30 Dec Donation Dynamics: the Children from IVF
Jacqueline Tomlins looks at some of the issues relating to children conceived through donor conception.
“Oh, she’s got your eyes for sure.” “Doesn’t he look just like his father?” “There’s no mistaking where that nose comes from!”
Speculating on who your baby looks like is a favourite pastime, not only of family and friends, but of everyone from supermarket check-out staff to grandmothers on buses. But what if the baby in your pram is not genetically related to you or to your partner? What if that nose, those eyes, actually belong to someone else altogether? To the donor who provided the sperm or egg that helped to create your child?
Increasing numbers of Australian families are being created with the help of donor gametes (mature reproductive cells) – to couples with fertility problems, single women and same-sex couples. For many, the rare gift of an egg or sperm is the answer to their prayers. But using someone else’s genetic material to create your own family also has significant implications – not just for the parents, but for the donor-conceived people themselves.
According to counsellor Kate Bourne, who managed the donor program at Melbourne IVF, there are many questions that commonly worry people faced with the prospect of using donor gametes: ‘Will I bond with this child?’ ‘Will they view me as their mother/father?’ ‘How will they view the donor?’ ‘Will the donor see this child as theirs?’ ‘Will my child grow up feeling like a ‘freak’?’
“The good news is that most of these fears prove to be unfounded,” says Bourne. “We run a donor-egg mums’ group and we invite other mums who have already had their babies to come along. Invariably they say, ‘Yes, I had exactly the same fears, but I adore this child more than I could possibly imagine and so does my husband. There’s no question that she’s our baby.’”
Kim, who has a 15-year-old son who was conceived naturally and 10-year-old twins who were conceived using an egg donor, says, “I wanted a second baby so badly, I really didn’t worry about using an egg donor. But after I got pregnant I had a hard time for a while. I felt ashamed and embarrassed and not connected to the babies at all. But that soon passed and I felt much better and then I started telling everyone about the egg donor. In the end it was very clear: they came out of my uterus – they were my babies.”
And Ruth, the non-biological mum of a same-sex-parents family, says, “The fact that I have no biological link to my son and daughter has absolutely no bearing on my relationship with them. It’s not nothing, but it doesn’t get in the way of how I feel about them. I [feel as if] I couldn’t love them any more than I do, yet every day I love them more.”
Bourne says that the experience is usually the same for dads.
Charles, who had a very low sperm count, used his brother’s sperm to create his family. He says, “I really wanted kids and it didn’t worry me that we weren’t related biologically. When my son was born, it never crossed my mind that he wasn’t mine. I know some men feel a sense of shame, but think about what a father really is. It’s hard to describe. It’s so emotional, but it’s not really about you, it’s about having a family.”
The most important thing is that everyone is comfortable with the decision to use a donor gamete. Problems can arise if one partner doesn’t really feel okay about it, but goes ahead to please the other. The danger is that that parent might hold back from loving the child because they are worried that the child might not see them as Mum/Dad and love them in return. Talking through these issues with each other, or with a counsellor, is really important, especially as they can get in the way of telling the child the truth.
The biggest issue facing families using usually donor gametes is that of ‘telling’. Do you tell your child? What do you tell them exactly, and when and how? In the past, parents were advised to keep everything a secret, to go away and forget about it. But we know now that this was not good advice. We have learnt from the experiences of donor-conceived people and adoptees who are now adults about the importance of knowing our biological origins – we all need to know where we came from. These days, there is broad consensus that keeping secrets of this magnitude is not only almost impossible, but potentially harmful as well.
Bourne says, “Ideally, we would encourage people to start telling very early, in a simple way that the child can understand: ‘We wanted to have you for a long time, but we needed some help…’ Once the child has absorbed this idea, the parents can explain about eggs and sperm and take it from there. Some parents find it useful to start when the child is still a baby – like a ‘dry run’. They practise what words to use and start to feel more relaxed. Preschool is definitely a good time for this. Primary school is okay, too, but the evidence suggests that leaving it until adolescence can be fraught.”
“My five year old knew about the twins from the start,” explains Kim. “He announced it at ‘show and tell’ at school, so then everyone knew! And with the twins themselves, there was never really a big discussion – it’s just always been part of their lives. The earlier and more often you speak of it, the more ordinary it is.”
