors role to provide us with half of our DNA. Technically my donor is my biological father, and it’s important (especially for children) to understand correct and factual terminology.
    3. ‘ I understand wanting a medical history, but any more than that, I just don’t get it’.
    This comment lacks empathy for many DCA’s who want to seek out their donors. It is a natural response to want to know where you come from. If someone wants to search for their adoptive parents people seem very understanding, it is hurtful that people dont give us that same understanding and feel that we are ungrateful or selfish. This is already an isolating and lonely experience for some, it makes it worse to know so many people are openly against your decision to seek your origins.
    4. ‘But you were created through love, and very wanted!
    I think this one hurts me the most. This is a blatant assumption and does not consider the fact that many of us did not feel loved or wanted-just because you may want your child to feel this way, it doesnt mean dc adults have had that experience.

I would add to this last one by saying that even where a child has been genuinely wanted, loved and cared for, being put in a position where they are supposed to feel grateful for their existence because of being loved , shuts down the potential for that person to have their own feelings about their creation.


The next post from an older woman explains how it is perfectly possible to be living a full, happy life and still disagree with the way she was conceived.  It is one of the most articulate pleas for early telling and the ending of anonymity I have come across.

I am a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and a DCA. I had a happy childhood, my parents love(d) me. I am a happy content person and have a good family that I love. I struggled for a while as a young adult but eventually became comfortable and confident with myself. I did not know I was DC until the age of 35 (over a year ago). While my parents could and should have told us long ago, since this has come to light, they have dealt with this in the most positive way possible.

I understand that my parents deeply desired to have children (tried for 10 years) and if they would not have used donor sperm they would not have conceived my brother or me. While I don’t agree with it, I am not angry or resentful of their choice and I do not fault them for it, it is an excruciating and horrible place to be in. I am not depressed or wish that I don’t exist. 

I am at odds with my conception, and lack of genetic history and connection to my paternal side. I have very little connection with the people that share 50% of my DNA. This is and will always be a sense of loss for me, I deeply desire to be connected to the people that share my DNA.
You can be at odds with your conception and still love that you are alive. They are not mutually exclusive.

I’ve seen quite a few posts commenting on how angry DCPs are, while I know I don’t speak for everyone I do know that most of us are not angry, but we are passionate about a subject that is very personal to us. I don’t deny that sometimes that passion (especially in written form) can come across as harsh to some, especially those who are already in a vulnerable state. 

Please don’t dismiss us as angry and broken, we are not. We are only trying to help others see that there are far reaching consequences to these choices, consequences that most people would not ever consider.

I cannot say strongly enough how important it is for parents, and particularly intending parents, to listen to people like these courageous women.

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The truth about having a baby in your 50s

This is the title of a wonderful article in today’s Guardian G2. What struck me most on seeing the supplement was that the front cover is a coloured drawing of a woman (of indeterminate age) with a baby asleep on her shoulder, NOT the wonderful full page colour photo I know was anticipated by the commissioning editor.  The journalist, Joanna Moorehead, tried her best to find women who had had a baby after 50 who would agree to being named and photographed but only one agreed to her real first name being used.  The other two had full pseudonyms and none was willing for a photo to appear.  All three had used egg donation to achieve their pregnancies.

Carol’s children are now 13 and 10 and she,understandably, did not want her children exposed to questioning by their schoolmates about their beginnings. Both children have known about their origins since they were little but Carol felt media exposure at sensitive ages would not be helpful for them.  The other two women have babies who will be told about their origins as they grow up, but neither woman would be photographed or have even her real first name used.  Despite their protestations that motherhood is a great leveller and no-one asked their age in mother and baby groups, I suspect that exposing themselves as older mothers, rather than the fact of egg donation, was what kept them from revealing their identities.  Men are very rarely berated about becoming fathers after 50 (quite the opposite sometimes) but women face criticism, taboo and even ostracisation for daring to challenge the menopause barrier to having children.

