Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock you know that I’m in the pro-tell camp—as in telling your child he was conceived with sperm or egg donation. I’m in favor of telling because I think a child has the right to know; but also, from a very practical standpoint, I think that given the age we live in, most kids are going to find out anyway when they are older. We can easily look to the history of adoption to know the results of finding out that your parents withheld this type of information and actively lied to you in order to withhold this information. In short, it’s not pretty. Family secrets hurt families.
I was pleasantly surprised to hear on this week’s Creating a Family show that it looks like we’re making some progress—at least in the area of sperm donation. The show was on Sperm Banks: Who’s Donating & Who’s Receiving, and our guest was Dr. Michelle Ottey, Laboratory Director and Director of Operations at Fairfax Cryobank. Fairfax has been surveying the families who use their donor sperm for many years, and one of the topics they ask about is whether parents plan on telling the child. The number of families that planned to tell their child they were conceived with sperm donation jumped from 50% to approximately 80% in the last four years. Wow!
What really surprised me about this 75-80% statistic was that is was pretty even amongst the three major groups of people who are using donor sperm to create their family: heterosexual couples with male infertility, single woman, and lesbian couples. In the past, the assumption was that single woman and lesbian couples would be far more likely to tell their child because it is more of less obvious that they had to have help with their conception, and there is not usually a father figure whose position might feel challenged.
What We Don’t Know
Now, the truth is that we don’t actually know whether these folks will really fully disclose this information. We know from some very limited research that many parents who plan to tell don’t actually tell, or tell only the medical part (“We tried for a long time to have you and had to have help from a doctor”), or tell, but not really tell (“We needed help and a very special doctor and a nice man (or woman) helped us”). So it’s possible that the 80% statistic more fully reflects the progress we’ve made in what people assume they should do, not what they’ll actually do. But hey, that’s progress.
It’s also possible that the 80% number is a little high since it was an opt-in online survey that was optional for families to complete. I would imagine that those who were the most uncomfortable with donor conception and planned to “forget about it” as soon as they got pregnant are less likely to fill out the survey, and I’d guess they’d also be less likely to tell their kids. Still, the survey was done the same way four years ago, and we still see an almost doubling of the percentage. And that ain’t nothing!
How Do the Children Handle Being Told
Another question asked on the survey (and I wanted to hug Dr. Ottey for thinking to add this to the survey) was how the children responded when told. Most parents started telling the child at a young age as part of their birth story, and 70% of the respondents reported that the child had no significant reaction to this information at all. In other words, they took it in stride as just simply a (pardon the pun) fact of life.
The many many wonderful children’s books now available undoubtedly help both the willingness to tell and the child’s reception of this information. Creating a Family has a terrific list of the best of these books. Please let us know if we’ve missed your favorite- firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Else I Learned
I was like a kid in the candy store on this week’s Creating a Family show. We talked about the make-up of the families who use sperm banks and how they differ, the increasing willingness of people to tell others that they used sperm donation, health of children conceive from donor sperm from sperm banks, and options for knowing the donor’s identity. Michelle also shared the results of Fairfax’s latest survey of sperm donors. They are not necessarily who you think they are. Check it out.
Image credit: From NYT article on children conceived via sperm donation.