Donor-conceived adults: a lifelong search for identity
Many adults conceived through anonymous sperm donation feel a sense of anger, loss and betrayal. Three of them talk about their quest to learn their origins
Many donor-conceived people grow up not knowing that “daddy” is not their biological father. Photograph: iStockphoto
Alana Newman lives in Louisiana with her husband and young children. Having a family has made her all the more aware of the troubling circumstances of her own arrival into the world.
Her birth circumstances, she says, made many people happy: the sperm donor, the agency who made it possible and the recipient. It did not make Newman happy.
Newman’s father was an anonymous sperm donor. Her “social” father (a term she and some other donor-conceived people use) was infertile. He and her mother first adopted a girl from Asia, but when an attempt to adopt a second child failed they chose to have a child through sperm donation.
When Newman was eight her parents divorced. Her “social father” disappeared from her life but kept in touch with his adopted child. Newman describes this as the man’s “symmetrical” relationship with his adopted daughter, who is equally related (or unrelated) to both parents. Newman, on the other hand, is “more” her mother’s child.
Newman’s parents never hid her origins from her. They told her she should be proud, that the greatest gift anyone can give is life. But like any “gift” from an anonymous benefactor, it can leave a person wondering forever who that person was.
Newman’s identity-searching began in her teens. She read everything she could find on the subject. She began to have behavioural problems and slipped from being a gifted student to failing at school.
When she told people her father was a sperm donor it made them uncomfortable – an indication, she feels, that the practice is instinctively wrong.
At 20, as a rebuke against anonymity, she donated her own eggs. She was mixed up, torn between the script that it is an altruistic deed to give the gift of life and her visceral feeling that it was wrong to give away your potential child. So she did what seemed the best compromise and made herself available as an identifiable egg donor, receiving $8,000 for each of the two cycles.
Newman challenged her mother a lot in these years, questioning her motives. Her mother would ask: “Do you wish you didn’t exist?” Eventually, though, her mother agreed to help her try to trace her father.
When they discovered he was of Polish descent, Newman set off for Poland. She wanted to walk in the footsteps, she says, of the people she came from.
She felt a connection, but she was still angry. She says she looks eastern European, so people would approach her speaking Polish, thinking she was local.
She felt a giant, impenetrable wall had been built intentionally by adults and doctors all those years ago, before she had any say, a wall that prevented her from meeting her family.
Eventually Newman found her father and wrote to him. When he was “hostile” and wanted no contact with her, she was devastated. She had hoped “that he would be a wonderful person with an interest in me”.
Today, Newman is an activist against anonymity of donors. In 2011 she founded Anonymous Us, an online forum for donor-conceived people to share their stories about third-party reproduction.
Newman knows there are donor-conceived adults who say they have no problem with their situation, but there are many more who are unhappy and struggle with their identity.
Most other activists she has encountered were raised not knowing how they were conceived, or were only told as adults. Many guessed, some in their early years.
In Europe similar organisations, many under the umbrella of Donor Offspring Europe, have sprung up over the past decade, as donor-conceived children come of age. These organisations seek a ban on anonymous donation and often on third-party reproduction in general.
In Ireland there is no equivalent organisation, but the Adoption Rights Alliance has campaigned on this, among other issues.
Another story comes from England. Dr Joanna Rose was eight when the man she called “daddy” told her he was not her father. He was infertile; her mother had had two children using different sperm donors.
Rose says she has carried a sense of loss and anger all her life. She spent 20 years trying to find her father, before bringing her case to the High Court in 2002. It led to a ban on donor anonymity in the UK in 2005. Rose, however, got no apology, reparation or reunion with her genetic family.
Following a “tip-off”, Rose now has a good idea who her father may be: a prolific donor in London clinics at the time of her conception. She resembles him a lot. Her attempts to contact him met with legal threats.
Stephanie Raeymaekers, a triplet born in 1979, was one of the first donor-conceived people in Belgium to speak publicly about and against donor conception. At 25, as a result of an indiscreet remark, she and her siblings discovered their father was an anonymous donor and not the man who had reared them.
In 2012 she founded Donorkinderen, a website and blog to provide a platform for other donor-conceived adults, many of whom she says are reluctant to speak openly – afraid to upset their families or be stigmatised.
Last year, after DNA tests, the triplets discovered their mother had been impregnated by a “sperm cocktail”. Her brother is her full brother but her sister has a different father. It was another profound loss, she says.
A visit to a surrogacy fair in Brussels brought her to the view, one shared by Alana Newman and other donor-conceived adults, that third-party reproduction is a form of child-trafficking, promoted, along with surrogacy, by a billion-dollar industry.
Of the father, whose name she still does not know, she says: “He is half of me. Till the day I die I will look for him.”
- Emma O'Friel is graduate in psychological science