Ruth first told her son about his donor when he was two. “He didn’t really understand much, of course, but it was definitely good to start talking about it then. He’s almost four now and he understands a lot – more than you’d think. We explained it exactly as it is – we used the words ‘eggs’ and ‘sperm’, and we also used a book, Our Story, which was very helpful. We told him that his donor was a very special and important person, but that he is not part of our family. I’m confident that if we are proud of our family, then he will be, too.”
“We will be completely open with our kids,” says Charles. “There is no shame, absolutely nothing wrong with how they were created. My brother came to visit recently and we started to talk to our son about it. We said, ‘Uncle Richard did something very special to help make you’. As they get older, we’ll tell them more.”
So how does it feel from the other end? What is it like to grow up knowing that you aren’t biologically related to one – or either – of your parents?
“All of the donor-conceived people I’ve met have been crystal clear about who their parents are,” says Bourne. “Their parents are the people who raised them. And they all say they are very glad that they know – that their parents were honest with them.”
Alice, who is 18 and who was conceived using donor sperm, says, “They are my parents. They are useful and easily manipulated and I love them! The fact that I might be related to some other person doesn’t really matter.” Alice always knew about her birth origins. “My parents never kept it a secret,” she says. “It was not something they were ashamed of.” Her advice to parents of donor-conceived offspring is: “Tell them early and often. Say, ‘Hey, you’re special – give me a hug’. And be ready to answer their questions.”
That’s not to say that it’s all smooth sailing for everybody. There are certainly donor-conceived adults who have had a difficult time. Especially those who do not have access to identifying information about their donors. Or who were born at a time when their parents weren’t counselled, or were counselled badly. When Narelle was 15 she found out she was conceived using an anonymous sperm donor at Prince Henry Hospital in Melbourne. It had an enormous impact on her life, and still does, especially as she cannot access any identifying information about him. “I want to know more about my genetic history and my medical background,” she says. “It’s something everyone takes for granted that donor-conceived people are often denied. I want to know more: his personality, his interests, what he’s done with his life. People are a mixture of nature and nurture and to downplay either is wrong. There are some genetic influences that are undeniable and it’s ignorant to say otherwise.”
Narelle, and others like her, struggle with issues of identity and separation, and often have a sense of feeling incomplete, even though they regard the people who raised them as their parents who they love dearly. “I suppose the main thing for me is that I feel a little disconnected; a kind of gut feeling that I’m not quite 100 per cent or something. I don’t know things I should know to answer questions in my life. People shouldn’t be lied to about something as fundamental as who they are. I know it’s not really plausible to do, but I think parents shouldn’t have the choice not to tell their children. The truth should be on the birth certificate and there should be a national register and no more anonymity.”
One of the other significant issues for donor-conceived people is that of siblings. Even today, sperm donors can donate to up to 10 families creating a significant pool of half-brothers and sisters. ”I know that I have a least eight half-siblings,” Narelle says, “and all in different families and we live in a small city. I think donors should only be allowed to donate to one family.’
“It’s undoubtedly true that people have suffered in the past,” Bourne says. “Not knowing all or part of your biological heritage can be very difficult and can create life-long problems. But for most people these days, if it’s handled appropriately, it is absolutely no problem. The child may have questions about the donor – they’re often curious about what they look like, or may want to know about their medical history. Sometimes they want to meet, to satisfy that curiosity, but they are rarely looking for a parental relationship. It’s really important that the parents support the child in this curiosity and don’t feel threatened by it – it’s completely normal. If there has been a significant absence of either parent, or a relationship breakdown, a donor-conceived person might look for more, but that’s not usual. Donors are a terribly important part of all this, but they are all very clear that the child is not theirs.”
So what do parents say to the check-out lady who points out non-existent similarities? Most go with something gentle, such as, ‘More like her dad, people say’, or ‘We think he looks like himself’. Kim opts for something a little more direct. “I always say, ‘That’s lovely, thank you, but they haven’t got my genes!’ People are sometimes a bit startled, but I think the more people who know about this, the more open we all are, the more accepted it will become.”
No-one chooses to use donor gametes to create their family unless it’s their only option. But every parent who has gone down this path will tell you that, while biology and genetics are not irrelevant, they are just not that important either. When you bring your baby home from the hospital, when you pick him up from his first day at school, when you watch her ride her bike for the first time, when you see his first gig with the band, when you go to her graduation, and when you do the hundred other things you’ll do over a lifetime together, it’s not biology you’ll be thinking about.