But there are other downsides to maternity post 50.  Moorehead quotes fertility specialist Adam Balen on the greater risk of miscarriage and pre-eclampsia for older women.  Caesarian delivery is always recommended for women in this age bracket and was indeed the way all three of the interviewees gave birth.  Nina Barnsley, Director of The Donor Conception Network points out that “motherhood after fifty will only ever be a choice for the well-off and that some women will spend a lot of money on something that doesn’t in the end, work out.  Imagine borrowing £50,000 and then being unsuccessful.”

More importantly Barnsley brings in the perspective of the child.  “I’m thinking of the 21 year old who, instead of travelling the world, will be looking after a parent with Alzheimers.”  Our daughter had a schoolfriend whose father was in his seventies when she was in primary school.  He was in such failing health when she was going through teenage years that she could not bring friends home and had to stay and look after him in the evenings when her mother went to work.  Older parenthood can be fun  at the beginning and older parents may be wiser guides for their children but ill health and disability strike much more quickly as we age.  Children, many of them singletons, may well end up carrying a heavy burden of responsibility for parents at an age when they should be being supported by parents as they explore the world.  They are likely to find themselves raising their own family with no grandparents around – a situation that is already becoming common as having babies later and later becomes the norm.

Fertility education, as advocated by Balen on behalf of the British Fertility Society, is a good idea but what is likely to eclipse this call for women to have babies in their twenties and thirties is the continuing reality of many men not feeling ready to commit to parenthood before forty or so and the economic imperative of simply being unable to afford to have a baby at a time when one’s fertility is at it’s peak.

The online version of Moorehead’s article is illustrated with photos of celebrities who have recently had babies over the age of 50.  Brigitte Nielson is the only one to have addressed the question of how her pregnancy was achieved.  She says she froze her eggs ‘in her early forties’ as her previous marriage came to an end and she was beginning to know her present husband.  This may be true, although modern vitrification of eggs was not available at that time and frozen eggs rarely survived the thaw.  This child was also her fifth and it is known that women who have had several pregnancies before sometimes do conceive another late on, but as she gave birth at 54 the clever money is on donor eggs and it is a certainty for all the others.  Why is this anyone elses business?  Simply because not acknowledging egg donation gives a false impression to many impressionable people that a woman’s fertility is almost endless and that IVF can perform miracles if you have enough money.  Sadly it can’t.

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When telling early about donor conception is not always the right path to take

The default position these days is to advise parents to start telling their children the story of their donor conception from a very young age so that they will never remember a time when they didn’t know.  I have done this myself over and over at conferences and workshops and of course with individual and couple recipients of donated gametes and embryos. And usually that is the appropriate advice.  DC Network now has a zillion books for a huge variety of family and donation types that encourage all parents to – Tell early, Tell young.  But what if someone wholeheartedly believes this message and wants to do the right thing by her child but has not taken into account the culture in which the child is to be raised.  I talked with such a woman the other day.  She herself is from a very open society but since having conceived her double donation child she has married someone from a very closed culture and finds herself living in a community where donor conception is unknown but all members of the family are likely to be stigmatised and discriminated against should the child’s beginnings become known.  The woman – I’ll call her Laura – has started talking to her son but at just five he has only minimal understanding as yet.

As I was talking with Laura, it was Diane Ehrensaft’s wise words that were running through my head.  She is clear that there are only three reasons for not starting to tell when a child is young.  I’ll write them here as they appear in the Telling and Talking 0-7 book –

  1. Issues to do with the child’s ability to understand: a child with a significant learning or developmental problem may well not be able to take in information about his or her origins.
  2. Issues for the bond between parent and child: for instance if a parent has been away from the child for a long time for any reason, re-building this relationship should come before ‘telling’.  Where parents are separating or divorcing, ‘telling’ should never be used as a threat to break a relationship between parent and child.  Unless children are at real risk of learning about their origins from someone other than a parent, telling should ideally only begin when both parents agree and the emotional climate has settled down.
  3. Issues for the child from outside the immediate family: if wider family members or those in the community are likely to reject a child conceived by donated sperm, eggs or embryos, then it may be difficult for a child to feel any sense of pride about their origins.  This situation can apply where a child is being brought up within a culture or faith that disapproves of donor conception.

