Should you be told if your father was a sperm donor?
As a new study questions the value of disclosing the truth about egg and sperm donation, Kate Graham explores whether honesty is always the best policy
I t was a Sunday afternoon in August 2008 when Jess’s mother broke the news. ‘She just said to me, “There’s something I need to tell you,”’ Jess, now 37 and a mother of two, recalls.
‘She was tearful and shaking. A pit of fear opened in my stomach and everything stopped. All I could think was that she was going to die.’
Moving to sit beside her, the next words Jess heard were the last she was expecting. ‘She said, “Your dad isn’t your real dad.” I breathed a huge sigh of relief. My first thought was that she’d had an affair but
I just sat there in relief and shock. Then, as we hugged, she told me the story.’
When Jackie became pregnant with Jess, it was kept secret that it was the result of a sperm donation, arranged through a London IVF clinic. (Jackie and her husband had been unable to conceive without this.)
‘Mum was scared about how I would react. Would I never speak to her again? But while I was hearing something I’d never dreamt of, I didn’t cry. It was almost like an out-of-body experience. I just accepted it.’
Her mother had been moved to reveal the truth after hearing a radio programme on donor conception. But Jess wanted to know why she had kept it a secret for so long. ‘Mum told me that the doctors advised her not to tell anyone, not even her GP. I didn’t blame her then – and I still don’t. She followed the advice she was given, as anyone would.’
It’s advice you’d be unlikely to hear from a doctor today. Since UK law changed
13 years ago, egg and sperm donors can’t be anonymous: all children conceived by donor after 1 April 2005 will have the right to know their donor’s name (and other details such as their medical history) when they reach 18. But while the law is clear, for families it’s far harder to navigate. While a survey by support group We Are Donor Conceived found that the vast majority of the public believe it’s wrong to hide the truth from these children, nothing forces parents to tell them. And a small recent study by Cambridge academics found that, in fact, about half the children conceived by egg donation and nearly three quarters of those conceived by donor sperm had not been told by the age of seven. The main reason their parents gave was that there was ‘no need to tell’, followed by a desire to ‘protect’ their child. Another recent study at Ghent University concluded that there’s no proven benefit to the child’s psychological well-being (it focused solely on that, rather than ethical concerns).
It’s a conclusion that flies in the face of our increasingly open culture, and one that infuriates Jess. She didn’t realise how lucky she was until she met other donor-conceived adults at a support group. ‘Many found out in terrible circumstances, such as on someone’s deathbed. Mum and I just talked about it. No dramatics, no EastEnders moment. I’m not angry or bitter that I didn’t know sooner, but I’m very glad I know now,’ she says.
‘How can you possibly say people don’t need to know the truth? That’s taking away someone’s right to know their background, their medical history, everything.’
Sarah*, 38, who lives with her husband and
Right Jackie holding a two-day-old Jess. Below Jackie and Jess on Jess’s wedding day