On a quiet summer evening in Brighton, Alison Pike was reading to her 9-year-old son the Roald Dahl children’s classic, Danny, Champion of the World—perhaps the most flattering portrayal of fatherhood in literature. Harry turned thoughtfully to his mother.
“Sometimes I wish I had a dad,” he said, then paused. “But I’d rather have two mums.”
Pike and her partner have each given birth to one of their sons, both using the same donor’s sperm, so their children are biological half-brothers.
“He knows that some nice man donated his seed so that we could have these babies. I had to have IVF several times, and for some reason he’s very proud of the fact that this means he must have cost a lot of money,” says Pike. “He’s decided this makes him superior to his brother.”
Same sex couples are required by circumstance to tell their children how they came to be. It’s quite clear they did not come into parenthood in a traditional way. But many straight couples—especially in the UK—use donors and never tell their children. In fact, there seems to be a stark cultural disconnect across the Atlantic Ocean about whether to acknowledge a child’s genetic origins.
Susan Golombok, who leads Cambridge University’s Centre for Family Research, found that only 8.5% of parents in the UK who used donor insemination have told their children about it. In families who use egg donation, rates are even lower. While nearly two-thirds have disclosed the egg donation to a friend or family member, none in Golombok’s study have told their children. What’s more, 47% have no intention of ever telling their child. Only 29% have a clear intention to tell their child in the future, on the basis that he or she has a right to know, and to avoid them finding out from someone else.
Reasons for secrecy vary. Some parents feel that keeping the information from the child will in some way protect the child or the mother. Many feel there is no need to tell, and they say things like, “I first thought I would tell him, but as time’s going on, you sort of forget about what has happened.”
The picture in the United States is very different. Most existing gamete donation offspring were born during a time when non-disclosure was still the recommended best practice, but the American Society for Reproductive Medicine now unequivocally recommends disclosure to the child in all cases—early disclosure, at that. About 10,000 children are born via egg donation alone every year, and 78% of US couples now intend to tell their children, most of them choosing six years old as the appropriate time frame.
Are secrets in families wrong? Do children have an inherent right to know their genetic origins? Belgian bioethicist Guido Pennings questions this assertion, pointing out that such a right would also dictate routine paternity testing for all babies at birth, given the significant rate of misattributed paternity in the general population. He also argues research does not support widespread directives to tell children that half of their genes came from a donor. Nor does it warrant advice to disclose it in early childhood.
“The evidence is that there is no difference in quality of life, parent-child relations, and so on. The findings of these papers say there is no difference, and in the recommendations they say it’s better to tell the child. So just a page further on, they seem to have forgotten what their result was,” says Pennings. He speculates that researchers are expressing as scientific a moral conviction that it’s wrong to lie to children.
Golombok, whose research papers were among those Pennings references, disputes his conclusions and defends her longitudinal research. She asserts that children who are told about their donor conception when they are in preschool have better later relationships with their mothers.
“I felt very strongly that Guido cherry-picked bits of my research that made his case, and it’s not what my research concludes. It’s certainly not what I conclude,” says Golombok.
Children who are told about their donor are less likely to seek them out in adulthood if they grew up with two parents, rather than one. When they do, it is more out of curiosity than to look for someone to take on a parental role.
“It isn’t like they’ve been given up. It’s not like looking for your birth mother,” says Alison Pike.
Never in history have children had so many kinds of origin stories, but those stories often go untold. Some children seek out their donors. Others are content with what they know. But for adults on both sides of the ocean who were conceived with donor assistance, most will never know there’s someone to look for.
Image: Wikimedia Commons