Why donor offspring need to know the truth

August 9, 2004


Alice Kirkman, 16, was conceived with donor sperm and now has regular contact with her biological father.
Picture:Michael Clayton-Jones

Donor conceptions bring great joy to infertile couples - but the resultant children often experience their own longing, writes Amanda Dunn.

Neatly folded in Narelle Grech's handbag is a home-made flyer that begins with a startling question: "Are you my half-brother or sister?"

Although she has not yet mustered the nerve to distribute the flyers, Ms Grech made them because she desperately wants to find the family she is missing - a father who donated sperm to help conceive her 21 years ago and, she has recently discovered, four half-sisters and three half-brothers created the same way.

"He's my biological father, and they're all my brothers and sisters, and I've never had a brother and now I've got three, and... I want to know them," she says.

Ms Grech is a member of TangledWebs, a group of about 20 people with experience of donor conception, who believe the practice should be stopped.

Co-convener Michael Linden donated sperm 27 years ago, and recently met Myfanwy Walker, one of five people born from his donation and also a TangledWebs member.

He believes the trouble with donor conception is that the offsprings' genetic history is placed in the hands of the parents who raise them - who may choose not to divulge it.

Mr Linden believes a person's genetic make-up is fundamental to identity, and in the case of donor conception, "no matter what you do, the relationship with either genetic parent is always going to be skewed and incomplete".

Alice Kirkman was 12 when her mother told her the story of her unconventional origins: she was conceived with eggs from her infertile mother and donor sperm. Then her aunt acted as a surrogate for the gestation.

Now 16, Alice is completely comfortable with how she came to be and is in contact with her biological father.

She believes a person's biological background has little bearing on their identity, but she would have been upset had her mother not divulged the truth. "It's very important that people tell the child," she said.

In Victoria, the Infertility Treatment Authority oversees a compulsory register, established in 1988, which records the contact details of all parties involved in donor conception. Offspring are able to gain access to the register when they turn 18. But this only helps people born since 1988.

There are also two voluntary registers: one for those born before 1988 and another for those born since, in which donors or offspring can leave more detailed information about themselves. So far, 57 people are on the pre-1988 register and 60 on the post-1988 register, with the authority recently making three matches.

The Victorian Law Reform Commission is reviewing assisted reproduction laws, with interim recommendations due next year.

Other donor conception support groups take a more moderate line, arguing that families are made in many ways, and donor conception is one that offers infertile couples the children they long for.

But they agree that it can cause problems if parents choose not to tell their children how they were conceived.

The authority's chief executive, Helen Szoke, says fewer than half the parents tell their children the truth about their birth origins.

Sandra Dill, chief executive of the support group ACCESS, believes many parents are reluctant to tell their children because there is still a stigma attached to using donors.

Access to information about donor parents has "changed dramatically in the past 20 years", however, and is much less restrictive, she says.

Ms Dill believes there may be ways to make information about people's births more accessible, even if their parents do not tell them. For example, the information could be on the child's birth certificate in a way that protects privacy.

Leonie Hewitt, of the Donor Conception Support Group, felt so strongly about tracking down the donor fathers of her three children that she waged a seven-year battle to find them, eventually succeeding with her younger two children but not her eldest.

She says it is important for people to know their medical history, and also to know who they are related to, should they meet them later in life.

Mrs Hewitt, who was a state ward and did not know her own parents, also wanted to shield her children from the same trauma she experienced.

Nonetheless, she says, "it's a great way to have a family".

Melbourne IVF chairman John McBain has sympathy for people who want to find their donor parents and cannot. But, while he believes offspring should be able to get information about donors, it should not be a "two-way street". He says if offspring first learn of their origins from the donor contacting them it would be too traumatic and disruptive to families.



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