Part 2: Disclosure from the Perspective of the Embryo Recipient

This is Part 2 of the Disclosure From the Perspective of the Embryo Recipient series. If you missed Part 1 and want to catch up, please scroll below or click here. In the week prior, we also covered the same disclosure issue but from the perspective of the embryo donor, scroll further down or click Part 1 and Part 2. More is yet to come in the two weeks ahead as we continue to evaluate this topic that is important to so many.

When is the Best Time to Disclose Embryo Donation to the Child?

If parents decide to disclose, it is seemingly better to do so earlier rather than later. Disclosing to a young child allows the child time to absorb the information. If disclosure occurs in adolescence or later, the young adult may feel mistrust, alienation, identity confusion, frustration and even hostility towards his or her family (Ethics Committee, 2004 & Mahlstedt PP, et al. 2010). About 46% of the donor sperm offspring who were told at the age of 18 or older stated they were confused about the disclosure. According to the research published, it seemed as though it was best to tell the child before the age of 10 because waiting doubled the number of children who were unsettled with the information.

How Often Do Offspring Inadvertently Discover Their Origins?

The most common reason for embryo recipients to disclose was a fear that the child would accidently discover the facts at a later date (MacCallum F, et al. 2007). When recipients are considering embryo donation, they commonly toss the idea around with friends and family. I urge caution here. The more people who know of their decision to be embryo recipients the greater the likelihood that offspring may discover their origins.

Even if the recipient parents keep the information to themselves, the children may still find out. One study of adult offspring of sperm donation found that about one-third of the individuals learned of their donor origins after an argument, from another person or they figured it out themselves (Mahlstedt PP, et al. 2010). In a recent study, about 10% (47/458) of the sperm donor offspring who were searching for their donors and half-siblings found out by accident (Beeson DR, et al. 2011). They either were apparently told by siblings, family or friends; discovered paperwork or unusual medical issues, overheard parents talking or learned as a consequence of divorce. Though sperm, egg and embryo donation procedures differ in many respects, when examining these two studies it is clear that there is a reasonable risk that the offspring will discover their origins even in the best of circumstances.

Are Embryo Donor Offspring Harmed by Non-Disclosure?

Interestingly, children do not seem to be harmed if disclosure does not occur. Also, if disclosure occurs early, neither the children nor the family seem to be harmed (MacCallum F, et al. 2007 & 2008).

Should Disclosure be Mandated?

Many hope that egg and sperm donation programs can move from strategies focused on compensation to a more altruistic perspective (Scheib JE, et al. 2008). Embryo donation is quite different since financial incentives, if they exist at all, are minimal and altruistic reasons for donating are currently the primary emphasis.

Unfortunately there is a much greater preference to discard or abandon embryos than to donate them. Placing any impediments to embryo donation, such as mandating disclosure, may not only reduce the number of embryos donated but will almost certainly result in a greater number of embryos discarded or abandoned. I cannot imagine that advocates for mandated disclosure would want the loss of embryos and potential families to be the unintended outcome.

There also has also been a push to create a national registry for egg and sperm donation (Ravitsky V, et al. 2010). Embryo donation might also be included in this process. Amongst many issues involved in such a registry, the following concerns exist:

  • Who would pay for the registry?
  • What information would be kept?
  • Who has have access to the information?

As a field, we must be concerned about the safety of medical information of such as a private nature and which previously was privy to only a few people. It is frightening to learn how unsecured online medical information has become. These are real privacy concerns about millions of health records left unprotected, as reported by the government.

If a national registry actually is established, who will pay for it? Who will have access to it? Can you imagine the terrible impact it might have if someone hacked into the database and either released the personal medical information or tried to blackmail parents so that disclosure wouldn’t occur?

Until better safeguards can be designed, I will have significant concerns that private medical information will not be safe in a national registry.

