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Egg & Sperm Donation: What Does It Mean to You?
a blog by David Kreiner, M.D., F.A.C.O.G. and J. Campos
In my 25 years helping couples achieve their family-building dreams, I've observed that one of the most difficult issues couples face is accepting the fact that one partner or the other lacks sufficient/fertile sperm or eggs to achieve a pregnancy. Typically, the affected party goes through emotional stages not unlike the grieving process. The loss of one’s fertility is, in a sense, a loss not so unlike the loss of a loved one. People have an image in their minds about how their life is going to proceed, one that includes building a family of their own. When that doesn’t happen as anticipated, it can be a shock that disrupts their lives, marriage, even work.
It takes infertile couples time to absorb the newly-learned facts of their inability to conceive. It affects their sense of self and identity and many cannot move forward with treatment until they have accepted their new role in creating this new family of theirs.
In many cases, the man must accept the fact that he will become the father of a child who is genetically linked to an anonymous donor. He must accept that his partner will carry a pregnancy created by donor sperm for nine months, ultimately going through labor and delivery. Men who have never been fathers sometimes put so much emphasis on their own lack of genetic contribution to the child that they often hesitate to through with the process. Some will go along with it for the sake of their partners for whom becoming pregnant, having a baby and becoming a mother is an essential need in their lives. Ultimately, as they see the fetus develop, observe their partner’s swelling belly, touch and feel the baby moving inside her and then delivered in the flesh, they become as attached as any baby’s father would be, just as if they were involved genetically.
When a woman is unable to conceive due to lack of fertile eggs, she goes through much of the same thinking. Unlike men, however, she feels the fetus growing inside her for nine months, sensing its life as it moves and its reactions to things she eats and does. She goes through the labors of childbirth. Universally, a woman forms a bond as strong as if she were the one who supplied the egg.
I have observed these reactions of intended parents using donor gametes (eggs) for many years, however, what I never got a sense of was what it was like to be the child in the equation. I had the good fortune to meet with a child of sperm donation that I assisted with early on in my career. It was interesting for me to hear what it meant from her perspective. Here’s how she described her experience:
“Those of you who are reading this may understand the emotional aspects of sperm and egg donation from the parent's perspective; however, you may be wondering about what sperm or egg donation means to the child. Some questions that you may be pondering; should I ever tell my child that they are from donor sperm? Is my child going to feel like they are missing a piece of themselves? If I never tell my child, will they ever think that they are different? Will my child know that he/she has no genetic relation to the man whom they will call daddy?
I can not answer all of these questions for you, but I can tell you about my experience of being from donor sperm. I always thought it was strange that I didn't look anything like my father and as I got older I thought I may be different because I had such a different personality than my father's family. But I just brushed it off and blamed it on me getting most of my genes from my mother. I found out the truth when I was 18. I was sitting at my kitchen table with my mom, talking about endometriosis and infertility. My boss
at the time finally got pregnant after a long struggle with infertility by using IVF with egg donation. She and her husband had been trying to conceive for several years and tried years of other treatments including surgical endometriosis resection and IVF using her own eggs.
It disturbed me that my boss had to get pregnant using someone else’s egg. I told my mother about this and said, "But Mom, it's really not her child". Her answer floored me. Mom said, "Well how would you feel if it were the other way around, with sperm?" I don't know if it was the way she said it, a face she may have made, or just intuition, but at that moment I knew I was in a similar position as my boss' unborn child. Years of not understanding why I did not resemble my dad and feeling different because of it suddenly cleared up in my mind. I said, "Dad isn't my dad, is he?" My mother's response was, "Your father loves you very much!" I began to cry. So many things were going through my head. Do I not have a dad? I cried because I felt at that moment that I was no longer close to my father; because my biological father was a stranger and I would never know who he was; because I was different; I had been lied to; that I felt a little stupid, everyone knew but me. I needed time for the news to settle.
I thought that the next time I saw my father would be so weird. I was expecting awkwardness, on my part of course, not his. He obviously knew how my mom got pregnant, but he didn't know that I knew or that I would ever find out. So when I saw my father for the first time after I knew the truth it was as if nothing changed, because nothing did change. He was still my father whom I loved very much. I looked at him and almost had a sense of relief. No, not because I didn't want to be like him. I had this sense of relief because I finally knew why we didn't look alike. I wasn't crazy, I was right, all this time.
He still to this day has no idea that I know. In fact, I bet he doesn't even think about it. I'm sure he looks at me as his daughter no matter whose genes I come from. Now, when we talk about why we are not alike personality-wise, that's still a question of nature vs. nurture. Some say I am like him and his family. Of course, those traits of his that I see in myself are only the good ones.
So now that I finally know the truth and things haven't changed between my father and me, I can move on with my life and put this past me. This happened several years ago. Within these past few years I have occasionally thought things like "Who is my biological father?" "What does he look like?" "What does he do?" "Is that him? Or how about that man, he looks like he could be my father." I would think about it almost every day and sometimes several times a day. I became increasingly curious and fascinated with whom my biological father was as I got older. Today, I would not exactly say that I am obsessed with learning who he is, what he looks like and what his family history is but I wish there were a way I could. I am very thankful that I am here and that this anonymous man donated to my parents to help create me but I cannot help but feel somewhat incomplete without learning and even experiencing that man who contributed to my being.”
This girl, created with donated sperm, is a happy, well-adjusted young woman embarking on a married life and career of her own. She loves her father very much despite his lack of a genetic link. She also did not seem to have a difficult time accepting the truth, but in fact was relieved to finally understand why she felt different than her father. Her desire to meet her sperm donor is interesting to me, but I suspect that is human nature to be curious about your genetic parent and family history.
Some in the field suggest opening gamete donation up so that donors are not anonymous. I’m not certain that is best; anonymity is very important to most donors and many intended parents. I do know that many couples become parents and many children are born who never would have been without the assistance of gamete donation.