There have been increasing calls for openness surrounding gamete donation over the past ten years and the UK Government is soon to decide whether gamete donors will lose their right to anonymity. If donors are to be identifiable, it will be the first time that donor conception offspring will have the opportunity to know their full genetic history. Many believe that this is not only the children's right but that it is also in the best interests of the children's psychological well-being. However, very few children conceived by donated gametes are aware of their donor origins. If parents aren't telling their children, doesn't the status of donors (anonymous or identifiable) become less of a priority? Wouldn't it be more productive to attempt to identify the barriers to disclosure within gamete donation families?
The views of gamete donation parents themselves are, therefore, an invaluable source of information. Why are they so reluctant to inform their child about his or her donor origins? What kind of information about the donor would they like to be made available? Would the level of information available about the donor influence their decision to tell or not tell their child?
Why don't gamete donation parents tell their children? Findings from a number of studies of gamete donation families show strikingly consistent responses. It seems that what concerns gamete donation parents most about telling their child about his or her donor origins is the fear that either the information will unnecessarily distress their child, it jeopardise the harmony of family relationships or that the child will reject the non-genetic parent or love him or her less. A feeling that there is simply no need to tell their child is also a reason why parents opt for the non-disclosure route. These parents believe that the role of the social parent is more important for their child's psychological well-being than are genetic ties.
However, a recent study of gamete donation parents with a one-year old child, conducted by the Family and Child Psychology Research Centre at City University in London showed that around half of the parents intended to tell their child about his or her donor origins - a much larger proportion than has been found in previous studies. It would seem that a gradual shift towards openness is occurring among gamete donation parents. It must be borne in mind, though, that the children in this study were only around a year old. Whether or not parents actually fulfil their intention of informing their child remains to be seen.
While there may be definite ethical and psychological benefits to openness surrounding gamete donation, the matter is certainly not clear-cut. Although more parents appear to be committed to telling their child, there are still many who intend never to share this information with their child. The main barrier to disclosure seems to be parents' fears about the negative impact of the information. Yet parents' views provide us with important practical guidelines for the future. Equipping parents with the necessary tools and support for negotiating the telling process may mean that they find their fears about telling their child are unfounded.
As far as parents' views about the identity of the donor go, the findings from the City University study are of particular interest. Irrespective of their decision to tell or not to tell their child, most parents favoured limited, non-identifying information about the donor. As so few gamete donation offspring are aware of their donor origins, we cannot assess their views about the kind of information about the donor that they would like to be made available. This remains an important unanswered question. Only controlled, systematic studies can reveal the true thoughts and feelings of the people that matter most in any discussion about gamete donation: the parents and their children.
Dr Clare Murray is senior Research Psychologist at the Family and Child Psychology Research Centre, City University, London