How it feels to be a child of donor insemination
We have all seen the adverts: "sperm donors needed," "easy money to be made," "earn £15 for 15 minutes of your time." For 58 years the technique of donor insemination (DI) has been used in the United Kingdom. Yet the voice of DI children has never been heard. I would like to tell my story—how it feels to be one of those children.
For 16 years I have known. My mum told me, my dad was embarrassed, and no one other than my parents knew. The topic was taboo and I was not to tell friends or family. To this day I still have not been able to discuss it at all with my dad, nor with my sister (also conceived by donor insemination). The only question I have asked my mum was whether my parents had to pay for me (they did not, but gave a donation to the hospital). For years I have been prevented from exploring my feelings. I feel guilty writing this, even anonymously. It is as if I am betraying my family. I am scared that people will think that I am ungrateful. But I need to write this, for myself and for the other children of donor insemination. I hope that through my experiences others will realise that they are not alone and those who are in a position to help us gain an insight into our isolation. When I have asked professionals for advice I have been disappointed in their responses. My situation can neither be reversed nor rectified. I am a difficult person to advise. I am looking for solutions and answers that cannot be given.
I have two loving parents. When I realise what it took to conceive me I feel even more wanted, more wanted than friends who were honeymoon babies or conceived unintentionally during teenage romances. Yet as an 11 year old caught up in the turmoil and insecurity of growing up, I was told (in accordance with the current recommendation) of the sacrifice that my dad had made for me. How was I supposed to feel? I tried initially to accept it; in a magical way it was exciting—I could dream that my genetic father was a famous star, a prince, or an amazing sportsperson. After an argument with my dad I could dream of this wonderful man, my other dad, who would come and rescue me, taking me to another life. It was a dream world, a fantasy.
As the turbulent teenage years passed the fantasy lost its appeal. I began to think increasingly about where I came from and became angry that I had been deprived of what I believe are my basic rights. In a biology lesson we learnt about genetics and inheritance. The exercises that we were to try on our parents to demonstrate dominance suggested that one of my parents was not genetically related. Luckily, I knew the truth already. Had I not, my parents and teachers would have had some tricky questions to answer. As my appearance, personality, strengths, and weaknesses unfolded, it often became apparent that I was different from my sister and my dad. I excelled at sport and science. Friends and family, all innocent of the truth, would joke to my parents that they had picked up the wrong baby at the hospital or would comment on some familial resemblance. I coped by giggling silently at the irony but I felt for my dad, as more salt was rubbed into his wounds.
With the onset of GCSEs I thought more about my genetic father, a welcome distraction from the tedium of revision. I would stare in the mirror analysing features that I had not inherited from my mother. I would scour faces in the street, in the supermarket, and at school, desperately searching for similarities in others—older men could be my father, people my age my half siblings. I lived in a surreal world wondering if one of the men passing or teaching me was my genetic father. All I wanted was some information, not necessarily to meet him and never for him to feel any obligation towards me.
I am curious about him—he provided half my genes and I have a natural desire to know about my biological origins. I am fascinated to find out more. Why did he donate? What does he look like? What are his interests, his job? Who knows, he might want to know more about me.
Adopted children have the right to search for their genetic parents, but DI children do not. I understand why. Who wants to think that their sample, so generously provided, often during carefree student days, would be turned into a child who could contact them later? Without anonymity it has been shown abroad that the donors who come forward are older, with the resultant decrease in sperm quality and quantity (Human Reproduction 1995;10:1871-4). If the numbers of donors dropped, more and more couples would face the future without children, adopt, or look abroad or via commercial enterprises for sperm. In other countries a more open approach has worked—could this ever be an option in the UK?
