MY daughter might find out in science class. This is why one Irish mother decided to tell her child she’d been conceived through sperm donation.
To tell or not to tell their child how they were conceived — perhaps the most fundamental decision for the scores of Irish wannabe parents who each year browse the website of Cryos International, the world’s largest sperm bank based in Denmark.
As they range through options for hair and eye colour, for weight, height, race and educational background — perhaps looking at a potential donor’s baby photo or reading clinic staff’s impressions of him — these parents have to make another decision, the full implications of which will probably not hit home until their child’s 18. Should they opt for an anonymous or non-anonymous donor?
“Anonymous means the donor will never know who you are and you will never be able to contact or communicate with him. A non-anonymous donor will never be able to track you down but your child can make contact through the sperm bank when they reach 18,” explains Declan Keane, senior embryologist and director of ReproMed (www.repromed.ie).
Last year his clinic (most Irish clinics source sperm mainly from Denmark) saw a 49% increase in women going for IUI (intrauterine insemination) using donor sperm. Of donor sperm cycles, three out of four involved lesbian couples and single women. “The majority of single women and lesbian couples go for known donors. They want their child to at least have the choice to communicate [with donor in future]. Fifty percent of heterosexual couples reserve that choice too — the other half say ‘no, this is our child’.”
Ann Bracken, counselling psychotherapist at Sims IVF — where 157 women used donor sperm last year — says those opting for non-anonymous donors want to give the adult child choices in the future around accessing their genetic heritage. “Some parents feel there’s nothing to hide.”
Helen Browne, co-founder of NISIG (National Infertility Support and Information Group) hopes most parents of donor-conceived babies tell children about their origins. She recalls the mum who envisaged secondary school science sufficiently advanced 12 years hence for her daughter to discover the truth in the classroom. “She could take her father’s and her mother’s hair from the comb and do DNA at school,” this mother told Browne. “She’s so right!” exclaims Browne. “This is why honesty is so important.”
So why don’t parents tell? “They fear rejection as a parent. They fear their child will be picked on at school. There’s an element of getting on with life and ‘putting it behind us’. They’ve carried the baby, it’s part of them and they forget,” says Browne, who believes it’s in the child’s best interests to be told “and so it’s not a secret that parents hold all their lives”.
In the UK, anybody born through donation after April 2005 is entitled to request and receive their donor’s name and last known address, once they reach 18. This law came too late for Sam Gregory, 22, a Sheffield-based civil servant who has “always known” that he’s donor-conceived.
“The chances of ever making contact with my donor are so slim they’re not worth getting excited about,” he says. And he’s ok with that. “I wouldn’t mind meeting him but it doesn’t particularly bother me. I’d be more interested in knowing about potential half-siblings because they’d be my age — I’d have significantly more in common with them.”
Last summer, Gregory spoke to the Northern Ireland donor-conception support group. “A big concern was the bond parents would have with their future donor-conceived child.” Joseph*, 44, a Midlands-based farmer, worried all though his wife’s pregnancy that he wouldn’t bond with his child, conceived through sperm donation. He’d been “absolutely shattered” to discover he had zero sperm count.
“The one thing my wife wanted was a family and I felt it was the one thing I couldn’t give her. I felt incomplete. I’m a bit of a hairy-chested farmer, living in a testosterone-fuelled environment. It’s all about engines, jeeps, bulls, rams. It was a hard blow to take.”
Internet research and open chats with a close friend brought Joseph around to the idea of sperm donation. But even after he and his wife cried with joy when she got pregnant, the niggling fear was there. “The huge issue was would I bond with the child. Would I think of him as my own?”
Immediately after the birth, Joseph was handed the baby. “I was squeezing him so tight. I was just looking at him. I couldn’t speak. It was amazing. I was just holding him close to my chest, afraid I’d drop him. It was instantaneous — I’ve never looked back. Don’t let anyone tell me he’s not mine! The gas part is I meet people who don’t know and they say he’s the image of his Da — if they only knew!”
The couple always vowed to be open with their son, now six, about his origins. “He knows Daddy’s cell didn’t work, so a really nice man gave us the cell and that man’s cell and Mammy’s cell grew in Mammy’s tummy.”
They chose an anonymous donor who matched Joseph for hair and eye colour, skin type and blood group. A UK known donor was out. “A lot was to do with the gene pool. There’s so much mixed race in the UK. If it happened that [his] skin wasn’t as white as mine, we’d be answering questions all our lives.
“We have the number of the clinic, there’s a file. Today in 2014, the option to track down isn’t open to him. Maybe in 2030, it will be. Hopefully we’ll have given him enough grounding and love to go down that route. He may never want to.”
Angela, 39, a Dublin-based solicitor, had her “gorgeous little man” 11 months ago. He was conceived through sperm donation because she’d worried her biological clock was ticking.
She conceived through IUI during her lunch-break on an ordinary working day. “I told myself it wouldn’t work the first time. I didn’t want to freak myself out.”
But it did — one week later her body already felt “different”. Right from the beginning, Angela knew she would keep no secrets from her son. “He will know [he was donor-conceived] from as soon as I think he’ll understand.”
She chose an anonymous donor and has never been 100% sure this was the right decision. “I still grapple with it. I don’t know if I’d want to leave it open to my son to bring the donor into his life later.”