For some patients, the best way forward is through a donor. Despite its many advantages, donor conception is still considered somewhat taboo; as such, a lot of myths and stigma has risen around donation programs. What will the family say? What about friends? Should I even tell the child? How?
Because of the perceived stigma around the topic, these questions often remain unanswered, leading to stress and anxiety. It does not need to be that way, however; advocacy groups and specialists all around the world are fighting the good fight, informing the patients about the realities of donor conception, as well as dispelling common myths and offering counselling for patients. Leading the charge is the Donor Conception Network and we were pleased that one of their representatives, Nina Barnsley chose to talk to us about the most common issues and concerns raised by patients deciding to undergo donor conception.
Donor conception, although often presented as such, is not exactly a fertility treatment. It is more of a method of bypassing the issue – the underlying infertility is not solved by undergoing an egg donation treatment, after all. It remains, however, an effective method of having a child despite your condition. It is important to keep this in mind, as it frames the entire process of donor conception slightly differently from other techniques and methods.
As it is a different route to parenthood, it brings with it its own challenges and concerns. Broadly speaking, three ingredients are required to make a baby: an egg, sperm, and a uterus. In donor conception treatments, one or more of these elements is supplied by a person different than the intended parents. In the United Kingdom, where Donor Conception Network is based, patients can influence the donor matching process, as patient/donor anonymity is not enforced by law as it is in many European countries. Therefore, for patients in Britain, choosing a donor and deciding their importance to the overall journey to parenthood is another crucial step. Decisions like these can carry lifelong implications for the entire family, which is why it is important to think everything through before committing to anything. Understanding and coming to terms with the entirety of the process will help you share the story of your journey with your child when the time comes.
Your own feelings are also paramount to the entire process – being honest with yourself and acknowledging your own feelings is important. Although some parents are uncomfortable with the idea of donor conception at first, but change their feeling later, that is not always the case. For some, this route is simply not the right choice – and that is a valid way to feel.
Donor conception is used by all sorts of people – heterosexual couples, as well as same-sex ones. Patients using egg donations, as well as those using sperm donations; some may even use a double donation or an embryo donation. Even single men and women can have children through donor conception (in the case of men, through surrogacy as well).
If anyone can become a parent, how about donors? Who are they? Well, they could be family members, friends or acquaintances, or donors found through a clinic – if the clinic is located in the United Kingdom, they will become identifiable to the child once they reach the age of 18. If you go with a donor matched for you at a clinic abroad, they will most commonly remain anonymous, as many European countries enforce anonymity in donation scenarios. In either case, the information provided to the patient varies from clinic to clinic.
There are a lot of things to consider and think through before deciding on donor conception. First of all, where are you on your journey? Are you fully convinced this is the right step for you? Or are further back slightly, unsure whether or not this is the correct way forwards? If you have a partner – are they at the same stage as you? Take the time to acknowledge your feelings – as well as those of your partner – and make sure that you make this decision together and that you are comfortable in it.
Single people experience a different issue – for them, the journey may feel quite lonely; having to make all these major decisions on your own does take an emotional toll, not to mention all the worries that come with the prospect of raising a child on your own. It is never too early to start building a support network around yourself so that you can share the burden of the entire process with.
Another thing that needs to be worked through is letting go of the child that you cannot have. Most couples, especially heterosexual ones, do not consider donor conception to be the way they were going to have children. As such, many people need to come to terms with the fact that the child they dreamed of is not the child they are going to have. This letting go process will hopefully result in thinking about the child that they could have; this consideration should help you determine whether or not donor conception is the right path for you.
Following all of these, some practicalities to consider: for instance, where are you going to undergo treatment? Is it going to be in the UK, or are you going to travel somewhere else? Different countries have different laws, and different clinics have different protocols. It is worth spending a lot of time researching your options to make sure you end up at a place that can give you exactly what you need. Also worth considering are the needs of your child – obviously, you cannot predict whether or not they will be curious about their donor, half-siblings, et cetera. If you decide to undergo treatment in a country with enforced anonymity of donors, your child will not have the option of learning about their genetic origin. Like we mentioned earlier, decisions you make now will have long-lasting implications.
Another practical consideration is the choice of the donor – how much information do you need, for starters? Various countries have different laws in regards to the donors; most European countries forbid revealing their identity, while the United Kingdom has no such requirement and allows children born through donation to learn the identity of the donor once they reach the age of 18. The amount of information you receive as a patient can also vary depending on the clinic, the legislation it’s bound by, and your own personal feelings on the matter – some patients prefer not to learn too many details and treat the donor as a simple necessity of the process, while others prefer to learn more about the donor and wish to establish a connection with them. It is worth thinking what you personally feel is right, as this matter is decided as much by your own personal feelings as it is by laws and regulations.
If the identity of the donor is known to you, establishing clear boundaries and intentions with regard to you and the child is of utmost importance. Countries which enforce anonymity sidestep this issue; in countries that do not, this gets complicated. Ideally, clear intentions and boundaries should be written down, preferably with a lawyer present, in order to record each side’s responsibilities and overall part in the process.
Parenthood requires a large investment; we are not only talking about money, but also time and emotional energy spent on the entire process. Ensure you’re ready for it, that you have enough resources and support around you; establishing what’s available to you right now will help you determine how big of an overall investment of time and energy the process will actually require.
