In the Fifties, two doctors secretly pioneered donor insemination. But the children they helped to create were denied the most basic truths about their heritage - and they're still suffering the fall-out. EMMA COOK tells their stories for the first time
All unhappy families have secrets, and those secrets will always have a destructive effect. Invariably they will cause the most pain to those who are not party to them. And they will always, in one way or another, be found out.

This is the story of David and Christine, two children born as a result of artificial insemination by donor (AID) in the early 1950s. It is the story of two pioneering doctors, Margaret Jackson and Mary Barton, who worked in secrecy to change the course of fertility treatment forever. It is also a reminder of a fact that can get lost in the fertility treatment debate; that a child's identity is based upon a knowledge of who their parents are. To deny them this information can have tragic consequences.

David, 46 and a solicitor, always felt his parents were different to other families, although he could never pinpoint exactly why. "I felt that we were in some way outsiders. We were quite isolated from other people."

When David was nearly 14, his father, Oliver, invited him into the study and announced he had something important to tell him. "It's as if they took the story of my life and then tore it up," says David. Oliver told him that he wasn't his real father, that he had been unable to have children and so his mother had been artificially inseminated with an anonymous donor's semen.

His mother had, in fact, visited Dr Barton. She had been desperate to start a family and Barton said she could help her. It was 1952 and there were no fertility treatments, only the stigma of failing as a woman if you couldn't conceive. Barton offered David's mother a dramatic solution. With some conditions.

First, the child would never be able to trace the real father. Barton felt that if potential mothers knew the donors, there was a risk their affections may be diverted away from their husbands. Also, the process would have to be kept secret; the medical establishment was deeply disapproving of Barton and Jackson's activities. There was no counselling and, in those days, no concept of the psychological implications. David's mother agreed to the treatment immediately.

"They didn't recognise the force of emotions such a process would bring into play," says David. Soon after Oliver told David the truth, he and David's mother separated: "I think my mother came to feel alienated and saw my father as unmanly." David barely spoke to his father for the next four years, although they have a close relationship now. He is close to his mother but says she probably feels the decision to opt for AID was a mistake; it was too high a price to pay. For years David suffered from depression. He never had a chance to find out even the sketchiest details of his real father's identity. The records had been burnt years before.

The secrecy surrounding his birth slowly poisoned almost every relationship in the family, but he feels it was the dishonesty, not the process itself, that caused so much destruction: "There should be more openness. A donor insemination family is a three parent family; you need to face that and deal with it."

The process itself throws up all sorts of uncomfortable feelings that are difficult to confront in today's climate, let alone in the austere emotional hinterland that was post-war Britain. In many cases the child's needs were inevitably overlooked. "It was an annihilating experience and my identity became based on meeting other people's needs," says David. "For a time I felt as if I didn't really exist." As a result

of talking about his experiences he has come to terms with his past and, happily married with two daughters, he loves being a father. Still, though, David feels that the people involved didn't really care about him. "They lied to me about something so consequential and those lies were leaky and insecure."

Barton and Jackson's procedure, unwittingly perhaps, does seem to have favoured the needs of the parents, the donor and the doctors over the child's. Yet both doctors believed it was a humanitarian response to women who were in a desperate situation. Ruth Brooke, Dr Barton's daughter, says of her mother's work: "She felt that at least this way they could have their own children rather than adopting them - she felt very sincere about that."

And they were operating in hostile conditions. In 1945, Barton wrote a medical paper on her methods and the Establishment was horrified - at this stage they were seeing up to 200 women a year. There was a storm of protest from the Church and the medical profession - the fact that it was two women who had pioneered these operations added fuel to the fire. There was a feeling among critics that the procedure could destroy the family and threaten the existence of the father.

By the late 1950s, it was believed that several thousand children had been born as a result of AID and concern was so strong that a commission was set up to investigate the evidence. It decided not to criminalise AID but was against regulating it too - that would have implied approval. Instead, the Establishment turned a blind eye.

So the treatment continued - as did the stigma and the secrecy. Christine Whipp, 44, a full-time mother living in East Devon, only found out about her real history four years ago, in a letter from her mother. They are not on speaking terms now. "It was the missing piece in a jigsaw puzzle - I could finally make sense of everything."

She was quite calm about her mother's revelation: "I felt vindicated. My father had died when I was six years old but I always knew he wasn't really my father. I was convinced from about the age of 11 - I always felt I belonged somewhere else. We lived in a small town; curtains twitched. If anyone had found out, it would have been terrible for my mother.

"She would watch me like a hawk, studying me, I now realise, for the traits of someone she didn't know. There was so much anguish and angst, and I was the focus of it."

In many ways, Margaret feels sorry for her mother. "It must have seemed so simple. She was an ordinary factory girl and these women offered her a solution." Christine's resentment is focused instead on Jackson. "I am angry with her. She was obsessed with making babies. I think she was stepping into God's shoes." She is adamant that the rights of children of AID were overlooked by those responsible for their births. "Where did I benefit? Where did anyone give me any consideration? The baby has always been left out of the equation."

Sixty years later these issues remain unresolved; children born between 1935 and 1990 by AID have no legal right to access records held by donors. Children born since 1991, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was set up, will have the right to access limited information when they are 16 or about to marry. They can find out two facts; whether they were conceived by IVF or AID and if they're related to the person they're marrying. Angela Mays, a member of the support group DI (donor insemination) Network, says, "It isn't the details of the act that can cause these problems. It's what surrounds it. My children have known they're the product of DI since they were two years old. It may not make it right but at least they'll know everything I know; they'll know I haven't tried to hide anything."

Even if they only have access to a few more facts than AID children of Christine's generation, at least they won't suffer the trauma of a family secret that is confessed too late. Christine's anger has not subsided. "I am a product of science fiction. I should not have been born," she says. "Everyone should have the right to know who they are. I've been denied all the things other people take for granted; the building blocks of the personality. I'm half the person I could have been."

`Witness: Secret Fathers' is shown on 12 July at 9pm on Channel 4.

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