To Know or Not to Know with Donor Egg or Sperm
I was consulting with a couple last month about the choices there were facing in their fertility treatment. They had reached the point where their options were using donor egg with IVF, using donated embryos, or adoption. During our discussion about using donor egg, I mentioned that one of the decisions they would have to make was whether to use an identified donor—meaning an egg donor who had agreed to provide identifying information and was open to future contact. The woman said that she absolutely didn’t want to know any identifying information about the donor because “I want to be my child’s only mother.” Oh, if only third party reproduction were so simple.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m very clear that the woman who raises the child is 100% the mother. No question about it. But with donor egg and embryo, and with adoption, like it or not, there is always the presence of another. With adoption, we call this woman a mother—birth mother or first mother. Not so with donor egg. The egg donor in known as a donor—neither she nor the intended parents view her as a mother in any way. So why should you even consider getting information about this person to allow contact in later life?
Over Father’s Day, the New York Times ran an op-ed by a young man that was conceived by donor sperm. Although he doesn’t speak for the general universe of donor conceived kids any more than one essay by an adult adoptees speaks for the universe of adopted persons or one infertility patient’s experience can be generalized to all infertility patients, he does represent one view. The first generation of children conceived by donor gametes (in this case sperm) are of the age now to be able to tell us what it’s like from their perspective. I think we should listen.
“My mom’s decision [to conceive as a single woman with donor sperm] intrigued many people. Some saw it as a triumph of female self-sufficiency. But others, particularly her close friends and family, were shocked. “You can’t have a baby without a man!” they would gasp. It turns out, of course, you can, and pretty easily. The harder part, at least for that baby as he grows older, is the mystery of who that man was. Or is.
The emotional and developmental deficits that stem from an ignorance of one’s origins are still largely ignored. I understand why fertility centers chose to keep sperm donation anonymous. They were attempting to prevent extra chaos, like custody battles, intrusion upon happy families (on either party’s side), mothers showing up on donors’ doorsteps with homely, misbegotten children with runny noses and untied shoelaces to beg for child support. But babies born of the procedure in the future should have the right to know who their donors are, and even have some contact with them. Sperm donors need to realize that they are fathers. It’s entirely reasonable, and yet the void that many children and young adults born from artificial insemination experience from simply not knowing transcends reason. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the infinite possibilities, by the reality that my father could be anywhere: in the neighboring lane of traffic on a Friday during rush hour, behind me in line at the bank or the pharmacy, or even changing the oil in my car after many weeks of mechanical neglect.
I am sometimes at such a petrifying loss for words or emotions that make sense that I can only feel astonished by the fact that he could be anyone.”
The research has yet to be done on the impact of anonymity on children conceived through donor egg. Perhaps it will be different for them. Most children conceived through donor sperm (at least those who have been told) are children of single women, many of whom were not raised with a dad. It is possible that some of their longing to know about their donor, is the longing for a nonexistent father, rather than simply a desire for biological information. The vast majority of children conceived through donor egg are being raised by a mother, so perhaps the longing for information won’t be there. But perhaps it will be the same.
I think the desire for more information is driven by many factors—not the least of which is the personality and temperament of the child. It is certainly possible that children conceived through donor egg will not follow the pattern that we’ve seen with adopted children and donor sperm conceived children, but why run the risk? Maybe your child will never want or need this information, but what if they do? Why not be prepared just in case?
I suspect that the woman I spoke with last month was afraid that identifying information about this woman who provided the seed from which her child would grow, would somehow diminish her role as the “real” mother. She needn’t worry. A real mom is the one who wipes noses, establishes rules, and worries about what needs to be worried about. She is the one who is there to experience the big and little everyday wonders. DNA has little to do with any of that.
Image credit: Steve V.