Donor Conception:Tell donor kids they're not yours

Helen Riley has a more than passing acquaintance with my good self.
Shannon Molloy, Brisbane Times:
People conceived with the help of donor sperm who don't find out until later in life can experience feelings of resentment and a loss of control over their life story, according to a QUT researcher.

Some parents decide not to tell their child about their true genetic origins because of the stigma surrounding male infertility.

Helen Riley is a PhD student looking at the ethical implications of discovering later in life that people have been conceived with the help of donor sperm.

She is also examining the impact of late-discovery adoption, which is now relatively uncommon.

While it's less likely to happen these days, those who discover their adoption later in life experience feelings that are similar to those felt by donor offspring who aren't told the truth.

Ms Riley said she felt disconnected and lied to when, at age 21, she discovered she was adopted.

"One author puts it as being in a witness protection program you didn't know you were in," Ms Riley said.

"From one moment to another you find out that you're not who you think you are. There's no other experience I can think of where that happens."

While research indicates that around 70 per cent of donor-assisted parents intend on telling their children, nearly half of these ultimately decide not to.

"And with about 6000 donor offspring being born each year in Australia, we're looking at a significant number of children not being told," she said.

The stigma surrounding infertility seems to create an atmosphere in the family where parents decide to keep the secret rather than expose the social father, she said.

"The father is still infertile and he has to live for many years bringing up another man's child, and evidence indicates that it is difficult and strikes at the very heart of masculinity," Ms Riley said.

"Some men obviously cope with it, but there are many who don't and if they're not appropriately counselled about the possibilities of the feelings that could come up, then they will fester.

"For the mother, in the euphoria of having a child, the last thing she may be thinking about is the long term impact on the social father."

While the secret is kept from the child, others in the family are likely to know.

"That's how children can find out, and also because of medical inconsistencies in the family, blood tests, perhaps some sort of serious illness that comes up."

Some parents delay telling a child until a point they believe the child could comprehend, but Ms Riley said a child should be told as early as possible.

"The later you leave it, the more difficult it becomes and the more the child will be upset at having the secret kept.

"I would say three years old would be a good age to start talking about those issues in a way the child can understand."

Campaigning in the 1980s to expose problems with the adoption system led to legislative changes that made adoption more open and actively encouraged parents to tell their child as early as possible.

However similar elements in infertility treatment guidelines are rare.

Queensland regulations suggest infertility clinics encourage parents to tell their child, but Ms Riley said more regulation was needed.

"I think record keeping needs to be taken out of control of the fertility clinics and there needs to be an infertility treatment authority that keeps records, monitors how many children are being born and sets standards."

The "tension" created when a secret is kept in a family could have an impact on others as well as the child.

"Over time the secrets become quite pervasive and damaging within the family unit.

"Most late discovery adoptees will say that even though they never suspected they were adopted, that there was always something in the family that wasn't quite right and once they found out they were adopted it made sense."