I recently attended the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA)’s twilight seminar The Genie is out of the bottle: DNA testing and the end of donor anonymity to hear about the experiences of donor-conceived people, and donors, from times gone by. Specifically, about donor conception in 30-40 years ago when donor conception was often shrouded in secrecy and shame, and the impact that consumer DNA testing services are having on donor conception. Three donor-conceived people (DCP’s) now adults, spoke of their experiences, of finding out they were donor-conceived, and tracking down their donors. As you can probably guess, all three experiences involved anonymous sperm donation with a clinic-recruited donor.

Kate Bourne, Donor Conception Counsellor at VARTA, gave us an overview of what we know about donor-conception and consumer DNA testing in 2019. Approximately 37% of donor-conceived adults are discovering their donor heritage via DNA testing. That’s quite extraordinary – one in three donor-conceived adults have not been told of their donor heritage until they undergo a consumer DNA test.

Donor-conceived person and so-called ‘DNA Detective’ Rose Overberg talked about her experience of searching for her donor and assisting other DCPs find theirs. In her words – ‘we all deserve to know where we come from.’ Unfortunately when DCPs find out about their donor conception when it has been kept a secret, they ‘become the gatekeepers to [their] parent’s secrets’ when they have to maintain the secrecy for the sake of others. This includes, for example, finding someone they share DNA with and not being able to share that information with them.

What are the impacts of finding out you are donor-conceived at a later age and through DNA testing? One DCP at the VARTA seminar talked about questioning her relationship with her father, and feeling confronted with the fact that she’s not genetically related to half her family. Another DCP commented that ‘DCPs are only babies for a very short while. Being donor conceived holds life-long implications.’

You can see the presentations at the link above. The messages were clear from all speakers – the days of strictly anonymous donation are long-gone. If DCPs are not told of their donor heritage and conception, they will likely find out and often by accident or without hearing it from their parents. Being told from a young age about their donor heritage and having access to information is important for a DCP’s identity and sense of self. Keeping donor conception a secret can be harmful and is not in the best interests of DCPs.

Unfortunately, there are places in the world where anonymous donors are not only available, but are the norm. When children born through these arrangements grow up and want information about their donor or other donor-conceived half-siblings, they may hit dead ends or rely on DNA testing. DCPs are telling us now that this impacts on their emotional well-being and sense of identity.

How can we get donor conception right? Here’s some ideas:

  1. Listen to the experiences of donor conceived people, including Hayley, who spoke to me for the Podcast.
  2. Use a known donor or an Australian clinic-recruited donor whose information is available to the DCP.
  3. Utilise a donor who has adhered to family limits. Unfortunately, donors from outside Australia have often donated many times resulting in 100+ DCPs. Listen to Gail Pascoe on the Podcast and her experience of using a donor.
  4. If you are seeking a donor overseas, insist on options involving a known donor. A ‘known’ donor does not have to be someone close to you but can be someone who is willing to be known to you and to the child/ren and be available for contact in the future.
  5. Avoid donor programs that involve strictly anonymous donors and regulations.
  6. Research donor conception, listen to Podcast interviews with people involved in the donor community, and read more about donor conception before making a decision.
  7. Tell your child/ren of their donor conception from a young age. VARTA provides resources and advice to donors and recipients about sharing the information with children. Celebrate the story and help your child/ren celebrate their donor heritage. If it is shared with love and openness, it will be a positive experience for the child/ren and won’t be a source of shame.

Finally, remember that the interests of children are always paramount. It can be hard to focus on a child’s interests when they don’t yet exist, and when we are experiencing baby lust. But, as one DCP advised, ‘celebrate the connections, don’t fear them or create shame. These people are pivotal to who we are.’ Celebrate your donor and their part in helping you grow your family.

If you are interested in having a Donor Agreement, or researching surrogacy options, you can book in for a consult with Sarah below. If you are entering a donor arrangement, you may like to consider setting expectations with your donor.

Hi! I’m Sarah Jefford (she/her). I’m a family creation lawyer, practising in surrogacy and donor conception arrangements. I’m an IVF mum, an egg donor and a traditional surrogate, and I delivered a baby for two dads in 2018

I advocate for positive, best practice surrogacy arrangements within Australia, and provide support and education to help intended parents make informed decisions when pursuing overseas surrogacy.

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