At this early stage, it is also worth thinking if you are going to tell anyone about doing through with donor conception, as well as how you are going to tell them. There is certainly no pressure on you to tell anyone; some people prefer to keep the matter entirely private, while others prefer to tell close friends and family early on in order to receive emotional support. This is strictly a personal choice; consider your feelings and only commit to a decision that feels right to you.
Although this all may seem overwhelming at first, it is important to remember that you do not need to be perfect – you only need to be good enough. You need to be comfortable with the decisions you make and keep reminding yourself that there is no such thing as a perfect family; you will encounter challenges and difficulties on the way. Tackle problems and issues early, before they can develop into larger obstacles.
Emotions play a big role in parenthood, and patients who participate in donation programs get to experience some feelings other families may not. These stem from the particular circumstances these patients find themselves in. Chief among those feelings is the grief over the loss of a genetic connection between you and your child. For some people, this connection is hugely important. They grieve over a perceived “loss” – the child is genetically connected to somebody else, an outsider to the family. This ties into parents not feeling like the child’s “real” mum or dad. This feeling, along with a fear over bonding with the child, comes from the same root worry.
Anxiety about sharing information about your conception process with other people is also common, which relates to a larger conversation about privacy. It is worth remembering that there is a boundary between privacy and secrecy – you can absolutely protect your privacy without keeping the issue of donor conception a secret. Another common worry is the donor – who are they? What is their impact on my family going to be?
Just like with potential emotional troubles, practical issues are also worth preparing for. Medical questions, for instance, are a common concern – since you are not genetically related to your child, you may not be able to answer certain questions a doctor may ask about your child. Single people often worry about raising a child on their own – more often than not, they hadn’t expected to have to go it alone. If you’re in a lesbian relationship and only one of you is carrying the baby, you may not feel like you’re the real mum if you’re not the one to do it; the decision is tricky sometimes, which is why I strongly urge you to consider the issue as early as possible.
Openness is a big topic to tackle; after all, families are not built on secrecy. It is difficult to manage a warm, loving environment when you are keeping secrets from the members of your family. People conceived through donation programs deserve to know the truth – and furthermore, it is harder to keep a secret of this scale than most people realise. Children are not stupid – they will notice subtle differences in looks or medical histories quicker than you think. Because of that, it is better to have the issue of donor conception out in the open from the word go – literally! Experts recommend explaining the topic to children from as early an age as possible, in order to make the child internalise the circumstances of their conception as early as possible. Finding out in teenage or adult years can, after all, result in feelings of betrayal and mistrust – “What else have they lied to me about” et cetera.
Being truthful with the child is important even if the donor is anonymous. Crucially, it makes honesty the founding principle of the family. It helps establish an accurate medical history for the child, so that diagnoses and treatments are not affected by any misinformation. If the truth is hidden from the child, they may still have their own suspicions based on the differences in looks, temperaments and talents; these suspicions may become confirmed later on due to the increasing popularity of home DNA testing kit. As such, it is much better to just be truthful from the beginning – you can tell it saves you from a lot of headaches and difficult conversations.
Despite all the arguments for openness, parents are hesitant to be open about undergoing donor conception. There is still a degree of embarrassment and shame associated with infertility – this explains the reluctance of some patients. Others simply want to keep it a private matter, as they do not want to be judged by their family and friends. Some may want to talk about it but have no idea how to broach the subject and what words to use.
A member of our network, Dominic, is a sperm donation dad. He describes his experience as such:
“Before our daughter was born it was all about me and how unfair it was that I couldn’t have my own genetic child. Now that she is here, I see that it is all about her, and because I love her so much, I want to be honest with her about how she began.”
This is a common theme in many people’s journey – openness may be difficult as long as we think the journey is about ourselves, when in reality it’s all about the child; we come to that realisation when the child arrives, which puts things into proper perspective.
A common assumption made by parents is that telling the child about donor conception will be perceived as bad news. This could not be farther from the truth – children have no preconceptions or assumptions about donor conception. For them, it is simply a part of their story; they were conceived in a different, maybe more exciting way! They do, however, pick up on your emotions. It is important that you are confident in how you approach the subject; the child will then receive the news simply as a piece of information and not as something potentially upsetting.
To sum up, here are the basic principles of the decision-making process and the next steps to take:
Several questions can be asked to help decide whether or not donor conception is the right choice for you. Do not force yourself to answer these now – allow yourself time to become comfortable with the prospect. How important are genetics to you? Would the “difference” be a problem? Is the involvement of a donor an issue? What is more important to you – being a parent, or having a miniature version of yourself running about? Would you be comfortable talking about this to your child and your family?
The best way to approach, I feel, was described by Sam – he is a young donor-conceived adult, who had this to say:
“People seem to get so stressed about it all. I think they should just chill out more. If they are anxious to do the right thing, they probably will do the right thing.”
The Donor Conception Network was founded specifically to help parents with these concerns and more – we are a UK based charity, founded over 25 years ago on the principles of honesty and openness. We offer peer to peer support through our network of over 2000 parents, prospective parents, and donor conceived adults. We offer support navigating both the practical and emotional aspects of donor conception; we also offer many resources to parents and donor conceived children.- Questions and Answers