Part 2: Disclosure from the Perspective of the Embryo Donor Offspring

This is Part 2 of the Disclosure From the Perspective of the Embryo Donor Offspring series. If you missed Part 1 and want to catch up, please scroll below or click here.

How Should Embryo Donor Offspring be Told About Their Origins?

I wrote in the third segment of this blog series about the best time to disclose genetic identity to embryo donor offspring. I believe that disclosing this information before children are ten years of age may be far better than waiting until they are older, which significantly increases the probability they might be unsettled with the information (Mahlstedt PP, et al. 2010). One of the interesting themes in our surveys has been the consistent finding that the vast majority of respondents would want to know about their origins before age 12 with 91% (10/11) certainly before the age of 18. If Open-Identity were to be practiced in embryo donation, connections between the offspring and the donors may best occur far earlier than what is currently seen with adoption.

Experienced mental health professionals may prove invaluable in helping parents present this sensitive information. Reproductive endocrinologists well versed in this topic may also be very useful in deciding how and when to tell children. Forums where parents can discuss these issues with other parents who have experienced them may also be indispensible.

I soon will be reviewing a children’s book on this very topic, sharing my thoughts about it with my readers. So stay tuned.

What are the Long-Term Consequences of Disclosure?

Members of donor-linked families may have a significant mismatch regarding their levels of hope and expectation about contact (Scheib E, et al. 2008). Some of the participants may have a tendency to romanticize the first meeting and subsequent relationship. My simple recommendation at this time is to move slowly and carefully, without inappropriate expectations.

It is exceedingly important that the relationship between the parents who raised the child and the embryo donor offspring not be harmed, as this is the basis for the child’s stability and home life. The fear that this relationship will be damaged is one of the main reasons recipients prefer to not disclose.

Remember that little is known about long-term consequences following disclosure and the subsequent contact between embryo donor offspring and their genetic parents and siblings. The complex emotional interplay between embryo donor offspring and the parents who raised them, the embryo donors and the offspring’s genetic is completely unknown. This area of research is sorely needed.

In our most recent survey, 68% of the respondents would tell immediate family, their own children and their significant partners about their embryo donation origins. The only hesitancy involved friends with 40% (4/10) stating that they would not disclose. Once again, the long-term consequences of disclosure remain uncertain with some societies and religions perhaps being less than welcoming to an embryo donation-conceived individual. It would be irresponsible for us as clinicians to assume that all will go well. We must remain cautious and counsel our patients carefully and individually until we have more information to help guide them.

Will the Embryo Donor Offspring Be Hurt by Not Being Told?

Studies that have specifically examined the psychological well being of embryo donation offspring indicate that embryo donation families, independent of disclosure decisions, are faring well (MacCallum F, et al. 2007 & 2008). Warm parent-child relationships and positive child development have been documented although few of these donor embryo-conceived children have yet entered adolescence (Golombok S, et al. 2006). While more data and follow up studies are certainly needed, embryo donation children do not seem to be at increased risk for developing psychological problems during early and middle childhood, regardless of disclosure decisions. The children that were not told of their origin were do as well as those who were told.

Children whose parents do not tell them about their embryo donor origin cannot suffer from lack of disclosure.  Whether the parents tell or not, there is research to show that embryo recipient parents may be more attentive and warm to their offspring than natural conception parents.

While not definitive, the research we have so far suggests that disclosure decisions, either for or against, will not cause irreparable harm to the embryo donor-conceived individuals or the parents who raise them.

Summary Comments

Currently, the legal rights of embryo donors and recipients override the strong desire of embryo donor offspring to learn more about or even meet their donors. There is a push to mandate disclosure, but the consequences in the world of embryo donation may be dire. It is quite likely that more embryos will be discarded or abandoned before donors will be forced into an open-identity process.

Using terms such as “mother” and “father” for those who raised the embryo donor offspring should be maintained. The terminology that is used to describe the embryo donors can get confusing. It is my personal choice, but “donor mom ” and “donor dad” seem the simplest and kindest to all.

Reproductive facilities need to prepare for disclosure requests and adhere to record retention guidelines, whenever possible, to avoid unfortunate lapses in information and potential legal consequences.

I understand a donor-conceived individual’s strong desire to know more about their donors. I believe that providing the donor’s medical, surgical, psychiatric, family and social histories is quite reasonable when disclosure occurs. However, providing actual identifying information needs to be handled carefully and thoughtfully. Impartial research to examine the long-term consequences of open-identity issues in embryo donation is sorely needed.

Since physicians take an oath to cause no harm, we all need a bit more information and guidance in caring for our patients, embryo donors and recipients. We must never forget, however, the embryo donation-conceived individuals, who were never our patients, are still owed thoughtful care and tremendous compassion. We have much to learn from them.


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