- Resource Centers
- Knowledge Base
- Make a Difference
By Frances Hardy for the Daily Mail and Diana Appleyard
This article was first published at dailymail.co.uk on June 24, 2010.
The act will have been brief, impersonal and utterly bereft of emotion - but 25 years on, the moment that Caroline Halstead was conceived is causing her lasting heartache.
For she was fathered by an anonymous sperm donor and, like a growing number conceived in this way, she has struggled to come to terms with the fact that she is the product of a scientific process rather than a loving union.
'I was conceived in a petri dish by artificial insemination at a Harley Street Clinic in London,' she says, describing the fertility treatment her mother sought when her husband was diagnosed as infertile.
'In my view, it is a horrible, clinical way to be conceived. All my life I've felt as if I'm only half a person.'
Resentment: Caroline Halstead feels like she is only half a person because she will never know who her father is
A Surrey housewife and mother who is expecting her second child in August, Caroline is haunted by the thought of her conception - and the fact that, unlike her children, she will never know or even meet her biological father.
Her feelings are far from isolated. A new study, the first of its kind into the effects of donor conception on offspring, reveals the complex and often troubling emotions adults born in this way can experience. They feel confusion, isolation and hurt, more acutely, even, than those who have been adopted.
Nearly half of those surveyed by the Commission on Parenthood's Future were disturbed that money was involved in their conception.
More than half admitted that whenever they see someone who looks like them, they wonder if they're related. And two-thirds affirmed the right of donor-conceived children to know the truth about their origins.
Compare Caroline's testimony with that of social worker Narelle Grace, 27, who lives in West London. She also views her conception, using an anonymous donor sperm, as a cold, medical transaction.
'I don't like the word "donor" because it sounds so clinical,' she says. 'This man wasn't donating blood; he was donating life.
'There are huge implications to this and I think every donor child should at least have basic information about their father - who he was, where he came from, what family he has.'
Since April 1, 2005, the law allows donor offspring the right to identify their biological parents when they reach adulthood, but this can't apply retrospectively. So many - like Narelle and Caroline - conceived before that date will never find the missing half of their identity.
Moreover, since the change in the law has led to a shortage of donors in Britain, many would-be parents travel abroad for donor IVF treatment to countries - including the U.S. and Spain - where there is no legal obligation to identify donors.
Each year since 1992, around 2,000 children have been born annually in Britain from donor eggs or sperm. So the identity crisis felt by donor children is set to worsen in the years ahead.
As it is, Narelle, like Caroline, knows only the sparsest of details about the person who gave her life, after her mother and the man she long thought was her father were unable to conceive naturally.
Coming to terms with her past: Narelle today, left, and aged three, has tried to trace her biological father without success
Narelle's student donor was brown-eyed, brown-haired and 5ft 7in, and would have been paid a relatively small sum. He also provided sperm that created eight other children; each of them a half-brother or half-sister to Narelle.
'Out there, in the world, is a whole family I will never know and who will never know me,' she says.
She often wonders whether the young man at the root of this spreading and convoluted family tree realised how important was his gift of semen.
'My biological father would have been younger than I am now when he donated his sperm, and I imagine he thought very little about the consequences of doing so,' she says. 'But here I am, a young woman who is desperate to find out anything I can about him.
'Adoption is very different - not only can you usually find your real parents, but also you don't have to cope with the psychological effects of knowing you were conceived in a test tube. That's unsettling and weird.
'Being a sperm donor child makes you question everything about your humanity.
'I can honestly say that no matter how desperate I might be for a child, I'd never use a sperm donor. I wouldn't condemn any child to grow up as I did.'
Caroline, too, is deeply angry with the man who gave her life, even though it may have been done with the best of intentions to assist couples who could not conceive naturally.
'It isn't fair just to go along and donate sperm and then not give a thought to the product of that sperm,' she says.
'He's my father, and I have no idea who he is. I think it would be easier if I was the product of a one-night stand - at least then there would have been a connection between two people.'
It is a view with which Josephine Quintavalle of Corethics, an organisation that comments on reproductive ethics, has some sympathy. 'A woman donating eggs goes through a potentially risky invasive procedure. By contrast, it is quick, easy and risk-free to donate sperm,' she says.
'So you can imagine that a sperm donor might make the decision to do so quite carelessly, especially when money is involved.
'There is the sense, too, with any conception outside the womb that you're creating a product in a laboratory.
'And the more these processes move into the IVF lab, the further we distance ourselves from the beauty and significance of the natural act of conception.'
So topical is the issue of donor sperm that a Hollywood film, to be released in Britain in October, will deal with the controversial fall-out.
The Kids Are All Right, featuring a lesbian couple played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, considers the story of their two teenage children who track down their sperm donor father and insist on forging a relationship with him.
But for many - Narelle and Caroline among them - there is no chance of such a meeting.
And to compound the disquiet that surrounds their conception, children are often not told the truth about their birth by the parents who raise them.
'Men often feel uneasy about infertility so where assisted clinical reproductive techniques are concerned, there is more secrecy about sperm donation than any other method, ' says clinical forensic psychologist Professor Robert Edelmann.
'But a family secret is never a good thing. And if suddenly a child - or worse an adolescent - discovers the man they thought was their biological dad in fact is not, it can have devastating consequences.
