‘Lies and trauma’: donor-conceived adults are still haunted by their origins

Australia’s fertility industry has undergone seismic shifts in practice, but for those born before these changes, past mistakes feel firmly in the present

Brendan Ritter, 22, recently discovered he was donor conceived.

When he was told, his first feelings were for his mother: “I felt the weight of her emotion from her body language,” he says. “It was incredibly important to my parents to have a child and donor conception made that a reality for them, which I think is beautiful.”

Now the shock has eased, he’s in no rush to contact his biological dad. His mum has his records for when he’s ready. “I think it’ll be fairly chill. We’ll have a beer, chat about it then carry on,” he says.

Ritter is part of a new generation of donor-conceived (DC) adults, coming of age in the wake of regulatory and technological changes that have forced a once secretive industry to open its books – at least partially.

For donor-conceived adults just a few years older than he is, nothing about discovering their biological parentage could be described as “chill”.

“People have been damaged by the industry”

Artificial insemination using fresh sperm “unscreened and unmatched” – according to a parliamentary submission by the Fertility Society of Australia – was practised in Australia as early as the 1950s.

In 1980, Australia’s first IVF baby was born in Melbourne. In the decades that followed, the fertility industry was a wild west, with uncapped anonymous donations, recipient parents discouraged from telling their donor-conceived child the truth of their parentage, and medical records obfuscated or lost.

Narelle Dickinson, a fertility counsellor and a director of the Fertility Society of Australia and NZ, the industry’s peak body, says in the past, “things have been done very badly”.

“DC people have been damaged by the industry.”

“In those early days there was a common assumption it’d be best to go home and ‘pretend’ a donor hadn’t been used – there was even a concerted effort to ‘camouflage’ the donor conception by choosing donors with extremely similar physical characteristics. But I haven’t seen any evidence of that practice for about 18 years now.”

She says counselling parents is now a mandatory part of the process in Australia. “We explain it’s in the child’s best interests to understand they’re donor conceived as early as possible.”

“There are no secrets in donor conception any more - not with DNA testing now widely available.”

In Victoria, this is not just a matter of best practice, but legislation. In 2016, Victoria’s state parliament passed first in the world legislation granting donor-conceived children retrospective access to their biological parentage. Called “Narelle’s law”, the legislation was passed after the death of a donor-conceived woman, Narelle Grech, from heritable bowel cancer.

“Jaws dropped worldwide when that was introduced,” Dickinson says of the law. “It’s a massive driver for us to do better. Nobody in this industry wants to do harm.”

‘Half the people in my life weren’t real’

Though clinics no longer accept anonymous donations (legislated for in NSW, VIC, WA and SA), laws governing donor information and identification still differ from state to state, and in many cases donor-conceived adults struggle to obtain information about their biological parentage.

This has led many to turn to DNA technology platforms like Ancestry and 23 and Me, to learn the truth. These genetic testing companies can easily and relatively affordably reveal things many donor-conceived children never learned from their parents.

Some have discovered dozens or even hundreds of siblings through these platforms; while others have used them to track down their biological fathers.

A home genetic testing kit.
A home genetic testing kit. Photograph: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo

That was the case for Kerri Favarato, 39. She found her “absolutely brilliant” biological father, Digger, via Ancestry.com in 2017. It was, she says, “freaking amazing”.

“I thought he’d be dead or want nothing to do with me. The opposite was true,” she says. “It created this whole new, special story.”

It was a long road to get there. Favarato says she received no assistance from the clinic that made her. She says one time she rang they claimed her records were destroyed by a flood. Next, it was a fire. She went as far calling the office of the information commissioner to find out more.

“I kept asking why I needed to know, telling myself it was for my medical records. It was actually a desire to know where I got my piercing blue eyes and quick wit. Who my people were. Half the people in my life weren’t real.”

Eventually, Favarato learned the truth on a phone call with a doctor who had retained her records all along. In that conversation, she learned details about her conception that left open the possibility she might have several half-siblings.

‘Australian governments have continually failed us’

With their secrets out in the open, some donor-conceived adults are organising and lobbying.

In November 2019, Sarah Dingle – journalist and author of Brave New Humans – joined eight other Australian delegates to address the UN on changes needed within the fertility industry.

The asks: capping donations at five families (in New South Wales, Western Australia and Tasmania, men can donate to five recipient families. In all other states, it is 10); the right to know their siblings; a national, independent regulating body and a national, independent register.

Dingle says: “Australia seems to be home to one of the largest cohesive groups of DC people in the world.” But of the estimated 60,000 donor-conceived people in Australia, Dingle believes only a portion know the truth about their parentage.

Mandatory disclosure is not the only area in which Dingle believes existing laws do not go far enough. “Australian governments have continually failed us,” she says, pointing to recommendations from a 2013 Australian Senate Inquiry that still haven’t been enacted.

She refers to the fertility industry’s past as “pure animal husbandry” and says, “It has existed for decades without any consideration for or consultation with donor-conceived people like me.

“I have zero faith it’ll change unless forced by legislation.”

Dingle is not alone in this belief. Many donor-conceived adults distrust the fertility industry and remain unconvinced the wrongs of the recent past will be righted by self-regulation.

“Why aren’t clinics held accountable for the destroyed documents, lies and trauma?” Favarato says. “It unfairly falls on DC people to manage themselves.”

‘She had her own identity crisis as I had mine’

Alana McDonald says she felt numb when she discovered the truth about her paternity.
Alana McDonald says she felt numb when she discovered the truth about her paternity. Photograph: Alanna McDonald

Alana McDonald, 38, from Sydney, says focus needs to switch from would-be parents to the resulting children: “Humans aren’t gifts. We don’t just exist to be gifted to our parents.”

The truth about McDonald’s own conception harmed not just her, but her mother too. Like many conceived by anonymous donors, McDonald was told her dad was a medical student, encouraged to donate by his lecturer.

McDonald’s mum held on to just two other facts about him: he was Irish and a musician. It transpired none of this information was true. “I believe they switched donors at the last minute,” McDonald says.

She’d grown attached to being partly Irish. When she finally traced her donor dad and explained the lies, he eased the tension with humour, saying: “You were expecting Bono, but got me instead!”

“Mum’s idea of who I was, was based on a lie,” McDonald reflects. “She had her own identity crisis as I had mine.”

This existential hurt is shared by Favarato, coupled with the grief of having potential, unknown, siblings. “Knowing where you come from is a fundamental part of your development,” she says. She describes the feeling as hiraeth. “The Welsh word expresses homesickness for a place you can’t return to or never was.”

Currently, donor-conceived children receive access to their biological father’s information when they turn 18. Favarato says that’s too late.

Her message to potential donors?

“Give your biological child access to you before 18. Otherwise, don’t donate.”

This article was amended on 11 October 2021 to give the full context to of a quote from Narelle Dickinson, the quote previously read “There are no secrets in donor conception any more” and her explanation for that, “not with DNA testing now widely available” was not in the original piece. This explanation has been added. This article was amended on 4 November to state that Narelle Dickinson is a director at the Fertility Society of Australia. Previously it said she was the director.

Contributor

Gary Nunn

The GuardianTramp

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