The Sunday Times

Sunday July 4 1999

FOCUS

Children of sperm donors may soon be allowed to trace their fathers. Some have already found them, threatening a crisis for families, report Zoe Brennan and Christopher Goodwin

Family found: David Ross with a picture of his children, conceived from sperm that he donated as a student. His daughter Lindsey, below, strongly resembles his mother. Photographs: Andy Kuno

TRACKING DOWN THE TEST-TUBE FATHERS



The phone call came out of the blue but it was one that David Ross, a 39-year-old piano teacher, had been half-expecting, half-dreading for years. The conversation was to transform his life.

It was a social worker who told him that two children, twins born from sperm he had donated many years ago as a student, now wanted to contact him. The 14-year-olds - a girl named Lindsey and a boy named Jeremy - had provided pictures of themselves. Ross was upset and angry.

"I found it difficult to believe this was happening - it was shocking," he said. "The form I signed legally entitled me to anonymity and should have prevented this. There should not have been any contact whatsoever. It just should not have happened."

This is America, however, where 30,000 children a year are born through donor insemination and some clinics in the thriving and largely unregulated fertility industry are buckling under pressure from the donors' offspring and passing on requests for contact.

It is a foretaste of what could happen in Britain, where the government is now considering lifting the ban on identification of sperm donors to their children. Already one woman has managed to track down the father who sired her through artificial insemination.

For Ross, the full consequences of his earlier actions emerged only when he received the pictures of the children at his home in San Francisco. Lindsey bore a striking resemblance to his mother, who had died not long before. Jeremy had eyes that were much like his and a similar shock of curly hair.

Ross decided to proceed: "I didn't want to make any child unhappy, or make them feel less than whole or lose sleep. I felt that if I could let them know more of who they were and where they came from, that was the least I could do."

To avoid possible legal pitfalls, he drew up a contract with the children's mother, Becky Peck, a divorced business executive who lived 1,400 miles away, near Kansas City, Missouri. It specified that Ross would have no responsibility for the children.

After months of e-mail and telephone conversations with the twins, Ross flew to meet them. The first night they talked until the early hours of the morning. The next day Peck woke to find him tidying her kitchen. "I have never got along so well with anybody so quickly and so easily in my life," she said. "For the last 14 years I've lived with two parts of him, my children. It's like I was already very familiar with him."

Last August the Pecks went to stay with Ross for five days in San Francisco, where they were welcomed by his family. They now communicate almost every day and meet regularly.

Ross, who has eight other donor children who could contact him at any time, and Peck believe the relationship has worked because they were both single. "If I or she were married, or had other kids, it could have ruined a family or a marriage," said Ross. And there is the nub of the dilemma for the government. If ministers were to give children a right to seek out their donor fathers, what could be the consequences for both sets of families? At the same time, most experts believe there would be a fall in sperm donors if they were no longer guaranteed anonymity, destroying the chances of thousands of infertile couples to have children. Balanced against that is the right of children to know where they come from. Adopted children have had such rights since 1975, so why not those conceived by artificial insemination?

JENNY SIMONS had often wondered why her father was so aloof and unloving towards her, but it was not until she was in her early twenties that she discovered the reason.

"I had often questioned my mother about it," she said. "One day, when we were having such a conversation, I suddenly realised he was not my father. I think the seed of doubt had been growing that he wasn't my real father for some time. Suddenly it became something I knew."

Simons (not her real name) confronted her mother. "She initially denied it. I became extremely angry and began to shout and say it was not for her to keep it from me, that I had the right to know. Finally she capitulated and told me the whole story."

Simons was one of the first children in Britain conceived by artificial insemination using the sperm of a donor. Half her relatives were genetic strangers, yet Simons felt only relief that the years of rejection by her father had at last been explained: it was his sense of shame, rather than any fault on her part.

For the next 20 years, Simons put her mother's admission to the back of her mind, convincing herself the circumstances of her conception were unimportant.

It was only when she was pregnant with her first child that she felt she had to find her "real" father. Every time doctors on the maternity ward asked for her medical details she was reminded that she knew only half her genetic inheritance.

Armed with the name of the clinic where she had been conceived, Simons discovered the donor was probably the doctor who had run the centre.

Staff disclosed that, in the early experimental days of artificial insemination, it was common for doctors to use their own sperm: how many children he had fathered is unknown. Now any donor is limited by law to fathering 10 children.

Confirmation, however, eluded Simons. He had died some years before. She contacted his widow, despite fears that she might resent claims that her husband had fathered children outside his family.

The widow's reaction was unexpected: she welcomed the contact and arranged for Simons to meet the doctor's daughter, who phoned the next day offering to undergo a DNA test.

It proved the doctor was Simons's father, making her the first person in Britain to trace her donor parent. "The emotions I experienced at that moment were possibly more intense than any I had ever experienced," she said. "They were on a par with giving birth. I screamed, I cried, I laughed, and I was shaking all over. I went immediately to my mother's house, cried and hugged her."

Two years later, Simons's family is still adjusting to the discovery.

She believes her parents' "secret" had a devastating effect on family relationships, destroying their marriage and leaving her feeling deeply insecure.

Such secrecy is not unusual. Researchers estimate that only 10% of parents who use sperm donors tell their children, partly because of fears that it could destabilise the relationship between child and father, and that it could awaken a desire in the child to discover the identity of the genetic father.

Dr Michael Humphrey, a London University psychologist who has counselled 200 couples going through donor conception, said: "It exacerbates any existing tensions within a family and can leave the husband feeling undermined because it reopens all the regret he felt when he was first told he was infertile."

Most fertility clinics oppose the lifting of anonymity because of fears it could deter sperm donors.

In Sweden, where anonymity was removed in the late 1980s, the number of donors fell sharply, although some clinics are now reporting a steady rise.

About 2,000 children a year are born to sperm donors in Britain, adding to the estimated 30,000 already conceived in this way. With advances in IVF technology, where both sperm and egg can be donated and implanted in the "host" mother's womb, there are a further 2,000 who are unrelated to either one or both parents.

While most are not told of this, those who are tend to support a change in the law. Alexina McWhinnie, at the University of Dundee, who has studied older children born to sperm donors, said they were often angry they were not told because they suspected they were different because of their looks.

As the numbers increase, advocates of reform say it has become not simply a moral argument about the rights of children to discover their real identities. Christine Whipp, who was conceived by donor insemination in the 1950s, said: "There is a risk a child of a donor might meet their half-sibling, fall in love and never know the genetic link."

Whipp discovered her origins three years ago, when she was 41, although her mother had warned her there was a family secret 10 years previously but refused to divulge anything more.

"What makes me so angry is that everyone in this - my father, my mother, the clinic - deliberately set out to create me but thought it right to withhold information every other child has the right to. I feel like I am a nobody."

It was in response to such feelings that the government took the first step in 1991 towards removing anonymity by instructing clinics to collect information on donors that could, in the future, be handed over to their offspring.

In a little-publicised clause within this legislation, children born since then will, when they reach 18, be able to ring the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to ask whether they are the product of a sperm or egg donor. So far the government has promised only that they will be given a yes or no answer.

"The first children are now seven. They could find out in 11 years. If parents want to avoid giving their children a shock, now is the time they might want to sit them down," said the HFEA.

Experts, however, see it as a potential timebomb for the government and for those families: will those children be satisfied simply to discover half the truth? More likely they will want full details of their genetic inheritance and the men who created them may find they can no longer hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.