Donor conception–a type of adoption?
As a donor-conceived person, I have used the phrase “half adopted,” because for some of us donor-conceived people that is how we see our family situation. In the classical sense of donor conception (DC), we have one parent who is biologically related to us and another who is not. In essence, this non-biological parent is in fact agreeing to raise and care for a child who has been conceived by their partner and another person. In effect, they are agreeing to adopt this child as their own. An exception would be embryo donation, in which case I would argue that is a case of full adoption occurring prior to birth rather than after birth (which occurs in all other cases of adoption).
The first and most obvious similarity between DC and adoption is the separation from the biological family. For some donor-conceived people, there is a great sense of loss resulting from this disconnection. While many people might assume that we only grieve for the loss of our biological parent, for many it can be that entire half of our family tree. Like adoption, there may be unknown siblings. There are many cases of dozens ,and in some instances 50 or more, siblings created from one person’s donations. Not only are we having to deal with the loss of not knowing and growing up with our siblings from the donors' normal procreative activities, but from what can be countless donations. This unknown and intangible “sibship” can be perplexing, and the numbers of potential siblings can be disturbing.
As it is for many adoptees, the loss of biological relatives is not just about that immediate family but the larger family unit, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, etc. It is this whole family what do you mean, “half adopted?”construct that defines who we are and that also provides us with a sense of our own culture that is indigenous to us. Both adoptees and donor-conceived people are deprived of these things that every other person enjoys and values deeply.
Loss of kinship, loss of self
Some donor-conceived people suffer from what is termed genealogical bewilderment, where their place in the world is intangible due to this loss of kinship. This is a component of the identity construction process that we all go through growing up.
Adding to the problematic identity construction is the fact that one of our progenitors is not in our lives on a daily basis. That mirror of ourselves in looks, behaviors, likes and dislikes, that helps mould and answer those questions of who we look like and follow after in our mannerisms and attributes is missing. Some donor-conceived people say that they look in the mirror and only see half of what is looking back at them or even don’t know what face it is they see in the mirror.
Just as adoptees may have no familial medical history to go on to help them when visiting their doctors, donor-conceived people are unable to accurately and factually answer questions that their doctors may have. Missing half of this history can be equally as damaging as missing all of it, particularly if that side of your family carries an illness or disease that you are unaware of. Both groups are being denied the ability to have full autonomy over their own health and may then be an increased burden on any health system; however, access to such information has the potential to alleviate such problems.
Pain and secrecy
There is an incredible dichotomy that seems to exist in both adoption and donor conception. Some feel a deep sense of abandonment and loss, but there is also a societally imposed requirement for both groups to feel grateful for their current situation. That could be gratitude to the adoptive family for wanting and accepting the adoptee or gratitude to the commissioning parents for wanting a child so much that they went through medical intervention to circumvent their infertility.
Subsequently, this imposed gratitude does not allow for either group to feel and express sorrow for their losses–what is termed disenfranchised grief. I find this dichotomy unacceptable and both groups must be allowed to freely explore and express their losses as each individual sees fit as part of their own healing process.
In some DC families, there is a great deal of secrecy, just as can occur in adoption. Most donor-conceived people will never know of their conception and will believe that both of their raising parents are their flesh and blood. Secrets are toxic and erode the family’s foundation. There are numerous donor-conceived people who have reported that they felt as though they didn’t somehow fit in their family.
For myself, I am in no way like any of the people on the non-biological side of my family. It does not reduce the love I have for them; I am just not “them” (if that makes any sense). All too often this secret gets disclosed later in life, when we are adults, and may occur during times of distress such as the death of a family member, divorce, etc. This late discovery adds to the pain that some of these donor-conceived people feel as they realize that they have been deceived all of their lives. The reality that they had constructed about who they are has just disintegrated in front of their eyes.
While for some that may have felt like something was amiss, the news may be a relief. Either way, the person who this pertains to will forever be changed in a way that is difficult to comprehend.
Working together for change
With an incredible number of people who are either adopted or donor-conceived in the world, who may have shared similar experiences (while still having some differences), I see it as vitally important that there be a bridge between the two groups whereby they can help each other. We can only create meaningful societal and political change in his world through strength in numbers and, therefore, if all adoptees and donor-conceived people work together to aid each other in advocating for rights to access what is essentially the same information (accurate birth certificates, who our families are, what our health histories are, etc.), then we stand a much better chance for this to occur.
Ever since exploring the outcomes of my own conception, I have a much better understanding of what it might be like to be adopted. While I will never know exactly what it would be exactly like, I hope that my own experiences have given me a deeper understanding and compassion for others who have been separated from their families for whatever reason.
Damian is a donor-conceived person and a medical researcher who lives in Southern Australia. He blogs at www.donatedgeneration.blogspot.com. A version of this article originally appeared as a guest post at The Declassified Adoptee. Reprinted with permission. www.declassifiedadoptee.com.