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Donor egg and sperm children: What should parents tell them about their origins?

Recently I attended a fascinating workshop called ‘Mothers and Fathers of Invention’ facilitated by the skilled and highly knowledgable Cape Town based clinical psychologist, Diane Sandler, and based on the work of Ken Corbett and Diane Ehrensaft. Cal Volks – an experienced and wise counsellor for infertility and assisted reproduction at HART in Cape Town – also presented at the workshop.

As a group of psychotherapists, we discussed in detail how parents should talk to their children about having been born from donor eggs and/or donor sperm. What to say and when to say it? The overwhelming message from Cal and Diane – backed up by research – was that parents should tell the truth to their children from as early as possible – preferably from around 3 years of age. The only exceptions to this are when there is severe developmental delay, when there is a crisis or serious illness or when there is a real threat of harm to the child if the truth was told.

We have a responsibility towards donor children to help them to make sense of their history and the story of their conception. They often feel as though there is a piece of themselves missing – an essential part of their identity. They grow up with particular questions in their mind, such as

Am I different?

To whom do I belong?

Who am I and from where did I come?

Many donor children will never know who the person was that shared his or her genes to give them life. Their parents need to help them to grapple with that fact. Perhaps the child and her parents will need to grieve or to feel the loss and hopefully at some point make peace with it. But, Diane Sandler reminds us that all children – and adults too – from time to time have unanswerable questions of various kinds, as well as losses and hardships. Everyone faces challenges whilst growing up. The specific challenges facing donor children should be engaged with and related to with honesty, openness and thoughtfulness.

We live in a new world that has made miracles possible through science. Without donor eggs and sperm and highly advanced assisted reproductive technology, many children today would never have been born. For the most part, ‘Babies in Mind’ is supportive of the use of donor eggs and sperm, as long as the parents are given all the help they need to support their donor children when they are confused and troubled by their origins and as long as there was a careful, ethical process of assessment before conception – which is the case at HART clinic in Cape Town. Thanks to the men and women who are willing to take some risks and donate their eggs and sperm, babies are being born to people who would not otherwise have been parents. These babies are growing up to be as ‘normal’ as any of us.

Guidelines for parents

  • establish what and how much you feel comfortable saying to your child about her conception – as long as it is the truth
  • make sure that the same message is being given by the other caregivers in your child’s life
  • convey the information to your child in language she can understand that ‘we made you with the help of someone else’
  • don’t reduce your child’s genetic history to an ‘egg’ or a ‘sperm’ without making it clear that there was a person to whom that egg/sperm belonged
  • make sure the child understands that there was another human being involved in the conception – not just an egg or a seed that came out of nowhere
  • explain how conception happens, keeping it age-appropriate
  • if the donor was anonymous, give the child some information about who the person was (if possible) so that she has some idea about the missing person in her life-story
  • tell the story over and over during the years of childhood so that in the different stages of development your child is helped to think through and process the information about her identity
  • listen to what your child says about her conception and try to ascertain how she feels about it, how it is effecting her and how her feelings change over time
  • try to understand her unique perspective on it and respond to her needs accordingly
  • don’t deny to yourself or to your child that she was created with the help of someone who donated an egg or sperm – don’t pretend that it never happened
  • don’t give false, idealised or magical explanations for how she was conceived
  • make sure that your child hears about her conception from you before she hears about it from anyone else
  • understand that your child will probably be curious and when she is older she may want to search for the person who donated the egg or sperm. In certain countries this is allowed, but in others (like South Africa) it is not possible

For a consultation with Diane Sandler, phone (27) 21 6857325. For more about ‘Babies in Mind’ visit, follow us on Facebook or sign up for our newsletter. To download the new, revised edition of ‘Babies in Mind’ visit the Amazon or Apple or Barnes & Noble bookstores.

Please share with us your questions and thoughts about the experience of children of donor eggs and sperm.


One comment
  1. Randy Moredock

    This is an intriguing topic to which I have not been exposed. However, if I may generalize from my experience with adopted children, it appears that age 3 might be too early to inform children about their birth origins. I suggest this because I find it hard to believe that children that young could grasp the notion of artificial insemination use of non-maternal eggs. However, admittedly, child development is not my area of specialty.
    From my reading about adoption dynamics and work with adopted clients, it appears that children are best ready to receive the information when they begin to “naturally” express interest in reproduction and start to ask questions about “Where I come from.” It is then that they can be told that they came to be in a “special” way, out of love, and so forth. Assumedly, their curiosity would be satisfied by basic information, and more can be added, as their questions about their identities require more information.
    All that said, I would be intrigued to learn more from you given your apparent expertise in the area. I have no doubt that such clients will be seen more often in our practices as the technology expands, becomes more affordable, and is increasingly utilized by both heterosexual and same-sex couples. I would pose three questions:
    1. Is there any protocol for how much information should be provided by a donor in terms of personal background and/or medical history?
    2. What is the role, if any, lawyers play in the process?
    3. Are there any books, which could be used in helping children of all ages understand the process?

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