If your child is conceived through donated eggs, sperm or embryos – or is adopted – when is the best time to tell them about their biological origins, and do you have to?
Dr Thomas Mathews, UK Medical Director for Bourn Hall, believes that honesty is a good thing: “The anonymity for sperm donors was lifted in 2005 because it was realised that it is important for children to know their origins. Although this did create a drop in donors initially, we have made up for this at Bourn Hall by creating our own sperm bank and encouraging altruistic donation.”
“In addition, men going through treatment who we have identified as having ‘super sperm’ are also approached to see if they would be willing to share sperm with another couple, and this has worked well.”
The same logic applies to egg donation and Bourn Hall offers treatment to patients who need donor eggs from both altruistic donors and egg sharers.
Patients who participate in the egg or sperm sharing programmes understand clearly what it means to struggle with infertility. This means that recipients will benefit from knowing their child will be conceived with sperm, or eggs, from someone who has made a fully informed choice and is mentally prepared to cope if they are later approached by an 18-year-old looking for more information about their origins.
When to tell?
Recent research by the Centre for Family Studies* has also concluded that – although many parents choose not to tell their children about their biological origins – if this is something you decide to do, it is best to do it early. Families where the child knows about their origins before they are aged seven tend to have more positive family relationships and experience higher levels of adolescent well-being, compared to the child being told later in life.
Research on children’s development has shown that children have an implicit understanding of biologically inherited physical characteristics by age four but are not able to understand the role of genetics until they are seven, and only grasp the concept of degrees of biological relatedness when they are 14.
This means that a child can label themselves as adopted at age three, but they will not know the implications until they are seven, and will then develop a more sophisticated understanding of what this means as an adolescent. Early knowledge helps the child to process this information gradually as they mature.
The issue with disclosure is that often the older members of the family want to keep the origins a secret, rather than the parents, which is a reflection of social changes over the last several decades. Jackie Stewart is an independent fertility counsellor supporting Bourn Hall patients, and she says that counselling is mandatory for anyone considering using donated gametes, surrogacy or adoption.
“Implications counselling gives the couple factual information but also helps them to explore how they both perceive the concept of family and what it means to bring up a child that may not be genetically related to them.
“At Bourn Hall free counselling is available to patients, including support during the adoption process if this is something they wish to pursue following unsuccessful IVF treatment.”
*Ilioi, E., Blake, L., Jadva, V., Roman, G. and Golombok, S. (2017), The role of age of disclosure of biological origins in the psychological wellbeing of adolescents conceived by reproductive donation: a longitudinal study from age 1 to age 14. J Child Psychol Psychiatr, 58: 315–324. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12667