Jacqueline Tomlins is the author of The Infertility Handbook: A guide to making babies, published by Allen and Unwin.
State Legislation information
In South Australia, the legal issues relating to assisted reproductive technology are governed by the Reproductive Technologies Act and overseen by the South Australian Council on Reproductive Technology. Donors must remain anonymous, and identifying information about them can only be provided to a recipient or donor-conceived person if the donor gives their permission in writing. Once a donor-conceived person reaches 16, they can access non-identifying information about their donor. However, there is a general trend towards donors providing identifying information that can be released to the donor-conceived child when they reach 18, or earlier if all parties agree. At the moment, however, a donor-conceived person has no legal right to access that information.
There is no specific legislation in Queensland that governs access to identifying or non-identifying information about the various parties involved in gamete donation. However, under the guidelines of the National Health and Medical Research Council, the body that monitors these issues nationally, clinics are required to keep up-to-date records of all donors, recipients and children born from donations. The conditions vary from clinic to clinic but, in most cases, donors are required to sign a consent form giving their permission for identifying information to be released to any child born of their donation when that child reaches the age of 18 (or earlier), should the child request it. The donor has access to information about the number and sex of children born from their donation, but does not have the right to access any identifying information about them.
There is no specific legislation in the ACT that governs access to identifying or non-identifying information about the various parties involved in gamete donation. However, under the guidelines of the National Health and Medical Research Council, the body that monitors these issues nationally, clinics are required to keep up-to-date records of all parties involved. All donors must agree to sign a consent form to provide identifying information to any child born of their donation. When a donor-conceived child reaches the age of 18, the clinic will contact them and invite them to a counselling session at which they will be provided with the name and address of their donor. At the same time, the donor will be notified that this has taken place. All of this is explained to the recipients – the donor-conceived child’s parents – when they accept the donation, and they are required to sign legal consent forms agreeing to all of the above.
In Victoria, donors can no longer be anonymous. Identifying information about all egg and sperm donors is stored on a central donor registry held by the Infertility Treatment Authority, the statutory body that governs this area. When a person born of a donation turns 18, they have the right to request identifying information about their donor. The donor also has the right to request information about any children who have been conceived from their donation. In addition to this central register, there is a voluntary register for people who donated, or who were conceived before 1988. People can submit as much or as little information as they like to the register by contacting the Infertility Treatment Authority.
In Western Australia, the legal issues relating to assisted reproductive technology are governed by the Reproductive Technology Council. All donors must consent to providing identifying information, and details of all parties involved must be recorded by the clinic. This information is then placed on the Reproductive Technology Register held by the Department of Health. A person born from a donation has the right to access identifying information about their donor when they turn 16, after having undergone approved counselling. Information can be exchanged before this time with the consent of all parties. The donor can find out the number and sex of children born from their donation, but does not have access to any identifying information about them.
New South Wales
There is no specific legislation in New South Wales that governs access to identifying or non-identifying information about the parties involved in gamete donation. However, under the guidelines of the National Health and Medical Research Council, the body that monitors these issues nationally, clinics are required to keep up-to-date records of all donors, recipients and children born from donations. The conditions vary from clinic to clinic but, in most cases, donors are required to sign a consent form giving their permission for identifying information to be released to any child born of their donation when that child reaches the age of 18, should the child request it. The donor has access to information about the number and sex of children born from their donation, but does not have the right to access identifying information about them.
Books For Adults
Experiences Of Donor Conception – Parents, offspring and donors through the years by Caroline Lorbach, 2002, Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Mommies, Daddies, Donors, Surrogates: Answering tough questions and building strong families by Diane Ehrensaft, 2005, The Guilford Press
Building A Family With The Assistance Of Donor Insemination by Ken Daniels, 2004, Dunmore Press
Books For Children
Sometimes It Takes Three To Make A Baby by Kate Bourne, 2002, Melbourne IVF
Our story, available from the Donor Conception Network website – see above (There are three versions of this book: one for children conceived through egg donation, one for children conceived through donor insemination into single parent families, and one for children conceived through donor insemination into lesbian-parent families.)