Last week Reuters news service reported on the findings of a study by Clare Murray, Susan Golombok, and myself. The research was the most recent in a series of studies of parents and children in families created through infertility treatment conducted by the research team previously based at City University.
The article was headlined 'Assisted reproduction kids do well psychologically'. One could say that this in itself was not necessarily 'news' since previously published studies had shown that samples of families created by IVF and by donor insemination were functioning well when the children reached adolescence. The new element in the current study was the inclusion of a group of families with 12-year-old children conceived through egg donation, where it was hypothesised that the lack of a genetic relationship between mother and child could potentially have negative effects on mother-child bonding, and consequently, on child adjustment.
Our findings suggest that this is not the case, since egg donation mothers had warm relationships with their children and the development of the children themselves was normal. This fits in with previous research, which has shown consistently that it is the quality of parenting and the desire to be parents that matters and not whether couples are the genetic parents of their child. Assisted reproduction parents have repeatedly been found to be very involved with their children and very committed to parenting, a fact which is likely to be due to the effort they have put in to becoming parents in the first place.
People often focus on one particular aspect of the story when looking at research on assisted reproductive families; whether parents have told their child about how they were conceived. Again, our study follows the pattern seen in previous work, with only 35 per cent of egg donation parents and 11 per cent of donor insemination parents having told or planning to tell their child. When considering these numbers, it is important to put them in context. The women being interviewed underwent treatment with donated eggs in the early 1990s, just after the implementation of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology (HFE) Act, when attitudes of clinics and of society in general to donor conception were possibly different to today.
Feelings of stigma attached to the use of these kinds of techniques, and concern about how the child would react, seemed to contribute to their wish not to tell. Over the last decade, there has been increasing awareness of the possible adverse psychological effects on children of not knowing their genetic origins. The debate around this issue eventually resulted in the removal of donor anonymity in the UK last year. One would hope that this will go towards creating a more open climate surrounding donor conception, with use of assisted reproduction becoming less remarkable and more acceptable. There is some evidence of a shift in this direction. A study by the same research team of a group of babies born following donor conception between 1999 and 2001 found that over half of the parents said they intended to tell the child about the donation, a much higher proportion than in this or previous investigations.
However, there is some way to go if we wish donor conception to reach the stage of adoption, where the overwhelming majority of adoptive parents are open with their children about the adoption from a young age and it becomes part of the 'family story'. We need an increase in the amount of support and information available to donor conception parents regarding how they can discuss these issues with their child. Organisations such as Donor Conception Network produce such resources for their members, but not all couples wish to join a group. Fertility clinics could still do more to help in terms of providing couples with appropriate knowledge before treatment, and specifically discussing the potential benefits of disclosure. There may also be a place for the establishment of post-treatment services for couples who want advice on when and how to tell the child after the birth.
Parents should not be forced into telling their child, but rather should be equipped with the facilities to make the best-informed decision possible. Without advocating secrecy, we should also bear in mind that the fact that these non-disclosing families are producing well-adjusted adolescents shows that there is more to parenting than sharing information about genetic origins.