Time to Break the News to Your Children

Should children be told they were conceived by sperm or egg donation?

“Go home, have sex and forget about it. That’s what doctors used to tell infertile couples in the early days of donor insemination. Donors, too, were assumed to want, and were provided with, total anonymity as a condition for their donation. In some instances, no records of the event – little less non-identifying information about the donor – were kept.

Many Australians would be matter of fact about donor insemination as a means of creating a family, but stigma still attaches to the procedure. Persistent confusion between male fertility and potency, and the insistence of critics that it constitutes infidelity and encourages an addiction to masturbation is to blame. It also goes some way towards explaining why the vast majority of the approximately 600 Australian children born every year from donor sperm, or more rarely eggs or embryos, are ignorant of their birth origins. Studies suggest that only about 10% of such children know they are donor-conceived, and that only 20 to 50% of parents plan to let the cat out of the bag at some point in the future.

The cost of such secrecy is unclear. A handful of mental health professionals contend that telling traumatises children by disturbing their identity and their relationship with their social father, and that the rights of parents to decide if and when to tell ought to be respected. Most health professionals, however, decry family secrets as destructive and concur with a vocal group of donor-conceived children that knowledge of one’s genetic origins and related health information is a human right. They also point to the damage that can be caused by accidental disclosure, which can often be ill timed (adolescence appears to be a bad time to find out) and poorly executed. Melbourne University researcher Maggie Kirkman tells of donor-conceived adults who have had their mothers shout “anyway, he’s not really your father” during an argument, or who recall twigging in biology class that their brown eyes couldn’t have come from the mating of their two blue-eyed parents. Relatives and family friends are also a significant disclosure risk because while few parents tell their offspring, 60% have confided in another person: a sympathetic friend or maybe their mother. Such parental confidants, as Kirman sagely notes, “can be expected to pass on the information, which may eventually reach the ear of the [donor-conceived] child or adult.”

The proliferation of genetic tests available to Australians as part of routine healthcare, and changes to legal regimes in many jurisdictions including the UK, Sweden, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Victoria, also increase the risk that donor-conceived children will stumble across the truth. In July, the first crop of donor-conceived children covered by 1988 Victorian legislation that controversially entitles anonymous donors to set in train processes that will lead their biological child to become aware that they were conceived by donor gametes, turn 18.

While we may not agree with all the reasons parents have for delaying or deciding against disclosure, some may engender our sympathy. Parents fear their child will be distressed to discover a lack of genetic link with one or both of them, particularly when, as is the case for some children, information about the donor is scant. The non-biological parent – usually the father – may worry his child will love him less when she learns there is no biological link, or that others will see the family as less than “normal”. And some parents are simply so uncomfortable talking about sex, that the prospect of having to explain to their little ones the more complex reproductive arrangements that prevailed in their situation daunt them into silence.

In most Western countries, including Australia, the law tends to allow parents to make their own decisions – according to their own values – about what is in the best interests of their offspring. The only exception is when the courts are convinced the parent’s decision is putting their child’s health and safety at risk. By allowing donors to set in train processes that will reveal to a child that he or she is donor-conceived, the State government has asserted what it believes is in a child’s best interests, and forced the hand of parents of donor-conceived children in the direction of telling. Whether parental denial of knowledge about genetic origins really does threaten a child’s health and safety to a degree that such intervention is justified, or whether it wrongly establishes donor-conceived families as second-class ones, is a matter for debate.

The reality for parents of donor-conceived children, however, is that changing social, medical realities make secret keeping an increasingly risky proposition. Victorian parents must be mindful that July is around the corner. If their child is among the first crop of donor-conceived kids affected by Victoria’s prevailing legal regime, the time to tell is now.

The Infertility Treatment Authority (ITA) administers the regulation of infertility treatment in Victoria. The ITA offers information and support to parents deciding if, when and how to tell children the full story of their conception. More information about telling can be found at www.ita.org.au.

Publication history

Time to Break the News to Your Children  The Age