Ehrensaft goes on to point out that parents need to be very honest with themselves when deciding to postpone telling their child.  Concerns that a child may be upset or confused by being ‘told’ can cover anxieties and fears that properly belong to the parent and are not really to do with the child at all.

But of course in Laura’s case she is enormously keen to be open with her son.  It is the culture and community in which he is being raised that is a threat to his potential ability to be proud of who he is and how he came to exist.

I talked with Laura about how she might respond to any questions her son raises given that she has already opened the issue of how he was made with him, helping to postpone the issue to a time when he is older but without giving him the impression that this is a subject that cannot be talked about.  We also spoke about child development and how children make a leap in brain development around the age of 8 that allows a much broader understanding of donor conception and many other things. This would be the time to really talk with her son as he would then be more able to grasp that some things are private to a family and not everybody needs to know or would understand.   How he receives the news at this time will depend partly on how Laura explains it to him but I have no doubt that she will do this well because she knows where to seek support and her central concern is her son’s well-being.

It is very pleasing that in the UK at least the message of Telling Early seems to be getting through, but there are problems with this position as it becomes seen as a rule that has to be followed without the context of a child’s (or the family’s) life being taken into account.  Also people worry that if they have missed that early window then ‘telling’ later may cause damage to the child.

I would like to say loudly and clearly that TELLING LATER CAN BE DONE WELL.  Even ‘telling’ when the child has become an adult can be done without lasting damage – although there will always be shock, issues of trust and a range of emotions to be negotiated with adults.

The worst time to ‘tell’ is probably teenage years, particularly 13 to 16, but even then it is better that a teenager learns of their origins from their parent(s) in a planned way rather than by accident or as a result of a row or family breakdown.

Sadly sometimes the Telling Early message is pushed too strongly with potential gamete or embryo recipients by well-meaning counsellors, possibly at a time when the whole idea of donor conception is new and strange.  It is certainly one of the implications of taking the decision to use donor conception that needs to be raised and discussed with potential recipients. However, subtlety and nuance are likely to achieve more in sowing the seeds of decision making that is in the interest of the child than pressured pep talks.  Luckily counsellors are listeners and are responding to the message to tone it down a bit when it comes to talking about ‘telling’ in implications counselling sessions.

Child development is always the key to sharing information with children, no matter what it is.  Where the child is in their development, rather than their age in years, taken together with the  context of the child’s life, will give parents the clues they need as to when to start telling and what language to use.  Also what they might expect from a child in terms of understanding and response.  Another variable is personality and level of curiosity.  Some children ask a lot of questions and others just do not.  Some live their life with face outward to the world and others turn inwards.  Tuning in to who your child really is, rather than what we as parents assume they are or want them to be, is always the right thing to do, whatever their age.

‘Laura’ has seen this blog and given her blessing to her session with me being written about.

Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering Tough Question and Building Strong Families by Diane Ehrensaft published by Guilford.

Telling and Talking 0-7, 8-11, 12up and 17+ by Olivia Montuschi and published by the Donor Conception Network

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Balloons, sperm and the magic of a DC Network conference

April was a busy month.  Two events celebrating DC Network’s 25th anniversary took up a huge amount of energy and head space for all the office staff, particularly Director Nina, but the outcomes were a drinks reception at the House of Lords and a Conference that were both triumphs.  The weather was kind for the reception so that the doors of the Cholmondeley Room could be opened on to the terrace overlooking the Thames and the splendid view beyond.  The speeches from Ken Daniels, Professor of Social Work from New Zealand and Marilyn Crawshaw from the University of York were full of praise for the breadth of DCN’s work and the influence the organisation has around the world; Ginny, a parent, spoke of how she looked forward to continuing to be supported by DCN as her sons move into their teenage years and potentially had difficult questions; and Aled, an embryo donation conceived fifteen year old, told of the bizarre questions that friends asked when he explained that the embryo he came from had been defrosted after five years in cold storage.  Nina Barnsley, the Director, wound up by giving an update on DCN’s achievements over the years and plans for the future concluding with a plea for those present to consider helping the organisation to raise £25,000 in order to continue and expand the work.

