Friday, July 3, 2015

Secrets and lies: why donor-conceived children need to know their origins

Jennifer Power, La Trobe University

In all Australian states and territories, laws are now in place to ensure that when children born via donor conception turn 18, they have a right to access information about the identity of their donor. However, research suggests that most heterosexual parents who conceive via donor conception never tell their children.

Donor insemination became widely available in the 1980s with the emergence of sperm freezing technology. However, in these early days few jurisdictions had clear regulatory frameworks around donor conception and record keeping was often inconsistent.

The lack of regulation allowed for, and was facilitated by, a culture of shame and secrecy around infertility and donor insemination. It was common for medical practitioners to advise parents not to tell their children they were donor conceived. The prevailing wisdom was that anonymity and secrecy was better for children, families and donors.

Victoria was one of the first jurisdictions in the world to introduce laws banning anonymous gamete (sperm, eggs and embryos) donation and requiring donors to consent to the release of identifying information to donor recipients aged 18 or over. These laws came into effect in 1988.

By 2005, anonymous donation was prohibited nationwide. However, many donor-conceived children still struggle to access information about their donor, due to laws not being retrospective in many states, or because records have been destroyed.

When Victorian donor-conceived children born after the introduction of the law were due to turn 18, the Victorian Infertility Treatment Authority in 2006 ran a campaign entitled “Time to Tell”. This encouraged families to talk to their children about being donor conceived.

As the use of new reproductive technologies had become more common, stigma around this had decreased. This brought concerns about the rights of donor-conceived children to the forefront. The new laws supported the rights of children to access information about their donor, but this did not necessarily support parents to tell their children they were donor-conceived.

However, studies had begun to reveal potential problems that arose from not telling children. While in general, people who are donor-conceived are not disadvantaged in terms of well-being or connectedness to their family, problems can occur when they learn of the circumstances of their conception later in life.

When this happens, people may feel betrayed by their parents, leading to resentment, confusion and distress. This may be particularly destructive if a person inadvertently discovers they are donor-conceived, rather than being told by their parents.

Alongside this, there is an emerging body of research which shows that telling children they are donor conceived does not damage their well-being, particularly if they then have the option to learn more about their donor.

Donor-conceived children aren’t disadvantaged, as long as they’re told about their circumstances. KatLevPhoto/Flickr, CC BY-NC

These days, clinical guidelines generally suggest doctors and counsellors encourage parents to tell children about their donor conception.

Despite this, most heterosexual couples who conceive children using donor sperm do not tell their children. In Australian studies, fewer than 35% of couples surveyed had told their children they were donor conceived. This is consistent with overseas research, which suggests the majority of parents never tell their children.

There are multiple reasons why parents choose not to tell their children they were donor conceived. Some are concerned their child will feel different or “not normal”. For others, the pain of infertility is raw and avoiding the issue is emotionally easier.

Some parents intend to tell but never find the right time or words to do this. But a common concern is that children will no longer see their “non-genetic” parent as their real parent.

Biological relatedness is central to idealised Western notions of family and kinship, even though the reality of contemporary family life is much more complex than this. Step and blended families, families created through adoption or fostering, same-sex parented families and networks of close friends all involve non-biological family relationships. Many children are raised by, and form strong parental attachments with, adults to whom they are not genetically related.

This is not to say that biology is irrelevant. Many people’s sense of place in the world is connected to their biological heritage. Donor-conceived people often feel that knowing about their donor is an important part of forming and understanding their identity. But biology in itself does not create family relationships.

The problem with secrecy around donor conception is that it contributes to the notion that biology is more important than lived family ties. It implies that a child having a genetic link to someone else undermines the importance of those parents who have raised that child.

By contrast, openness about donor-conception allows parents to emphasise the strength of their family connection and includes their children in the creation of the family narrative.

Laws that ensure donor-conceived people have access to identifying information about donors encourages greater openness around donor conception; although some people argue the laws need to go further, mandating parents to tell their children.

The complexity of this issue points to a continued need for resources to support families to talk to their children about donor conception.

