Children as young as three should be told the truth about their sperm-donor fathers

First UK study of children conceived by artificial insemination revealed to the 'IoS' has prompted fierce debate. By Sophie Goodchild
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Children as young as three should be told that they were conceived with the help of a sperm donor or risk psychological damage in later life, according to groundbreaking new research. Amid calls for a dramatic shift in attitudes towards children of sperm donors, the first British study into the lives of "donor-assisted" children and teenagers will be presented to fertility experts at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) annual conference in London tomorrow.

Children as young as three should be told that they were conceived with the help of a sperm donor or risk psychological damage in later life, according to groundbreaking new research. Amid calls for a dramatic shift in attitudes towards children of sperm donors, the first British study into the lives of "donor-assisted" children and teenagers will be presented to fertility experts at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) annual conference in London tomorrow.

The study, which last night prompted fierce debate about the dilemmas over sperm donation, focused on children aged between five and 18 who were either told as toddlers or before the age of seven that they were conceived as the result of anonymous sperm donation.

Some parents said that they had gone against the advice of clinics, which had warned them to keep their fertility treatment secret from their offspring, relatives and friends. But Professor Eric Blyth, the co-author of the study, said that parents who do not tell their children may end up bearing a heavy psychological burden.

"My view is that parents should tell their children as soon as the child is old enough to understand," said Mr Blyth, professor of social work at Huddersfield and expert on fertility treatment and child welfare. "I think that most children are able to understand at least the basics by about three or four years of age. If the child does find out accidentally or from someone else then there are all the repercussions of 'why didn't you tell me?' and 'what else haven't you told me?'"

The call re-opened debate about the ethics of telling children about their genetic heritage and at what age. A spokeswoman for the charity Infertility Network UK said yesterday that there was not necessarily a need to tell children, especially at such a young age when they might have difficulty understanding.

"It all depends on the circumstances, and the decision of the parents should be respected," she said.

Research published earlier this year by the Family Child Psychology Centre at City University in London found that while there was a greater trend in being more open with children, not all parents felt comfortable with it.

"People who did not want to disclose felt it was irrelevant, or their infertility was personal to them," said Dr Emma Lycett, a City University researcher.

The new research, carried out by University of Huddersfield and the Open University, will say that telling toddlers their genetic father is a sperm donor does not damage the bond with their parents or a young person's sense of identity, and can even strengthen relationships.

The move comes as children of sperm donors gain new rights to find out about their genetic fathers. Until now the identity of men who donate sperm has been protected, but next month this anonymity will be lifted. Anyone conceived after 1 April this year will at the age of 18 be able to ask the HFEA for details that could identify their genetic mother or father. However, some clinics have argued that this will lead to a shortage of sperm donors because men will be deterred from coming forward.

The Huddersfield and Open University study suggests that, although some children would like to trace their genetic fathers, they have no wish to form any emotional attachment with them.

Since 1991 around 25,000 children have been conceived through sperm donation. The treatment is vital for couples who are unable to become parents because either the husband or wife is infertile or they carry a genetic disorder that could be passed on to a child. Insemination with donor sperm has been used in the UK for decades although it did not become common until the 1970s. The use of donor eggs is a more recent development, with the first baby born through this method in 1987.

Although thousands of babies have been conceived through sperm or egg donation, a huge taboo still persists about telling children they are the product of assisted conception. Some studies suggest that nearly half of parents have not told, or are unlikely to tell their children they were "donor-assisted" babies.

Professor Alison Murdoch, chair of the British Fertility Society, said yesterday that the majority of people who conceive with a donor do not tell their children. "Secrecy is not helpful, but to tell a child as a teenager is equally not good - it suggests they have been living a lie. As soon as parents begin to tell a child about the facts of life they should tell them. Mummy and Daddy will still be Mummy and Daddy."

'I'd like to trace my donor dad'

Susannah, 18, from London, doesn't remember her parents telling her she was a donor baby.

"It is something I just seem to have always known about. Not only does that make it feel normal to me, if anything it makes me feel a bit special.

"Walter is undoubtedly my father. Hewanted me to be born and I am thankful for that. Your father is the person who raises you and is there for you.

"It really upsets me when people say things like 'I have my father's nose and my mother's mouth'. When you know which bits of you came from your mum and your dad you can focus on who you are.

"One day, though, I would like to trace my donor father because I hate not knowing half of my genetic side."

Steve Bloomfield

'I told my class. They were cool about it - and interested'

Patrick Turner, 10, who lives with his parents Matthew and Judy near Stoke Sub Hamden in Somerset, cannot remember a time when he did not know that his genetic father was a sperm donor.

In his opinion, knowing about the special nature of his conception at an early age has helped him deal with the knowledge in his own way.

"It did come as a bit of a shock at first, but I told my whole class at school and they were cool about it - and really interested. If I was told now it would come as a much bigger shock, but if you are told when you are young then you always know and it's normal.

"I know that he [the sperm donor] has blue eyes and golden brown hair. But although I want to know what he looks like, my dad is still my dad. I am interested to know if I am anything like him - even a little bit. But I don't know if I'd like to meet him if he was a smoker or a drinker or anything like that."

Sophie Goodchild

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