There was a wonderful buzz around the room as people enjoyed the wine and canapés on offer and met up with old friends and colleagues.  Personally, it was great to see Dr Sheila Cooke, grandmother to the organisation, and most of the other founding families, all of whom had travelled from the North of England to be there.  I think we were all rather stunned and amazed to be celebrating 25 years since we gathered in Sheila’s clinic in Sheffield and boldly and possibly rather naively said we would start a national organisation for donor conception families.  And just look at it now!

The member’s conference last Sunday was the fiftieth in the history of DCN and sold out within 48 hours!  Two hundred and thirty people were lucky to get places and sadly another 100 were disappointed.  There were 100 children in the creche or attending the Children’s Group for 8 – 12 year olds and included amongst the 230 were a dozen or so DC teenagers and young adults.  The only venue possible for this sort of gathering is a school and DCN are delighted that a N.London secondary school has been happy to host them for the past few years.

Professor Ken Daniels gave the key-note speech, setting out the principles of good communication and confidence that both he and DCN believe are fundamental for the raising of donor conceived children who are comfortable and confident with who they are.  Later in the morning a panel of three DC adults aged 54, 37 and 26 gave the longer view of being a DC person by answering questions about how much being DC impacted on how they felt about themselves; how having their own children  (2 panel members) might have changed their perspective on being DC and if they shared the information with their children; who do they think of as ‘family’ and finally how they felt about their donor and actual or possible half-siblings.  The two older panel members know who their donor is and one is in contact with 25 half-sibs but said it was impossible to have relationships with so many people.  Via DNA testing the other is in touch with a first cousin of the donor, who via the cousin, refused to have contact with her.  She has, however, managed to find out who he is and has a photo of him.  The youngest panel member is intrigued by the idea of half-siblings but has not taken any steps as yet to find them.  Unlike the other two, he was told of his DC conception from an early age. He has a very close relationship with his parents and his DC (different donor) brother and cannot imagine anyone else being considered as ‘family’.  He has curiosity about his donor but no interest in contact.  His brother has never shown any interest in anything to do with his conception. This panel gave a fascinating insight into the different eras of donor conception and how both thoughts and feelings about being DC can change over time.

Whilst presentations and panels, like the excellent ones above, are an important part of any conference, the lasting impact of the event is in the friendships that are made over lunch and tea-breaks, breaking isolation and giving members a whole day in which they know that every person next to them in the coffee or lunch queue is going to understand their story.   People were loosely divided into different donation or family types for the morning long refreshment break and in the afternoon, following a session where a solo mum and her 17 year old daughter answered questions from the audience, members divided into pre-selected topic groups.  I facilitated a group of parents who had chosen Talking to Friends and Family.  Everyone had children and had started to share the information with others but in some cases only either the husband’s or wife’s family knew and with children advancing in age and articulacy they knew they had to change this.  For some it was fear of upsetting elderly and/or conservative parents – in one case worrying that the parents would worry about their grand-daughter’s future, and in two cases there were issues of language.  Parents who could speak English but not read it (so no point in giving them a Friends and Family Telling and Talking book) or parents who remained in the country of origin of the member and only spoke that language.  The power of groups is that members often have wisdom to offer each other and just coming together with others can help shift ideas…as with one couple who were contemplating telling their child and only telling their own parents when the child was old enough to speak about it.  Other group members helped them to see that telling their own parents first would help the child by giving them a community to grow up in where conversations could be open and supportive and ‘telling’ others would not be the child’s burden.

