Donor-conceived people: Find biological family using technology
Helping donor-conceived people to navigate their choices and manage information resiliently is already a complex parenting (and therapy) task. The Internet offers more opportunities to satisfy curiosity and find connection – which creates ethical dilemmas to think about. This article explores how technology (in particular social media and AI) is driving changes in how donor-conceived children (and indeed their parents) are seeking information about their genetic parents and half-siblings.
For a woman or a couple planning to create a family using donor sperm, eggs or embryos, there is a great deal to be processed, and most fertility clinics in the UK offer at least some sessions of fertility implications counselling.
Specialist counsellors and psychotherapists can also provide longer-term support as women and couples grapple with complex emotional, legal and ethical issues. I am one of these – a psychotherapist with a growing special interest in all things to do with medically unexplained infertility and donor conception.
I have also been that patient, faced with having to decide whether to try and have a much-wanted family using donor conception, while at the same time trying to come to terms with significant losses.
Fast forward a few years, and I am now the mother I wanted to be – thanks to the generosity of another woman.
My children have known from a young age that they are egg donor-conceived, and more recently they have wondered whether their egg donor may have her own children. As they are donor-conceived in the UK, I’ve taken a little comfort from the fact that they can find out more… in a few years time!
Last month, BICA (the British Infertility Counselling Association) offered therapist members a talk about how donor-conceived children are using the web and social media to look for their half-siblings. I signed up, keen to gain some more insights to help my clients, but also with no small measure of self-interest.
This article is for donor-conceived people and their families, and I hope that it catalyses some interesting conversations.
What are the UK regulations?
Donor-conceived children (where treatment took place in a UK-licensed fertility clinic) may seek information about their egg mother or sperm donor, by contacting the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which administers various registers. The UK Donor Conception Network is also a vital source of information and support for donor children and their families.
In the UK, the HFEA works within a legal framework (the 1990 HFEA Act) to govern, amongst other things, treatments using donor eggs, sperm and embryos.
In the UK, the following applies:
- One donor may donate to up to 10 families
- The HFEA maintains a register of men and women who have donated, together with details of any children born as a result.
- If someone donated before 2005, they may remain anonymous; or they may decide to put their details onto the register if they started off anonymous. Since 2005, donors are not anonymous, although a donor may withdraw consent at any time for their information to be shared.
- At age 16, a donor-conceived child may request from the HFEA certain non-identifying information about their egg or sperm donor; and at age 18 they may seek further identifying information. This identifying information includes the donor’s name, date of birth, district of birth and last known postal address.
- At age 18 a donor-conceived child may also ask the HFEA about the existence of any half-siblings, (i.e. any children born to other families using the donor’s egg/sperm) which includes: the number of children born, their sex and date of birth.
- Similarly, a donor can access from the HFEA information about any other children born using their donated egg or sperm.
- The HFEA won’t take requests from the parents of donor-conceived children, only from the children themselves; and nor will the HFEA take requests for information from children born directly to the egg or sperm donor (which is widely recognised as difficult – see below).
The safeguards above do not cover donations outside of UK-licensed facilities. This means that children born from donor eggs and/or sperm not from a UK-licensed clinic may struggle to find out who their egg/sperm donor is.
For many women, anonymous donation is a perfectly acceptable way to create a family, and they never look back. However, some women do come into therapy, eaten up with anxiety about the decision they made several years ago to have their child with anonymous donor sperm.
Issues can include:
- Feeling guilty about not being able to tell their child about their genetic father.
- Fearing that their child might get into a relationship with a half-sibling without realising.
- Obsessional thoughts about the unknown sperm donor getting in the way of the woman’s feelings for her partner.
- Unprocessed feelings about the partner’s infertility, which are loaded onto the anonymous sperm donor. The donor then becomes an object to be hated, which gets in the way of thinking about what might be going on in the woman’s partnership.
- Rage at the unavailability of the unknown sperm donor, stemming probably from other attachment wounds.
- Irrational neurotic fears about a child’s health (in particular mental health), which are attributed to the unknown sperm donor – rather than perhaps thinking about the family environment.
- There are also sometimes difficult issues to process for women who have had a child using a donor egg within the UK framework – often linked to the mother’s sense of self and self-esteem.
For example, a mother whose child wants to contact their egg donor may fear rejection. Will their child love the biological mother more; look more like the biological mother; or indeed leave her for the biological mother?
In many women with medically unexplained infertility (a key reason for using donor eggs), this normal anxiety can be amplified to unbearable levels when it chimes with old, hidden-away rejections linked to her own mother – which is perhaps a subject for another time.
There are also complex personal and family issues to think through for women wishing to donate their eggs – again, there isn't space to consider this here.
Research suggests that less than 15% of donor-conceived children seek out their sperm or egg donor; but over 60% seek out both their donor and half-siblings (Javda et al, 2010). On one level this makes sense, as it is perhaps easier to track down half-siblings via their biological parent; and perhaps too it reflects a pull in so many people to find their biological family.
The Donor Conception Network is extremely supportive of families seeking to help their donor-conceived children find their half-siblings, and works closely with young adults too. The DCP’s position is:
“Keeping children from their half-siblings can rob them of important connections, relationships, and experiences.”
