When sperm donation first took off in the U.S. in the 1980s, the typical medical advice was to keep it a secret from the kids it helped create. “Doctors were saying to parents, ‘Just pretend that this donor insemination didn’t happen,’” says Susan Golombok, who’s been studying modern methods of family formation for more than 40 years. Though there were no formal guidelines, the conventional wisdom surrounding families built with the help of donor genetics—which later came to include egg donation and surrogacy—was that the knowledge could confuse or even psychologically harm them.
Back then, Golombok, now professor emerita of family research at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., wondered how children who were told they’d been born with help from a donor fared in comparison to those whose families kept it a secret. “We couldn’t do that research, because fewer than 10% of parents had told their children that they’ve been conceived by sperm donation,” Golombok says.
Now, after decades of changing science and convention, Golombok has published the first-ever longitudinal study looking at personal and familial outcomes for those born via sperm donation, egg donation, and surrogacy: a group of interventions known as third-party assisted reproductive technology, or ART. The results show that being open with these children about their genetic and gestational origins—particularly before the child is seven—has clear benefits for the whole family.
These findings are hardly surprising to anyone who’s read the many recent memoirs and essays (including Dani Shapiro’s Inheritance and Carmen Rita Wong’s Why Didn’t You Tell Me?) from people who’ve uncovered secrets surrounding their conception in adulthood. The shame and privacy that kept parents of donor-conceived children from sharing the truth have in more recent years been condemned as damaging by scientific experts and advocates alike. But the new conventions of transparency have, until now, had little scientific evidence to back them up.
Golombok’s study, published Apr. 12 in the journal Developmental Psychology, contains data collected from more than 100 families in the U.K. over the course of 20 years, half of whom had used sperm donation, egg donation, and/or surrogacy, which in Europe still most often involves using a surrogate’s egg. All families had children born between 1999 and 2001, and roughly half of the ART families told researchers at the outset that they planned to tell their children, if they hadn’t already.
After two decades of conducting in-depth interviews with the families and kids’ teachers, and viewing footage of the parents and children interacting, the researchers found no universal differences between the quality of relationships in families formed using ART and those formed via natural conception.
But within the groups of ART families, differences emerged based on how parents handled the information.
Across all three groups, disclosure at any age was beneficial, but age seven appeared to be the cutoff point by which children benefited the most from hearing about their donor origins. At age 20, 50% of participants who had been told after age seven that they were donor-conceived reported problems in family relationships, compared to 12.5% of participants who’d been told before age seven. Their mothers’ responses showed similar patterns. Because these families were recruited at random from donation registries, the researchers were able to control for other factors that influence family dynamics.
Being told even younger than age seven seemed to be better still. Regardless of what parents had originally planned, most ended up telling their children before age four, which earlier studies in the project found to go well in almost every case. In multiple studies, “we’ve found significant effects related to the age of telling,” says Golombok. “Those who have been told as young children were much happier and much more accepting of their conception.”
A lot of a family’s dynamic also depends on how the parents feel about having conceived using ART. Many parents who use donors or surrogates carry insecurities about their own parental legitimacy or future relationship with their children. Parents who wait a long time to tell their child—or don’t tell them at all—aren’t necessarily trying to protect their kid, says Laura High, a stand-up comedian who was conceived with donor sperm and advocates for the donor-conceived community. “It’s coming from an insecurity with their own parenting.” Golombok found that parents who had used an egg donor were more than twice as likely as those who had used donor sperm to tell their children about their conception—a difference that in part reflects stigmas around male infertility. Concepts of motherhood also play a big role. Golombok found in her work that mothers of genetically unrelated children often reported negative family dynamics years later, even when their own children didn’t. Disclosure and open communication between parents and children can ease these anxieties, Golombok found.
As soon as they’re able to understand, “I absolutely think you’ve got to tell your child,” says High. “As a parent, you have to lead the conversation” and make it clear that no curiosity from the child is off-limits. Children can handle questions like “Do you want to talk to your siblings? Do you want to learn more about your other ethnicity? Do you want to talk to your donor? Do you have questions about your donor?” she says.
One argument High has heard many times from parents who don’t want to tell their children about their donor conception is “We’re a family. Genetics don’t matter,” she says. “But genetics obviously matter to a recipient’s parent, because that’s why they chose donor conception—as a way to make a family with at least one biological tie to this child.”
“What I have watched in donor-conceived children is that the more you ignore it and downplay it, the more traumatizing and important it becomes,” says High.
While Golombok’s study didn’t look extensively at whether information about the donor was shared with children, that’s the next level of transparency that many advocates want. High’s hope is that findings like these can help make the case for more transparency and rights for donor-conceived children. In the U.K., Golombok is closely watching what happens when one such policy takes full effect. Double-blind anonymous donation—in which agencies such as sperm and egg banks keep the identities of a donor and a recipient family permanently secret from one another—hasn’t been allowed there since 2005, when a regulatory change was made that would allow any donor-conceived person to request their donor’s name and information when they turn 18.
“This year, the first children will turn 18,” Golombok says, “and we’re waiting with bated breath.”
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