It can cause a major imbalance family and lead to the child's rejection of the non-biological parent.'
For nurse Chloe Proctor, 22, who experienced just such a revelation when she was 19, the results were overwhelming and destructive.
'I found out I was donor conceived in the middle of an argument,' says Chloe, who lives in Bolton with her partner Michael, 24, also a nurse.
'It was the worst possible way to be told - the man I thought was my father suddenly said: "That's it. I've had enough. There's something I need to tell you right now." '
The shocking news was then imparted with callous disregard for Chloe's feelings.
'My brother and I were told that we were conceived using donor sperm. We were shell-shocked, and it has affected me to this day.'
'Mum wasn't there at the time of the argument, so was completely unaware he had told us. I felt I'd been lied to - why hadn't we been told earlier? It was the pretence that got to me - people saying to me, ''Don't you look like your dad?''
'All that time I'd been growing up with an image in my head which was one big lie. That had a huge impact on me.'
Psychologist Professor Olga van den Akker, of Middlesex University, says: 'It's often not so much the fact a person is a donor offspring as the way they are informed that can create psychological problems.
'If they are told during a row or inadvertently, and given no subsequent support, bad feelings can come out. Increasingly, they may idolise their donor.
'But we have to put it in perspective. All these children were conceived with intent. They were all wanted. And ultimately, as cultures become more open, the mystique of sperm donation will disappear.'
In the end, it was Chloe's father's inadequacy as a parent - rather than the fact that she was conceived by donor sperm - that killed her relationship with the man she thought was her dad. When the rush of anger and resentment had subsided, she could look at the situation calmly.
'Unlike many other children, I had at least been wanted by my mother. Though things weren't done in what I'd call an ideal way, Mum was always there for me and loved me unconditionally.'
The man Chloe calls 'this fraud of a father' had been absent from her early life and has now been erased from her present one.
'In one moment he became irrelevant to my life and I've had no contact with him since,' she says.
Narelle, too, was a teenager when she found out that she and her elder sister were donor offspring. She was 15 when her loving parents gently broke the news to her.
And though she was raised in a stable, happy home, she was profoundly unsettled by the revelation that the kind and dependable father who had cared for her was not, in fact, her biological parent.
Before the law changed on donor identification, nearly 30 sperm donors were recruited each month. This has dropped to ten
'I remember sitting there with my mouth open, with no idea what to say,' she says. 'It took me several years to process the information, and I'm sure this was why I was a teenage rebel and was difficult.
'For a while I buried the information deep inside, and then, when I was at university, I became involved with supporting other donor conceived children. I feel passionately that much more support should be given to us.
'In many ways, it's much harder than being adopted, because the adoptive community is well organised, there are many ways of finding out who are your real parents and there are lots of support networks.
'But we are like the hidden community, the one that people don't talk about, and I find that frustrating. It's such a complex issue, and it's so hard to deal with not knowing half of my family.'
Narelle's views chime with those of Caroline, who is married to 26-year-old services manager Tom. She was told early in her childhood that she was a donor child.
'My mum made me feel as if this was our guilty secret; a secret that no one should ever know,' she says.
'I didn't even tell my best friend. I've only started talking about it over the past few years, because I feel I have to let it out.
'I have to acknowledge how it makes me feel. When I was younger, I tried to ignore it and bury my feelings.'
Caroline's relationship with her mother became the casualty of their 'guilty secret'. She feels closer to the man who raised her, though she was not his biological daughter.
She also confesses she is at times envious of her three -year-old daughter, Charlotte, born to two loving biological parents into a conventional, Home Counties nuclear family.
'Sometimes I do feel jealous of her - she's so secure knowing who her parents are, and she'll never have this sense, as I do, that something is missing.
'I look at Charlotte and I can see my features and Tom's. She's so certain of herself, of her place in the world. But when I look in the mirror, I see only half a person and that's a burden to live with.'
Like two-thirds of the adults questioned in the U.S. survey, Caroline agrees that her absent father is 'half of who I am'. In common with many of the 485 18 to 45-year-olds conceived by sperm donation who took part in the study, she wonders about her biological parent.
'Of course I wonder about him - who is he, where does he live, do I have half-siblings?
'I'm not a scientific experiment, I'm a person, yet I don't know half of my identity. I have my mum's hair and eyes, but the rest of me is a mystery.
'I was clever at school and got high grades, while my halfbrother (from my mum's first marriage) got only one GCSE. Do I get my brains from my dad? Was he academic?'
The stark fact is that Caroline will never know the answers to the questions that haunt her. She has only a hazy outline based on speculation and surmise.
From the information her parents gave her, she thinks that because her mother was a nurse and the donor was a medical student. She speculates he supplied his semen, 'to make money'.
'It probably only took him a few minutes and he thought nothing more about it,' she says.
Meanwhile, Narelle's 12-year quest to trace her donor has yielded practically nothing.
'I've done as much as I can and I can't let it drag me down,' she says. 'For me, inside, something will always be missing.'
The last word goes to ethics expert Josephine Quintavalle: 'All the time legislation is moving to accommodate the interests of the adult who wants a child, but the child's interests are most important.
'In the interests of political correctness, our society has decided that a father can be anyone or nobody. But did anyone ask the child how they feel about this?'