The DCP promotes positivity and openness, encouraging parents of donor-conceived children to reach out and get to know their half-siblings as soon as they wish to. They argue that we don’t make our children wait until they are 18 to meet their cousins!
Indeed, people have for a while now been using DNA testing kits such as AncestryDNA in order to find out whatever they can about their donor-conceived child’s genetic inheritance.
Aside from normal curiosity, this is perhaps also a response to very reasonable anxieties about potential consanguinity, or put simply: the fear that one’s donor-conceived child may unwittingly get pregnant by a half-sibling.
Perhaps in the future, for many donor-conceived children, DNA testing prior to trying to get pregnant might be part of their new normal. It certainly underlines the importance of parents telling donor-conceived children from a young age about their conception (as the HFEA recommends); and of enabling conversations about the possibility of half-siblings, when the idea occurs to the child.
In the UK, donor-conceived children may contact the HFEA, which holds various registers, including the Donor Sibling Registry. Here a child may find out whether any other children were created from the eggs/sperm donated to create them. However, this UK registry is only open to young people at age 18; and it doesn’t help anyone conceived using anonymous gametes.
Therefore, people are increasingly turning to social media and artificial intelligence technology.
Using technology and social media to find donors
There is a growing movement of parents of donor-conceived children and donor-conceived young people themselves seeking information about their egg and sperm donors via the web.
In the UK, this is largely to circumvent the HFEA framework, which requires young people to wait. Apparently, there are discussions underway about the usefulness of an age limit on disclosure. It is possible that, in future, donor-conceived children may ask for information about their donors (in the UK) at any age – especially if it remains the case that a donor may withhold/withdraw consent to be identified.
Understandably, it is mainly donor-conceived people created using anonymous donation (mainly sperm donation) who are turning to technology in this way.
Hayley King, founder of All Things Donor Conception, outlined two key ways in which parents/children are seeking out their anonymous sperm donors:
- People are joining Facebook groups, dedicated to finding donors and half-siblings; and posting details about their sperm donor from the clinic, for example: photos of him or the batch/serial number of the sperm donation.
- People are turning to artificial intelligence sites, which specialise in mining large amounts of data very quickly, to see whether the photo they may have of their sperm donor (from the clinic or sperm bank) matches up with anyone’s photo online.
Why wouldn’t we do that?
That is a very good question, and it is not a therapist’s job to give advice or take up a position. Our job is to hold a space within which emotionally and ethically complex personal issues can be safely thought about. That said, the therapy perspective on looking for anonymous donors is probably a little cautious, as we tend to help people who have been hurt by the process.
Some of the issues we meet:
- How might the donor-conceived child feel if the donor or half-sibling refused to acknowledge them? If the search is driven by curiosity, by a securely attached young person, this is potentially survivable. But what if they are searching for something that is missing in their own life? Maybe they grew up with an absent, abusive or withdrawn father, or were a lonely only child.
- What if the donor or half-sibling is dangerous, predatory, anti-social, destitute, abandoned, lonely, or dying? How will a donor-conceived child manage their boundaries and decide what is/is not their responsibility?
Golombok (2021) emphasises that, for most people, being donor-conceived in no way determines or affects their ability to form secure attachments or to develop a realistic sense of self with good boundaries. What matters is a positive relationship with an available mother, and openness (no secrets) about the child’s origins.
So, for a mentally healthy and well-balanced donor-conceived person, the above issues can be navigated with support.
Let’s travel hopefully
Many donor-conceived children are finding new, extended families and a great deal of joy from connecting with their biological parent or, more often, their half-siblings.
In the UK, it is possible that the age limit for discovery might change and, in any event, both AI and social media are increasingly being used to help donor-conceived people track down their biological family.
This process by its very nature may include tracking down men (sperm-fathers) who did not ever expect to be found, and who may well feel that their personal privacy has been unacceptably breached. The consequences of this will probably need to be navigated at a societal level (and I envisage much work for privacy lawyers!).
More seriously, there is the potential in all this for a donor-conceived person to experience deep and painful rejection, which they may need support to work through. Perhaps therefore, anyone embarking on a search for their anonymous donor might be advised to reflect a little on the potential ethical and personal consequences of their actions – for themselves, and for others.
In my view as a parent and therapist, it is important to help donor-conceived people explore their motivations, boundary their curiosity, explore what is ethical behaviour for them and for others – and, most importantly, to support them in their decision, whatever that might be.
I hope that you have found this article thought-provoking, and I wish you good luck as a donor-conceived person or a family offering support.
There is a vital website and organisation dedicated to helping donor-conceived people navigate this journey thoughtfully, called All Things Donor Conception, founded by Hayley King.
I’ve also referenced below the websites and interesting writers I‘ve referred to in this article:
- HFEA: UK fertility regulator
- Donor Conception Network
- Donor Conceived Register
- Donor Sibling Registry
- British Infertility Counselling Association
- Golombok, S (2021), Love and Truth: What Really Matters for Children Born Through Third-Party Assisted Reproduction, in Child Development Perspectives, Vol. 15, Issue 2, 2021
- Jadva et al (2010) Experiences of offspring searching for and contacting their donor siblings and donor, in Biomed Online, Vol. 20(4), pp. 523-32, April 2010
- Kramer, W (2023) Donor Conceived Children, Meeting Their Half Siblings, in Psychology Today, August 7th 2023