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

Brendan Ritter (22 years old) recently found out he was a donor.
He said that his first feelings after hearing the news were for his mother. My parents believed it was very important to have a child. Donor conception made this possible, which I find beautiful.

He is now able to relax and is not in any hurry to call his biological father. His records are available to his mum for when he is ready. It will be quite chill, I believe. He says, "Well, have a beer, talk about it, and then continue."

Ritter is part a new generation, a donor-conceived (DC), adult who has come of age following technological and regulatory changes that have forced an industry once closed to its books to at least some extent.

Even for donor-conceived children who are only a few years older than they are, it is nothing that can be described as chilling about learning their biological parents.

The industry has caused harm to people

According to a submission submitted by the Fertility Society of Australia, artificial insemination with fresh sperm was practiced in Australia since the 1950s.

Australia's first IVF child was born in Melbourne in 1980. The fertility industry became a wild west in the years that followed. With uncapped anonymous donations, recipients parents were discouraged from telling donor-conceived children the truth about their parentage. Medical records were also lost or obfuscated.

Narelle Dickinson is a fertility counselor and director of the Fertility Society of Australia & NZ. This industry's peak body says that in the past things have been very bad.

The industry has caused serious damage to DC residents.

There was an early assumption that it was best to pretend that a donor had not been used. In fact, there was even an effort to conceal the donor conception through choosing donors with very similar physical characteristics. For the past 18 years, I haven't seen any evidence that this practice was ever used.

Counselling parents is now an obligatory part of the Australian process. It is in the best interest of the child to know that their donor was chosen as soon as possible.

There are no secrets to donor conception any longer - DNA testing is widely available and it's not difficult to find out.

This is legislation in Victoria. The first legislation to grant donor-conceived children retroactive access to their biological parents was passed by Victoria's state legislature in 2016. The legislation is called Narelles law and was passed following the death of Narelle Grech (a donor-conceived woman) from heritable intestinal cancer.

Dickinson claims that jaws fell worldwide after the law was passed. It is a huge motivator for us to improve. It is not something that anyone in the industry would like to do.

Half of the people I knew weren't real

Although clinics are no longer allowed to accept anonymous donations (as required in NSW, VIC and WA), the laws that govern donor information and identification differ from one state to another. Many donor-conceived individuals have difficulty obtaining information about their biological parents.

Many have turned to DNA technology platforms such as Ancestry and 23 and Me to find the truth. These companies offer genetic testing that can reveal information many donor-conceived children have never heard from their parents.

These platforms have been used by some to discover dozens, if not hundreds, of siblings. Others have used them to find their biological fathers.

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

Kerri Favarato (39), was one of those people. Ancestry.com helped her find Digger, her brilliant biological father in 2017. She said it was freaking amazing.

I assumed he would be dead or not want to have anything to do with me. She says the opposite. This created a whole new story.

It was a long journey to get there. Favarato claims she was not provided any assistance by the clinic that treated her. Favarato claims that one time she called, they said her records had been destroyed by a flood. Then it was a fire. She called the office of the information commissioner in order to get more information.

I kept asking myself why I was interested in knowing this, and I finally answered that it was to my medical records. It was really a desire to find out where my quick wit and piercing blue eyes came from. My people. Half of the people in my life were not real.

Favarato finally learned the truth after a telephone conversation with a doctor who kept her records. She learned about her conception and was open to the possibility of having several half-siblings.

We have been repeatedly disappointed by Australian governments

Some donor-conceived children are organizing and lobbying, despite their secret identities.

Sarah Dingle, journalist and author of Brave New Humans, addressed the UN in November 2019. She was joined by eight other Australian delegates.

The requests: Limit donations to five families (in New South Wales and Western Australia, men can donate up to five recipients families in Tasmania). It is 10 in all other states.

Dingle states: Australia appears to have one of the most cohesive and cohesive populations of DC people anywhere in the world. However, Dingle believes that only a small percentage of these donors-conceived Australians know the truth about their parents.

Mandatory disclosure isn't the only area Dingle feels that existing laws don't go far enough. She cites the 2013 Australian Senate Inquiry recommendations that have not been implemented and states that Australian governments have repeatedly failed us.

She refers back to the past fertility industry as pure animal husbandry, and states that it has been around for decades without any consultation or consideration of donor-conceived people such as me.

It won't change, unless it is forced to by legislation.

This belief is shared by Dingle and others. Many adult donors distrust the fertility industry, and aren't convinced that self-regulation will right the wrongs done in the past.

Favarato asks why clinics are not held responsible for lying, destroying documents and trauma. It is unfairly on DC residents to manage their own affairs.

As I did, she had her own identity crisis.

Alana McDonald claims she was numb after learning the truth about her paternity. Photograph: Alanna McDonald

Alana McDonald (38), a Sydney woman, believes that the focus should shift from parents who might be interested to have children to their care. Humans are not gifts. We don't exist to be given to our parents.

McDonald's conception was not only bad for her but also her mother. McDonald's was like many other anonymous donors. Her father, a medical student, was encouraged by his lecturer to donate.

McDonald's mom kept two facts about McDonald's: that he was Irish and that he was a musician. None of this information turned out to be true. McDonald's claims that they switched donors last-minute.

She had grown attached to being partially Irish. After she traced her donor father and explained all the lies, he averted the tension by saying, "You were expecting Bono, but you got me!"

My mum's notion of me was based on a McDonald's lie. As I did, she had her own identity crisis.

Favarato shares this existential pain, as well as the grief at having potential, unknowing siblings. She says that knowing where you came from is an important part of your growth. The feeling is called hiraeth. Welsh for homesickness, the Welsh word means a desire to return to a place that you have lost or cannot go back to.

Donor-conceived children have access to the information of their biological fathers when they turn 18 years old. Favarato believes that it is too late.

What is her message to potential donors?

Don't wait until 18 to give your biological child access. Don't donate if you don't want to.

This article was updated on 11/10/2021 to include Narelle Dickinson's quote. The quote was "There are no secrets in donor conception anymore" and she did not explain why DNA testing is now so widely available. This explanation has been updated.