The Conversation

Jennifer Power is Research Fellow at Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

In families with same-sex parents, the kids are all right

This piece  by Jennifer Power originally appeared on
 The Conversation

A central argument made against same-sex marriage is that children born into these marriages will be disadvantaged: they will grow up with inappropriate gender role modelling, be bullied at school and suffer poorer emotional well-being than their peers.

Same-sex attracted people may come to parenthood in many ways – though former heterosexual relationships, as a foster parent or a step parent. Increasingly, lesbian couples and single women are forming families using known sperm donors (a friend of the couple) or a clinic-sourced anonymous donor. Male couples are also increasingly turning to egg donation and surrogacy services to become parents.

The 2011 Australian Census counted 33,714 same-sex couples. Around 4,000 of these couples had dependent children living with them. But this is likely to be an under-representation, as not all same-sex attracted people declare their relationship in the census and single parents who identify as same-sex attracted would not be identified.

In the United States, of the 594,000 same-sex couple households in 2011, 115,000 reported having children.

People may not agree with gay marriage on moral or religious grounds. But the argument that it harms children does not stack up against current evidence.

In 2010, American researchers published results from a meta-analysis of 33 studies comparing the well-being of children raised by opposite-sex couples with children raised by same-sex couples. This study found no evidence that children raised by same-sex parents fared any worse than other children on a range of behavioural, educational, emotional or social outcomes.
The researchers also concluded there was no evidence that children raised by a single parent or same-sex couples were less competent or well-rounded than other children. If anything, studies of single-parent families show these men and women are more flexible in their parenting styles than they are given credit for. Men are capable of gentle, nurturing parenting. Women are capable of setting rules and boundaries for children, while also teaching them football.

What about donor-conceived children?

Political concerns about lesbians’ access to fertility services means the well-being of donor-conceived children has entered debates about same-sex marriage and parenting.

In 2013, the story of Narelle Grech, a young Australian woman who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, hit the news media. Grech was donor-conceived and desperately wanted to meet her biological father before she died.
Grech’s story made a powerful statement about the importance of donor-conceived children having the option to know their genetic heritage. But media reports often gave the impression that every donor-conceived child was searching sadly for their genetic parent.

This is not the case. Some donor-conceived children are highly driven to meet donor parents, some are curious and others aren’t interested. There is no evidence that donor-conception causes children emotional or social damage.

Do children get teased at school?

A 2008 study by the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in the United States found many children raised by same-sex parents had experienced or witnessed some form of homophobic harassment at school.

But more commonly, young people reported feeling excluded or isolated because schools did not acknowledge their family makeup. In some cases, staff actively discouraged students from speaking about their families due to a misguided concern that this amounted to talking about sex or sexuality in the classroom.

Other studies have found more mixed results.

Australian research has shown that some children worry they will experience homophobic discrimination and this anxiety may affect their well-being. But most children with same-sex parents do not encounter more frequent or intense schoolyard bullying than other children.

Additionally, children with same-sex parents generally have good social networks and peer relationships, which are a strong buffer against stigma or discrimination.

Is this research reliable?

Studies on the well-being of children raised by same-sex parents have been criticised because most rely on small “convenience” samples. Critics argue convenience sampling is inherently unreliable because people who are healthy and resourceful are more likely to opt in to studies than those who are socially disconnected or less capable.
However, large population-based studies tend to include only a small sub-sample of children raised by same-sex parents. This doesn’t generate the numbers needed for reliable statistical analysis.

Methodological limitations provide fuel for conservative arguments against the validity of these studies. What critics do not acknowledge is that repetition of findings – numerous studies conducted over time and in various locations, all which show children with same-sex parents are doing well – is a major strength of this body of research.

What about same-sex marriage?

Children raised by same-sex parents do better when they are living in a city or country that is more socially progressive and accepting of homosexuality. As such, openly supporting the rights of same-sex couples is one of the best things governments can do to support children being raised by same-sex parents.

Beyond this, funding programs such as the Safe-Schools coalition Australia, which seeks to ensure schools are well-equipped to address homophobia, will have a direct impact on the day-to-day experiences of children with same-sex parents.       

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