Summary Comments

The decision to disclose the use of donated embryos to create a family is an extraordinarily difficult one for embryo recipients. As will be discussed in a future blog, discussions with mental health professionals are not adequate to help recipients make this decision.

I feel that if the recipient starts to tell friends and family that donated embryos were used, the need for disclosure grows significantly. It is very destructive for children conceived through third party assistance to find out their origins during adolescence and beyond.

One of the common reasons given for not disclosing is fear that the non-genetic parent will be rejected. Actually, there is no data to support or deny this concern. Embryo recipient parents seem to make great parents and the children are well adjusted regardless of disclosure decisions. That stated, it is pivotal that unintended disclosure not take place as this can cause irreparable harm to the family as a whole.

While counseling with a mental health professional is encouraged, their tendency to immediately equate embryo donation with adoption shows bias in suggesting uniform disclosure. Patients want support and guidance as they work through the difficult decisions but do not want to be told what to do.

The discussion of infertility is less of a taboo but there are still areas of society as well as some religions that will reject the child and the family created through donor eggs, sperm and embryos, causing potential harm to all. It is not for me to say that disclosure is right or wrong. It is my place to help educate the donors and recipients so that they can make the best decision for themselves and their embryo donor children.

The Last Survey In The Series:

To make this discussion as interesting and as current as possible, I will ask that the reader participate in the following survey. The survey below is to be taken assuming you were the offspring of embryo donation. I will summarize the results of this survey in the next blog while reviewing the information we know about the disclosure issues from the perspective of the embryo donor offspring.
Please ask your family, friends and anyone else interested to join in the survey and add comments to the blog as we wade together through the complex issue of disclosure of the embryo donation process to others, especially the child.
Survey: “Imagine You Were an Embryo Donor Offspring

Next Week:

Please be sure to watch for our next blog that will be titled, “Embryo Donation Disclosure Issues From the Perspective of the Embryo Donor Offspring”.

References: Ethics Committee of the ASRM. Informing Offspring of their conception by gamete donation. Fertil Steril 2004;81(3):527-31.

Golombok S, Lycett E, MacCallum F, Jadva V, Murray C, Rust J, Abdalla H, Jenkins J, Margara R. Parenting infants conceived by gamete donation. J Fam Psychol. 2004 Sep;18(3):443-52

Klock SC. The controversy surrounding privacy or disclosure among donor gamete recipients. J Assist Reprod Genet. 1997 Aug;14(7)-378-80.pdf

Jadva V, Freeman T, Kramer W, Golombok S. The experiences of adolescents and adults conceived by sperm donation: comparisons by age of disclosure and family type. Hum Reprod. 2009 Aug;24(8):1909-19.

MacCallum F. Embryo donation parents’ attitudes towards donors- comparison with adoption. Hum Repro 2009;24(3)-517-23.

MacCallum F, Golombok S, Brinsden P. Parenting and child development in families with a child conceived through embryo donation. J Fam Psychol. 2007 Jun;21(2):278-87.

MacCallum F, Keeley S. Embryo donation families: a follow-up in middle childhood. J Fam Psychol. 2008 Dec;22(6):799-808.

Mahlstedt PP, LaBounty K, Kennedy WT. The views of adult offspring of sperm donation: essential feedback for the development of ethical guidelines within the practice of assisted reproductive technology in the United States. Fertil Steril. 2010 May 1;93(7):2236-46.

Ravitsky, V. & Scheib, J.E. (2010). Donor-conceived individuals’ right to know. Hastings Center Bioethics Forum 2010;40:(4).

Scheib JE, Ruby A. Contact among families who share the same sperm donor. Fertil Steril. 2008 Jul;90(1):33-43.

Shehab D, Duff J, Pasch LA, Mac Dougall K, Scheib JE, Nachtigall RD. How parents whose children have been conceived with donor gametes make their disclosure decision: contexts, influences, and couple dynamics. Fertil Steril. 2008 Jan;89(1):179-87.

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