Any time we create families in any way outside the norm, there is inevitably a lot of hand wringing about what this does to kids and families. Donor conception (sperm donation and egg donation) and the use of surrogates is becoming increasingly more common, so how are these families doing?

A look at how donor-conceived and surrogate children and their families are doing.

Much of the research on donor-conceived families or families formed through surrogacy has focused on families with younger kids. But we all know that the teen years are when the parenting rubber meets the road. I have been following a longitudinal study by Dr. Susan Golombok on 87 donor-conceived families (32 donor insemination families, 27 egg donation families, and 28 surrogacy families) compared with 54 families formed through natural conception. The latest phase of the research studies the quality of parent-adolescent relationships and adolescent adjustment as the children are now 14.

Some researchers hypothesized in the past that the lack of genetic and/or gestational connection would negatively impact family functioning.

The results of this study found that families formed through donor conception and surrogacy did not differ from natural conception families when the children reached age 14. These families show positive mother-adolescent relationships and well-adjusted adolescents. 

One theory about why these families are showing such high functioning is that these mothers had worked very hard to have children and thus were highly invested in being a parent.

One interesting finding was that families formed through surrogacy had more positive relationships than the gamete donation families. The mothers in surrogacy families showed less negative parenting and reported greater acceptance of their adolescent children and fewer problems in family relationships as a whole.

These findings are unexpected, given that surrogacy is considered to be the most controversial form of reproductive donation and has been assumed to carry the greatest psychological risks; not only are the children relinquished by the woman who gave birth to them but also negative societal attitudes toward surrogacy prevail.

The researchers noted that this result could have been influenced by the fact that 36% of the mothers through surrogacy had used their eggs to create the pregnancy and thus were genetically related to their children.

Another interesting finding was that although all the donor-conceived families showed high levels of maternal acceptance and family functioning, some differences were noted between those families created through donor sperm vs. donor egg. Families formed by donor egg had less positive relationships between mothers and adolescents than in families form through donor sperm. Importantly, these differences were identified not only from the mothers’ reports but also from the adolescents’ statements, which gives more weight to the findings.

As a whole, the adolescents, regardless of conception through donor egg, sperm or surrogacy, showed high levels of psychological adjustment.

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Wondering How to Talk with Kids about Donor Conception?

It is important to note that this wasn’t a large study, but few large studies exist on donor-conceived families, especially those that follow families through the years.

What Did the Youth Have to Say

As part of this study, 44 fourteen-year-olds were interviewed, all of whom were told of their conception in childhood. Twenty-two had been conceived via surrogacy, 13 via egg donation, and nine via sperm donation.

Adolescents were found to feel positive (n = 7), indifferent (n = 32) or ambivalent (n = 5) about their conception. Amongst adolescents not in contact with the surrogate or donor, most were interested (n = 16) in the surrogate or donor, and others were ambivalent (n = 4), or not interested (n = 6) in them. Adolescents in contact with the surrogate or donor expressed positive (n = 14), ambivalent (n = 1) or negative (n = 1) feelings about them.

This supports other research we’ve reported on, that the teens conceived by donor conception and surrogacy are doing well.

Are these findings what you thought they would be?

Image credit: NastyaSensei