Meet the second generation of children being born through sperm donations
Posted June 15, 2019 09:01:48
Deciding to use a sperm donor is not always an easy choice, but for Heather it was further complicated by the fact she was also conceived using sperm from a stranger.
- Studies show fewer than 35 per cent of Australian children conceived through donors know about it
- Donor-conceived children are now going on to have their own families
- Attitudes and laws have changed over time, but there are still many barriers to getting information
For 18 years, she and her parents knew only that her biological father had green eyes and was university educated.
Growing up as a child conceived through an anonymous sperm donor was hard, but harder still was the news she received as an adult that he did not want to meet her.
While Heather, who did not want her surname disclosed, said her parents did the best they could to help her understand her origins from an early age, it was “not an easy ride”.
Despite this, the call to parenthood was so strong that she and her wife Johanna decided to use a sperm donor to conceive their 14-month-old son Felix*.
With her experience combined with changing community attitudes, she said she hoped the path through to adulthood would be easier for her son.
‘He’s not interested in talking to you’
Under the law at the time of her conception, Heather’s donor was anonymous.
A single piece of paper was given to her parents, the only insight they had into his genetics.
She said her parents resisted professional advice to hide the facts of her conception from her, but she still faced social stigma from being donor conceived.
“My dad was infertile, so they did the best they could and waited for the laws to change so I could have some idea who the donor was,” she said.
Despite being able to apply for details of her donor to the Registry of Birth Deaths and Marriages Victoria once she turned 18, the fairytale meeting never came.
“The response was yes, we know who he is, we’ve located him, but he’s not interested in talking to you,” she said.
“And then they followed that with ‘by the way, you’re one of 17’.”
After laws changed in Victoria to give donor-conceived children similar rights to adopted children, she applied again for information about her donor.
While she now knows his name and has tracked down some family information through a DNA test that matched her with a fourth cousin, she said there was still so much she did not know.
Her experience of being shut out of knowing her genetic history was why she and Johanna decided to use a known sperm donor to conceive their son.
“We decided it would be best to use a known donor, somebody that we’re friends with, who we know can be involved with that child and they would never have to worry about that feeling of being separated and of not knowing who they are,” she said.
“We were careful and we went through a clinic where our intentions could be made clear through that process.
“It worked well because we’re friends and we were able to do that together.”
Heather said she feared references within the fertility industry about being “child-focused” were not accurate.
“A lot of the time fertility treatment starts off being about couples but you could walk out of that treatment being parents and you need to think about that child’s best interests,” she said.
‘We have the right to know’
While Heather was told from a young age that she was conceived through a donor, one Australian study from 2012 found fewer than 35 per cent of couples surveyed had told their children.
Some find out later in life, which can cause significant mental and emotional distress.
For Sean*, finding out he had been conceived through a donor when he was 15 was a “bombshell” that led to anger, a family breakup and years of therapy.
His father, a deeply conservative man, was infertile, but his mother had desperately wanted children.
He said finding out as a teenager, at a time he was forming his identity, was shattering.
Years later, stepping into a fertility clinic so his wife could receive IVF treatment gave him new insight into how strong the drive to have children could be.
It also helped him to understand the pressure his father was under at the time.
“It’s so emotional because you really want a child and you don’t think of the future,” he said.
“It gave me a new insight to understand what a hormonal child-bearing woman really wants.
“[My dad] was just doing the best he could.”
Through DNA testing, he found a biological half-sister who was registered on a global genetics website, but is yet to meet his donor.
“I want to meet with him eye to eye and find out about my medical history,” he said.
For Sean, the rights of donor children are not placed as high as they should be.
States differ on identifying donors
While laws have been introduced in Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales to allow people to obtain identifying information about their donors without needing their consent, for every jurisdiction except Victoria it depends on the year you were born.
The Northern Territory, Queensland, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania do not have laws about assisted reproduction or the release of information to people who were conceived through a donor.
Even in states where laws exist, people are beholden to how well a clinic has managed its records.
And despite some progress, all of the current laws in Australia have stopped short of requiring parents to tell their children whether they were conceived through donors.
The lack of records and barriers to access led South Australia’s Damian Adams on a 30-year journey to find his father, which intensified once he had his own family.
“Growing up I was always proud of being donor conceived … but now since having my own children I realise it’s impossible to erase that biological connection and it’s a part of who we are and nothing can change the fact that I am my children’s father and that was able to make me see the loss that I had with my own biological father and family,” Mr Adams said.
“That was quite a dark day, that realisation.”
After years of searching, including being told by the fertility clinic where he was conceived that they had no records of his donor, he recently identified his biological father through DNA testing.
But he is still yet to meet him.
“Finding out that information was one of the best days of my life,” he said.
“To meet my father face-to-face, simply put, would mean everything to me and not just for myself but it’s something that I can give my own children.”
Health law expert Sonia Allan said there was an unknown number of people conceived through donors in Australia, but estimated there could be up to 60,000.
“It’s a major issue that people want to access information about their biological heritage for all sorts of reasons … a sense of identity, it could be to do with medical information, just wanting open and honest discussions about who they are and where they came from,” Dr Allan said.
“For most people in Australia, even though anonymity was stopped around 2004 … many people still have great difficulty finding access to information about that genetic heritage.”
Dr Allan said people had donated anonymously multiple times, resulting in dozens of children born that share the same genes.
“There are instances where people have gone to school with their siblings not knowing that they’re siblings,” she said.
“There’s this fear that they will develop a relationship with a person with whom they’re related to.”
*Names have been changed for privacy.
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Topics: babies, fertility-and-infertility, reproduction-and-contraception, healthcare-clinic, health-policy, health, family-and-children, community-and-society, babies—newborns, australia, nsw, nt, qld, sa, tas, vic, wa