As is now often the case, the conference had an international contingent with Ken Daniels and his wife from New Zealand certainly having come the furthest, but Vince Londini from the DC parent support group in London, Ontario was hard on his heels with Claudia Brugge and her family coming from DI Netz in Germany.  DCN are always proud and pleased to have visitors from abroad and on Monday morning Vince and Claudia came to the DCN office to talk to staff about their organisations.

The conference ended with tea and wonderful birthday cakes.  A group of DC teenagers speculated whether the decorations on them were balloons or sperm and one decided it was sperm entering the egg!  When young people can joke about their means of conception you can be pretty sure they feel OK.  A perfect end to a perfect day.


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What if your donor turns out to be a Trump supporter?

Via Carole Leiber-Wilkins on Facebook I recently came across a podcast on the site of a platform called Death, Sex and Money.  These topics are often thought of as ones to be avoided in polite conversation for fear of offending others, so this set-up has deliberately taken on the taboo and puts out thought provoking broadcasts on the topics we actually all want to hear about.  Cue donor conception and the story of Amy who innocently took a DNA test and discovered the identity of her biological father…the sperm donor her parents had used to conceive her over forty years ago.  I won’t spoil the story completely as the podcast absolutely deserves listening to all the way through (although there is a very annoying commercial break half-way for the company to let us know who they are and advertise forthcoming podcasts) but it ends with Amy and her sister, also DC but with different donor, making very individual choices about the way forward.  After having contact with a half-sibling who had been in touch with their donor, Amy decides that these people have nothing in common with her – and there is a very up to date context about this decision – and not to have anything further to do with them, at least for the time being.  She also partly wishes that she could go back to a time when she didn’t know about being donor conceived.  Amy’s sister, on the other hand, is enjoying being in touch with a large number of half-siblings.

Amy’s raising father is now dead but she had a very close relationship with him.  She is shocked that he never revealed the truth to her but she is also immensely loyal to the very fond memories she has of him.  Her mother is elderly now and only spoke the truth about her daughter’s conceptions when they asked her directly about them…but the two women were careful to approach their mother kindly.  They had been raised with care and love.

What should we make of Amy’s reluctance to have a relationship with her biological father and half-siblings?  The current orthodoxy is that donor conceived people who discover their origins late and without being told in a planned way, are likely to feel deceived and that trust has been undermined in the family.  They are portrayed as always having a real need to search for biological relatives in order to try and understand the recently discovered other side of themselves and it is considered a bonus if they find these people are open to having a relationship with them.  More controversially it is sometimes said by some DC adults that those of their peers who shy away from searching through loyalty to their raising parents, are denying their real needs and feelings to have contact with bio relatives.  But what if, like Amy, they have had an opportunity to learn about the donor and some half-siblings and really don’t like what they see. And although we rarely encounter them on-line, there must be DC people who find relatives after deliberate searching, and also discover that they do not instantly like them or recognise similarities and after a short exchange of information do not pursue the relationship any further.  And we all know how bio relatives we are forced to see regularly because of ‘duty’ relationships are often people we would not necessarily choose to be in our lives.

My own sense is that Amy is at one end of a very broad spectrum of responses to discovering that you are donor conceived.  There is absolutely no one size fits all.  It is also interesting that she was raised in a family where there was love, warmth and security available from both parents.  Not honesty about the donor conception but it is important to recognise the era in which the conception took place…late sixties if I recall rightly, when no-one thought that openness was right for anyone.  Even though Amy discovered her origins via ‘innocent’ DNA testing rather than being told by her parents, I can’t help wondering if she was protected from the most extreme of responses by the fact that her upbringing provided her with the ingredients of resilience.  My own small scale informal research with people who have had their method of conception revealed to them as adults has shown that being told in a planned way by both parents, who were willing to keep talking afterwards and were responsive to their needs, resulted in family relationships remaining intact and even improving as a result of the secret (often a source of great distress to the parents) having been removed.  Professor Ken Daniels from New Zealand has had similar findings.

These are thoughts rather than conclusions.  Have a listen to the podcast and see what you think.

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Happy 25th Birthday Donor Conception Network

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.


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The tricky question of ‘matching’

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.

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