I have shed tears and spent hours thinking about this. In an ideal world, I would know more and deep down this is all I want. I realise that I have to accept the situation as it is now, but however much I try I am often reminded. My obstetric and gynaecology attachment was difficult. Seeing couples so desperate for children made me uncomfortable as the decisions, investigations, treatments, and heartbreak my parents had to make and endure were paraded in front of me. Throwaway comments often sting when I least expect them to. A lecturer told an anecdote of a half brother and sister marrying to find out later that they were related and joked about all the children conceived by donor insemination not knowing whom they are marrying. I am allowed to find out if any future husband is related to me, but I cannot screen every boyfriend. At the optician or general practitioner, I am asked about my family history, yet I know only half of it. As a medic, by definition I am a hypochondriac and in my more paranoid moments I ruminate over those rare familial conditions I might have inherited. Am I safe taking the pill? Should I have my cholesterol measured? Should I be screened for colonic polyps? Yes, I know that donors are screened and, theoretically, I should be healthier than those conceived naturally, but the uncertainty remains. I am deprived of the insight and forewarning that others have.
Those with whom I have shared my secret have reacted differently. Some listen with sympathy. Others respond with the belief that I have no right to know more, that I should be so grateful that I was born at all, that I should unquestionably accept the gift that I have been given.
Over the years, the issues have been debated repeatedly. What are lacking are the views of the children created. We are difficult to study. We are anonymous and cannot speak up out of courtesy towards our dads. The few studies that have looked at us have only used parental interpretations of our emotional state (Fertility Sterility 1992;57:583-90 and Human Reproduction 1993;8:788-90). No one has questioned us, nor provided support for us. We cannot even talk about it with other children of donor insemination. We are denied the rights of normal citizens. We have no voice. The decisions made in the 1970s when I was conceived cannot be reversed. I have to live with the lack of knowledge and accept that there is nothing that I can do to alter this. However, things can be changed for the next generation of DI children and we must have a voice in these decisions.
What has been found in families of DI is that a lack of openness and knowledge has damaged relationships between family members (Human Reproduction 1996;11:2324). The lack of openness in our family is evident and I wish I had been given guidance earlier on how we as a family could have addressed this. I hope this is not irreversible, as I want to overcome the biggest hurdle—to talk about it with my dad. He is the one who has seen and shaped the way that I grew up, supported me through university, the one who let another man father his child and then accepted me as his own. I have wasted years trying to protect myself and my dad from this topic; I wish I knew whether talking to him would provide the answers that I want—to help me to reach an acceptance and to lose the restlessness and anger that I have.
So, the future? The need for donor insemination has decreased with improved techniques such as intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), in which a father’s own sperm can be used. Yet with one in six couples facing fertility problems the use of donor insemination will continue. What will the children of future donors have to face and cope with? I am emotionally split, stuck where doctors often find themselves—fighting between emotions and our medical and scientific training. We cannot have answers, but we can have help and support. These issues have to be faced before too many more DI children are conceived and have to grow up in the lonely world that I have.
Should DI children be told at all? How would I have grown up not knowing the truth? Would I have found out anyway and hated my parents for not telling me? I cannot answer that. But I think I am glad that I know. I feel secure knowing how much I was wanted, but also I feel guilty. I feel an added obligation to my family, as if I have to give them 110% to repay them for what they have done for me. When I am with my dad’s family I feel as if I am betraying them, that I am not really part of their family, an outsider imposing. I often wonder if they have guessed. People argue that numerous children, for various reasons, grow up blissfully unaware that their dad is not their genetic father. The decision to tell the child is up to the parents—I am not arguing with that. What I find difficult to accept is that once we are told, we cannot do anything more about it. There are no adoption agencies we can contact, no DNA tests we can have, we cannot ask our mums about what our genetic father was like. We have nothing. The Report of the Committee of the Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology (the Warnock report) in 1984 advocated that donor anonymity should be preserved but a child should have the right to know basic facts about the donor’s ethnic origin and genetic health. The technology is improving. How far will this go for the next generation of DI children?
The nearest I can get to a resolution, acceptable to all, is for donors to provide a personal note about themselves, so that their children can have something to hang on to. Would this further the agony, giving the child a small taste and cruelly telling them there was no more? Personally, I would prefer to taste a tiny bit rather than none at all. Ideally, an option could be added for donors to state that they agree to their children contacting them later. Again, this could only prolong the suffering and uncertainty, setting us up for more heartache. It is a gamble but it has the potential to work for some. I wish I had had the opportunity to take the risk.
To the donors out there, I would like to say thank you. I owe my life to one of you. I wish I could know more about you. I wish you could be proud of my achievements and me. You gave me the opportunity of life and I have tried to live it to the full in return.