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Finding your biological family by Kati Whitaker

Posted Sep 29 2009 8:32am

Finding your biological family
By Kati Whitaker


From October, children conceived by egg or sperm donation can find their biological siblings through a voluntary register. Kati Whitaker talks to the donor, the recipients and the children about how sharing genes affects who we think we are.

Until recently, if you were conceived via egg or sperm donation, you had to turn detective to find your biological family. The law was designed to protect the identity of parents and of donors. But there has been a radical shift in attitudes towards genetic heritage. Next month, the bulk of the amended Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act comes into force, enabling, among other things, donor-conceived people over 18 to identify any half-siblings that might exist. Anyone prepared to register their details on a new voluntary sibling database has the chance to find out about – and even contact – brothers or sisters conceived with the same sperm, provided both sides consent.

It was the need, already recognised in the adoption world, for individuals to learn more about their past that led to a fundamental review of the law in 1991. As a result, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) was set up to provide a register of all gamete donations.

Significantly, the law also allowed that anyone donor-conceived after 1991 can, once they reach 18, find out certain information about their donor parent – physical characteristics such as hair, eye colour, height and ethnic group for example – but nothing that would identify them. At that stage, sperm and egg donors were still promised anonymity.

By the end of this year, the first of the people conceived after the 1991 act will have reached 18, potentially opening the floodgates to vast numbers of donor-conceived adults wanting to discover more about their parentage.

These changes throw the spotlight on to the complex triangle of relationships that surround donor conception. Parents who might have wanted to keep private the fact that their children are not genetically related may now have to accept their child's right to know their biological origins. New egg or sperm donors, now identifiable to their offspring, will have to give deeper thought to their role in creating a new human being. As for the donor-conceived people themselves, being able to trace their biological relatives opens up a whole new vision of what family means.
Donor-conceived siblings

Shirley Brailey, 59, and David Gollancz, 53

When Shirley Brailey opened a small white envelope one cold March morning in 2004, she danced around her flat in a state of euphoria. The letter contained the first positive result from many DNA tests she had undergone at the Mary Barton fertility clinic in London. It revealed that she had a half-sibling.

"All my life I had felt there was a part of me missing," she says. "Once I began to realise that I might discover members of my biological family, that emptiness disappeared. I felt ecstatic."

Shirley was 12, on the cusp of adolescence, when a family friend broke the news that she was donor-conceived, likening the process to the way cows are inseminated by bulls. "I remember running up to bed and lying face down on the candlewick bedspread recovering from the shock. I felt I could not belong to the human race. I must be one of the devil's children."

Despite writing to the fertility clinic, Shirley was able to find out almost nothing about her father. At the time, donors were promised anonymity and the fertility clinic claimed all records had been burned. The one thing Shirley's mother did tell her was that the clinic would have ensured the donor had at least three children of his own "to make sure they were all right".

So from the beginning she knew she had three half-siblings. "As I grew older, I began to wonder about how many more sperm donations he had made. I took to examining people closely on the tube, wondering whether we were related. I wanted to be connected to them. I used to daydream that we would all meet in a big hall, all of us looking alike and that there would be this wonderful big family."

This remained nothing more than a fantasy, until one day about nine years ago she chanced upon an article written by some other people who were conceived at Mary Barton's pioneering clinic in London. They were also looking for their donor father, but had discovered he had died. That, however, was far from the end of the story. The group, spearheaded by one particularly tenacious member, Barry Stevens, began DNA testing the members of the group, and also the legitimate offspring of Shirley's father, whom he had managed to trace. Shirley herself, on a trip to the Tate gallery in London, met up with Barry, who took a swab. Over the next couple of years, more and more people came forward. Shirley soon found that she had at least 13 half-siblings, including Barry. There may be, she admits, hundreds more.

Shirley recalls meeting one of them, David Gollancz, who lived just down the road from her in London. "I remember thinking he didn't look at all like me, but I liked him straightaway. There is a familiarity about David. I recognised in him and the others a kind of spirit or energy which we share."

Most of the half-siblings stay in touch despite being in different parts of the country, getting together for shared shopping trips, museum visits or just a chat on the phone. "These aren't sisters or brothers in the conventional sense because you don't have that shared history, but they are different from friends. There is an unfathomable connection."

