Donor Conception: Disclosure

Created: Nov 23/13


Some clinics point out the trend towards disclosure, the parallels with adoption and what society has come to accept as the needs & rights of children to know their origins, and the likelihood a registry will be established in the future to facilitate adult donor offspring contacting the donor should they so choose (as has happened with adoption in Canada, and with donor conception in several other countries). These programs encourage patients to think about when/how to tell their child about their conception, provide patients and donors with material to read and refer them to a knowledgeable counsellor. Other programs ignore this crucial issue, leaving the patient, the donor and the child to deal with the consequences of uninformed decisions, while some even encourage everyone involved to keep it secret despite the overwhelming evidence that this is an enormous burden which eventually becomes a very destructive family secret.

While some of these differences may not matter to you now, or may even make you uncomfortable (e.g. the idea of a photo/video, or of the donor’s identity being released), they may, in fact, become very important to you and/or your child at some point in the future. Those who struggle with infertility tend to think about having “a baby,” but the child won’t be a baby for long; in fact, before too long, they will be an adult, probably a parent themselves, and they may have a very strong desire, and perhaps a medical or psychological need, to know as much as possible about their genetic background. On the other hand, donors often detach themselves from the fact that as a result of their donation, a child will be born who is genetically their own, the half-sibling of the children they themselves are raising, as well as the grandchildren of their parents.

Most people – before they become parents, or even while their children are still young – find it difficult to really imagine their child as an adult, a person who is separate from themselves, someone who will eventually have needs, interests, views & rights that may conflict with their own. They realize that, while they may be able to offer advice, they certainly won’t be able to decide what city their 30 year old ‘child’ will live in, what job they take, which house or car they buy, who they marry... etc. but they may think they can decide for their donor-conceived adult “child” what they can or cannot know about themselves, their genetic connections and their family health history...

It is clearly in the child’s best interests for you to make the best choice possible, to ensure access to as much information-sharing as possible. This leaves the door open for the future when the person born as a result of sperm/egg/embryo donation may want or need more information than you do at present, and when the social climate has changed to make disclosure & donor identity release the norm, instead of the exception.

In the past, adoption was often kept secret, with the adopted person sometimes finding out about their origins during a family crisis (e.g. death, divorce). Today, this sort of secrecy is recognized by adoption and mental health professionals as destructive to individual development and family relationships. In fact, if prospective adoptive parents say they don’t plan to tell the child of their origins, their social worker will usually not approve their homestudy, and will suggest they look more deeply into adoption, as well as their own motivations, until they are ready to proceed.

Search and reunion have become very important within the adoption community and are now also an issue for many adolescents and adults conceived through donor gametes who want to find their donor and their half-siblings, both those conceived using the donor’s gametes as well as the donor’s own children. This is not because they don’t love their non-biological parent, but rather because, as one offspring has said, “I’m missing 1/2 of the pieces of the puzzle that make up who I am.” The millions of people worldwide who use the internet daily for genealogical research are strong evidence that family is much more than just “a social construct.”

Many offspring tell poignantly of the pain they experienced at finding out their parents had not been honest with them about their origins and of their strong desire to know more about their donor; those who were raised in openness often still want to know about their donor and to have access to their medical background, but do not carry the pain caused by parental deception.

Some offspring would like to see the practice of donor conception completely banned because of the deliberate fracturing of genetic kinship ties that it entails, while others just want the system changed to use only identifiable, altruistic donors.

It is best to leave all the doors open for the future. What seems like the right decision today (e.g. using an anonymous donor, opting for secrecy instead of disclosure, etc), could turn out to be the wrong decision in 20 years time when it is no longer an abstract idea or the yearning for “a baby,” but a major issue in another adult’s life (i.e. that of the offspring). Rather than think, “Who does this child belong to?,” it is far better to ask, “Who belongs to this child?” If you deliberately select an anonymous donor over an identity-release one, how will your adult child will feel once they learn that, in doing so, you chose to deny them the opportunity to know their roots?

If you don’t plan to tell your child about their origins, please consider the following:

  • What will the impact be on you & your partner of keeping that secret every day of your life? What if one of you becomes so uncomfortable that they decide they must disclose, but the other partner objects? What if you split up as a couple?
  • Does anyone else know about the method of conception? If just one other person knows, there is always the risk that your child will find out, perhaps under very unfortunate circumstances.
  • The notion that “what people don’t know, won’t hurt them” is now long out-dated and has been disproved many times over. The truth is that lies hurt. When these lies are told in the context of otherwise loving relationships, they have the power to erode and even destroy those relationships.
  • Parents usually bring their children up to tell the truth, not to tell lies; how will you justify to yourself (& to your child if they find out as many eventually do) that you lied to them about the very nature of how they came into the world, about their relationship to their parents & family members, and about their health history & risks?
  • How will you deal with the inevitable questions – from family, friends & the child himself – about the child’s resemblance (or lack thereof) in looks, talents, interests, etc. to the non-genetic parent?
  • Will you tell your child’s doctor the truth so that they can provide appropriate medical care? If not, what medical background will you give should an illness or medical condition arise that has a possible genetic link?
  • What family medical information – or misinformation – will your child have as an adult to give to their doctor, as well as to their own children (i.e. your grandchildren) and to their children’s doctor?
  • If donor conception is so shameful – to you, your family, your culture or religion – that it has to be kept a secret, should you really be using this method to build your family? What will the long term consequences be for all involved?