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What Should You Tell Your Child If They Were Conceived Using Donor Eggs?

The birth of the first child conceived through egg donation in 1984 ushered in a new era in infertility treatments. Many children conceived with eggs from donors since then are now old enough to learn about their origins.  Yet therapists who specialize in fertility issues urge parents to assess a child's emotional and intellectual abilities before deciding when and how to disclose information about use of donor eggs.  This is true for discussing conception of any child with assisted reproductive technologies. 

Before telling children that they were conceived using eggs from another woman, parents should first carefully assess a child's emotional and intellectual capacity to process that information, according to new guidelines published by the American Infertility Association (AIA).

Since ovum donation was first used successfully in 1984, thousands of children have been born using this advanced infertility treatment.  In this procedure, the egg from a donor is fertilized with sperm (usually from the male partner of a couple).  The embryo is then implanted into the birth mother's uterus to achieve a pregnancy.  This is significantly different from other forms of in vitro fertilization in that children born using this procedure are genetically linked to the egg donor, rather than to the woman who gives birth to them and then raises them.

Some parents may choose not to share this information with their children.  Others choose partial or full disclosure, or discussion on a need to know basis.  To assist parents with their decisions, the American Infertility Association (AIA) has recently released guidelines that provide important insights on a range of options.  The recommendations were developed by Gloria Demby, CSW, and Patricia Mendell, CSW, two nationally known therapists who specialize in treating individuals and couples with infertility.  The most important guide to making that decision, according to the authors, is to understand what impact disclosure may have on a child and on the parent-child relationship.

The new guidelines, "Talking with Children About Ovum Donation", present advice for parents on options ranging from secrecy to full disclosure, including:

Many experts feel that maintaining secrecy about ovum donation is not the best long-term option for most children and families.  They note the risk of an unplanned discovery and the negative impact that holding secrets can have on individuals and families.  Despite these concerns, some parents do choose to keep this information a secret in an effort to protect their child and family. Because donation is often anonymous, parents may also feel that their ability to offer only incomplete information may not offer a child the desired levels of comfort and understanding.  Therapists caution that bonds of trust may be damaged if a child learns about ovum donation from a source other than his parents.  They also caution that, in the future, testing could make it easier for children to learn whether they are genetically linked to their parents.

Partial disclosure is recognized as an important option for many parents for several reasons.  Details can be presented in stages over several months or even years as a child develops and is able to process more information successfully.  Parents can also monitor a child's response to determine the optimal time to offer further details. Introducing the subject with partial disclosure also helps children to feel more comfortable about asking questions when they feel that they are ready for more information.

Full disclosure is an option chosen by parents who believe that a child should be told about his or her origins from the beginning.  This approach parallels current thinking about disclosure in adoption, which emphasizes openness and disclosure.   Again, therapists caution that such decisions must be made with the child's best interests in mind.

For parents who choose disclosure, the AIA guidelines note that children 4-5 years old are usually able to process basic information about how babies are conceived and born. During adolescence, therapists caution that children may probe for more information about their origins, and may also develop resentments toward parents for decisions that cause them to feel isolated and different.

According to the guidelines, parents should present this news to children using positive language, noting that they are grateful and very happy that the egg donor made it possible to have them.  Mothers should reinforce the bond with their child by discussing their own positive feelings about pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood.  And when the father's sperm is used in conception, the mother and father can reinforce their mutual involvement in the conception and birth.

"Talking to Children About Ovum Donation" is published by the American Infertility Association and is available to the public free of charge from the AIA web site at www.americaninfertility.org

Created: 11/2/2000  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

 Before telling children that they were conceived using eggs from another woman, parents should first carefully assess a child’s emotional and intellectual capacity to process that information ... 

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