Donor conception laws challenge family relationships

Victoria’s world-first donor conception laws challenge relationships between donor-conceived adults and their parents

Researchers have found that while Victoria’s donor conception laws champion openness, families continue to struggle with long-held beliefs about masculinity, infertility and secrecy around sperm donation.

The study, published in Men and Masculinities, analyses the experiences of 17 donor-conceived adults who came to know their donor after new laws gave them access to previously anonymous records.

“An increasing number of donor-conceived Australians want to connect with their sperm and/or egg donors, bringing an end to the secrecy that has always accompanied donor conception,” explains lead researcher, Professor Fiona Kelly.

“Victoria is the only state in Australia, and the only jurisdiction in the world, that permits the identity of anonymous donors to be revealed.”

Kelly, along with co-authors Barbara Cosson and Deborah Dempsey, discovered that this unprecedented ‘openness’ in law challenged the relationships between donor-conceived adults and their parents.

“Male infertility has, historically, been marked by stigma and shame,” says Kelly. “Men who become fathers using donated sperm have rarely wanted their children or close family members to discover they are not biological fathers.”

Of the 17 donor-conceived participants, only one had grown up in a family in which both parents were willing to discuss their donor conception origins.

For the others, the issue was shrouded in secrecy. “It was usually mothers who told them of their donor conception, often without their father’s knowledge, creating a pattern of intergenerational secret-keeping,” says Kelly.

While the new laws prompted more open discussions in some families, most struggled to reconcile long-held family secrets with the desire to know their donors.

Those who chose to search for their donor often created new family secrets to protect their parents, particularly their fathers, from the decision.

“The stories participants told us about the stigma of infertility, the necessity for secret-keeping, the creation of new secrets and the passing of secrets to new generations, are indicative of a cultural lag, where one aspect of culture – in this case, openness – changes more quickly than notions of masculinity and legitimacy of secrecy in donor conception.”

Their findings, providing rare insight into the social and emotional impact of donor linking, will help to shape future law reform in Australia and overseas.

Read the paper.

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