A voluntary sibling register would, Shirley concedes, have saved her and the others tremendous heartache and effort. "It is so completely and utterly important to be able to find out about your biological family. The one thing you suffer if you are conceived by egg or sperm donation is a lack of a sense of who you are. I will never feel as complete as somebody who found their father, but finding your relatives is a pretty good fix."
The recipient parents

Walter Merricks, 64, and Olivia Montuschi, 62

"I have three children, none of whom are genetically related to me but hey, we're a family," says Walter Merricks. Almost 30 years ago, he and his wife, Olivia Montuschi, discovered they could not have children because Walter was infertile. They decided to try donor insemination. "At least the child would be genetically linked to one of us – that seemed a logical and clinical step to take and not too difficult for me to accommodate," says Walter, who is soon to stand down as the UK's chief financial ombudsman.

As a result of donor insemination, the couple had William, now 26, and Susanna (known as Zannah), now 23, each with different donor sperm.

Walter was already the stepfather of Olivia's son Daniel by her first marriage, so he felt well prepared to be the father of a child who was not genetically related to him. "One thing I anticipated and gave a lot of thought to was whether at some point during the teenage years there would be a row and they would say, 'Well, you are not even my real dad.' But it's just never happened."

Zannah is quite clear in her mind that Walter is her father. "There's never been a question about it. Fatherhood is much more than a genetic link. In the end, it's all about the relationships you have with each other."

She thinks one reason she is so relaxed about her origins is the openness and honesty with which the family has treated the whole subject. One of her earliest memories was being given a storybook, devised by the voluntary organisation Donor Conception Network, which Walter and Olivia founded, to help explain about donor-conception families to children. "I didn't really understand it at first, then at about seven or eight it began to sink in that I was different. I quite enjoyed that feeling and thinking that I am quite special. I still enjoy talking about it."

Walter and Olivia's openness was to a great extent at odds with the prevailing climate. Twenty years ago, there was still a stigma attached to infertility and clinics did not encourage parents to tell the children. "The received wisdom among doctors at the time was to brush things under the carpet," says Walter. "The culture was that blokes don't talk about these things. But that struck us as alien to a proper loving relationship with our children. The suggestion that we would withhold a piece of information about them seemed horribly wrong."

The newly amended Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act is, he says, testament to the way attitudes towards the child's right to know have come full circle. "We're seeing a huge change," says Walter. "Until recently, although there was a token acknowledgement that a child's interests mattered, most legal provisions were about protecting parents and giving them and the donors absolute assurances about confidentiality."

Zannah admits she would one day like to meet her biological father and any siblings, so she welcomes the introduction of a voluntary sibling register. But she says it does not dominate her life. "I have no emotional need to seek out my father or half-siblings," she says. "I have got everything I need – a family, a mother and father, sibling – why would I need anything else?"
The donor

Laura Witjens, 44

The decision to donate her eggs was a simple one for Laura Witjens, then a 36-year-old businesswoman with young twins. "I wasn't thinking of the six weeks of discomfort involved in the donation process – just that there was another woman out there who couldn't have a baby and I just couldn't imagine what my life would have been like without children."

She donated in 2000. At that time Laura was not obliged to reveal her identity, but two things changed her mind. When her twins, a boy and a girl, were a year old, she divorced their father. By the time the children were three (they are now 11) she had remarried. "I could see in my son certain personality traits and facial expressions that clearly came from his father. But also there were things they had picked up from their stepdad. So I could understand how the donor-conceived children might want to know, too."

She also began to recognise that her own children might be affected by the growing climate of openness about genetic heritage. "It is known that many donor-conceived people are more curious about their half-siblings than their donor. In other words, it wouldn't be me that they were after, they would want my 'flesh and blood' children."

So Laura took the unusual step of re-registering her details with the HFEA so that if any offspring want to find out about her or contact her when they are 18 they can do so.

How she herself will feel if one day in the future a stranger knocks on the door claiming her as a parent is, she admits, hard to predict. "I would try to help them find any missing links, but I would resist letting them call me mother because I am not. I am absolutely clear to my own children that I have only one daughter and one son, and that although there may be people out there who have a bit of mummy in them genetically, they are not my children."

Today, not only can a child conceived after 2005 find out who their biological parents are, the donors themselves have a new statutory right to find out certain anonymous details about their genetic offspring. Laura admits that she has never tried to find out if the 13 eggs she donated resulted in a child. "I would be gutted if it hadn't resulted in a child, so I really can't face finding out."

But she also recognises that some distance is necessary for donors. "The strange thing about being a donor is that you have to be caring enough to do it, but not so caring that you want to know what's happening with the child. If you start thinking this is your child and about whether she would be starting school now and so on, it would do your head in."

Donor Conception Network, PO Box 7471, Nottingham NG3 6ZR, 020-8245 4369, dcnetwork.org. National Gamete Donation Trust, confidential helpline 0845 226 9193, ngdt.co.uk
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