By fertility advocate Jennifer Jay Palumbo
Recently, I moderated a webinar on donor conception. It was there that I had the pleasure of connecting with Hayley. The more she spoke, the more I learned about her very unique relationship with third-party reproduction.
Donor conception means that eggs, sperm, or embryos or both eggs and sperm from donors are used to help with conception when one or both partners in a heterosexual couple are infertile. It can also help families without a male partner, lesbian couples, or same-sex male couples.
Hayley is the non-genetic parent to sperm donor-conceived twins. In addition, while she had always known she was conceived through the help of in-vitro fertilization, it was only in recent years that Hayley discovered that she was also donor-conceived.
Since then, Hayley has been sharing her journey and perspective. She explores what it feels like to be donor-conceived and how to speak to your children about their birth narrative.
My Interview With Hayley
JJP: What did you know for the majority of your life – that you were an IVF baby?
HDK: “At around 12 years of age, my parents sat me down for a ‘talk’ I remember it being a very vivid event. I recall thinking they were going to tell me I was adopted – But they proceeded to bring out newspaper articles about my ‘test-tube birth,’ one of which included a photo of me being cradled by my dad. So I knew from a young age that I was an ‘IVF baby,’ but that was all.”
JJP: When did you find out that whole truth about your conception?
HDK: “In a family argument in 2015. It was suggested by a family member that my dad wasn’t my biological father. I later did a paternity test with my dad that came back certain we were not genetically related.”
JJP: Was this before or after you had your children? Before. I found out in 2015, and we had twins in 2017. How was it dealing with this news, and what has helped you process it?
HDK: “It was totally life-altering. It was like nothing had changed, but everything had changed. I remember looking in the mirror and not knowing what face was looking back at me – at the age of 32, you think you know who you are, but all of a sudden, your life narrative is entirely different.
My wife was a huge support, as were several online donor-conceived support groups. Eventually, DNA testing and locating my biological father helped me heal. It felt like I had found the missing piece when I saw his photograph for the first time. It has also helped to speak with other donor-conceived people and learn about their experiences. I think, like any topic, you can feel less alone if there are others out there going through what you have.”
JJP: Can you give me a quick overview of your own family-building journey that led you to two beautiful daughters?
HDK: “We have boy and girl twins. It was important to me to ensure that we used a donor with an open ID at a minimum. I wanted to make sure that any children we had would have access to identifying information of their biological father – information that wasn’t afforded to me when I was created using a fully anonymous donor.
When starting our own family, we considered a known birth donor, but we had limited options! One guy we had in mind had several health conditions; another didn’t work out. Being in a same-sex relationship, my wife and I were also concerned about any legal implications of using a known donor. There was not a lot of information around in 2016 about donor choices or options, so our fertility clinic led us. We decided our best option was to use an Open ID at 18 donors via a sperm bank. My wife had a poor egg reserve, so we went straight to IVF, and in 2017 we welcomed our boy/girl twins into the world.”
JJP: Speaking as both donor-conceived and the parent of donor-conceived children, what advice do you have for those looking to build their families with the help of donor eggs, donor sperm, or donor embryos?
HDK: “My main advice is to look at ALL of your options when selecting a donor. There are some really good resources about the types of donors. Also, there are info resources that weren’t available a few years ago. Finally, if using a sperm/egg bank, ask questions about the donor! For example, where are they being used? , what countries? , what are the sibling /family limits per donor, etc. These are all really important factors.
My advice would be to work with a known birth donor if possible (i.e., a friend, but if going down this route, make sure you seek legal advice before doing so) or an open ID donor from a bank that strictly limits family numbers to 10 or less.
If you are blessed with a pregnancy and the birth of a baby, be open and honest with your child about their conception story. Embrace it, talk about it often and work towards being comfortable.”
JJP: And do you have any words of wisdom for those who were donor-conceived?
HDK: “I have learned from talking with hundreds of donor-conceived individuals over the last few years that no one story is the same. We may share similar experiences, but we are all unique in our perspectives. It’s helped me a great deal to listen to others’ stories and see how they have navigated their path. There are good, bad, and (downright) ugly donor-conceived stories out there, but they all have a place and have helped me come to terms with finding out late in life that I was donor-conceived.”
JJP: Lastly, what, if anything, do you feel should be changed around third-party reproduction?
HDK: “I think the fertility industry needs to be doing so much more to put the donor-conceived person’s needs (and rights) first. Work towards non-anonymous donation, reducing family limits, updating medical records, introducing statutory regulation, ensuring live births are recorded accurately, facilitating donor sibling connections (I could go on!). Unfortunately, while the industry is profit-driven, DCP will always be at the bottom of the pile. However, people are beginning to speak up about these issues, so I’m forever hopeful things will change.”
To Tell Or Not To Tell
Historically physicians had encouraged secrecy and avoidance around donor conception. While I did not build my family through donor conception, I’ve written about it often. In that time, I have seen some studies saying it doesn’t necessarily benefit the child to disclose they are donor-conceived. However, I have also found studies to the contrary.
In a 2020 survey conducted by We Are Donor Conceived in its own Facebook group and another called the “Worldwide Donor Conceived People Network,” 67 percent of respondents wanted the donor’s identity to be known from birth. However, only 33 percent felt that donors needed to be available for a relationship with the child from birth.
However, with more and more genetic tests like 23andMe or AncestryDNA, it seems increasingly difficult to keep it a secret. Ultimately, everyone has to decide what’s best for them, but I hope you keep in mind your child and its impact on them if they find out they were donor-conceived through other avenues.
And frankly, my feeling is no one has anything to be ashamed of. On the contrary, the more you embrace your family-building journey, the more you show your child to embrace it as well.
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