• Podsoc #37

The right to information for donor conceived people:

In conversation with Damon Martin

[Transcript of this podcast is found in the tab below]

Do donor conceived people have to the right to information? Damon Martin talks about the rights of donor conceived people and the similarities, differences, and the lessons we can learn from adoption. Historically, both practices have been shrouded in secrecy and while adoption practices have significantly changed over the years embracing a new sense of openness, donor conception remains far from transparent.

Damon Martin is a social worker with 15 years experience working in child protection and adoption services in New Zealand, England and Australia. For the past five years Damon has managed the New South Wales Office of International Social Service (ISS) Australia. ISS Australia provides a range of international social work services, including international child welfare/protection, international parental child abduction and international post adoption tracing and family reunification. Over the years, Damon has acquired a wide range of experience within both pre and post adoption services and has more recently become interested in the similarities between adoption and donor conception. Damon has presented on ‘The Right to Information for Donor Conceived People; Lessons Learnt from Adoption’ at the ISS conference in Canada in May 2012 and at the National Post Adoption Meeting in Melbourne, Australia, in October 2012. Damon is also the Chairperson of the New South Wales Committee on Adoption and Permanent Care Inc.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2012, December 16). The right to information for donor conceived people: In conversation with Damon Martin [Episode 37]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/the-right-to-information-for-donor-conceived-people/.

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Transcription Podsocs 37: The right to information for donor conceived people: In conversation with Damon Martin

Thank you to Dominic Somers for this transcription

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.
Today on Podsocs we’re speaking to Damon Martin about the right to information for donor conceived people, particularly drawing on the lessons learnt from adoptions.

Tricia: Welcome, Damon.

Damon: Hi there, Tricia.

Tricia: Damon, would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and where you’re from?

Damon: Sure. My name is Damon Martin, I’m the manager of the New South Wales office of International Social Service Australia. We’re a small non-Government organisation that’s been around for about over 50 years in Australia. We provide international social work services, so mainly our core services are: post-adoption tracing and family reunification with an international aspect; international child welfare, which handle like, international kindship care placements and assessments; and, we also handle international parental-child abduction. My background, I’ve been a social worker for 15 years. Born and bred in New Zealand and began my practice in New Zealand. Been working in New Zealand, the U.K. for 6 years and Australia in child protection and adoption.

Tricia: So is that what’s led you to your work with donor conceived people?

Damon: Yeah, I suppose. I suppose I’ve been involved for many years in both pre-adoption and post-adoption practice. And I suppose in the last year or so I’ve just really been interested in the donor conceived world and really drawing on the similarities from adoption practice.

Tricia: So what sort of things have come to your attention?

Damon: Well, I suppose that both have a long history in Australia, but a lot more’s known about the early adoption practice, you know. Both were really, or both were historically shrouded in secrecy. And, you know, whilst secrecy has really changed in the adoption practice over the years and now we embrace a new practice of openness, I believe donor conception practice is still in it’s infancy.

Tricia: When did it start? I’m just trying to remember.

Damon: Well looking at the history of donor conception, it’s been around for, for many years. And I think I’ve worked out that, back in 1884, in the U.S. at Philadelphia’s Jefferson Medical College, they performed an insemination on the wife of a sterile man. And what the Professor did is he chloroformed the woman and then the students voted on the best-looking student, and at the husband’s request, the wife was never told. So, this basically goes down as the first ever donor conceived child. But there’s reports that his practice has been going on for many years in Australia, but I suppose we didn’t really see it properly increase until the technology to freeze sperm improved. So, this is around the early 70’s we saw a rise, the 1980’s we had our first IVF child in the world and I think Australia had the third IVF baby in the world. Till it’s just grown rapidly since then, you know, there’s reports that between twenty to sixty thousand donor conceived people live in Australia alone.

Tricia: And we don’t know even how many know that they’re donor conceived. Would that be true to say?

Damon: Exactly, yeah. The reports are that very few donor conceived people are told of their conception. Especially in the early era of this practice, and this is a practice that we did many, many years ago in terms of adoption and it’s when, you know, adoptive parents and social workers alike would tell people to bring the child up believing that the child was their own. We’ve never repeated this practice in the adoption field.

Tricia: So what’s the implications of not knowing that you’ve been donor conceived, or even not knowing who your donors are?

Damon: There’s, I think there’s huge implications. Basically, as we’ve learnt from adoption. And there’s still many, you know it’s fair to say, there’s many adoptees that still don’t even know that they’re adopted. You know, as an agency that deals with post-adoption services, we will often find a 50-year-old, a 60-year-old, sometimes even a 70-year-old coming through our door saying, “I found out last week that I was adopted”. So, this really shows that the adoption is life long and we call these ‘late discovery adoptees’. And to find out, you know, in later life that the whole basis of your relationship with your parents that have brought you up has been a lie, you know, has real profound impacts especially around issues of betrayal, lies, mistrust, you know. Often everyone in their entire extended family knew that the child, the person, was adopted and, you know, eventually this information will come out. We often refer to it in the adoption practice as a time bomb ticking away, so you know, it could come out at a wedding or it could come out at a funeral. And, for the person to know that everyone else knew, has this huge impact. So, in fact the same is happening in terms of um, donor conceived practice and there’ve been many people that still don’t even know that they’re donor conceived.

Tricia: So it’s that betrayal of trust that, that…

Damon: Yeah, yeah. It’s sort of like, it’s a view that the whole basis of this relationship and this upbringing has been formed on, on a secret and a lie. And, you know, that’s never, never healthy in any relationship. This is why we know for adoption practice, the best practice now is for the child to know at the earliest possible age, in age appropriate ways. And I’d be recommending that all donor conceived people are also told in the same way. You know, we know from adoption practice that if people grow up and they, they know about their adoption and they feel they’re able to grow up more adjusted and more understanding of their status, knowing that they’re adopted. You know, we also deal with adoptees that can remember, you know, a specific conversation when they were fifteen, when their mother sat them down to tell them this, you know, this story of them being adopted and things like that. So, we don’t, we don’t promote that at all. We think if you know from the earliest possible age, often you will feel… feel pretty well grounded, pretty good about your adoption or your donor conception.

Tricia: Because growing up with that knowledge, there’s no surprises.

Damon: Exactly.

Tricia: Damon, donor conception is often looked upon as a medical procedure, so I can imagine that many, many people who are able to conceive that way might find it hard to draw those parallels.

Damon: Yeah, there is a lot of similarities, but there are some very unique differences and I thought I’d just read a quote that I just think really captures it very well. Professor from the Australian National University, Richard Chisholm, he noted that “although numerous similarities are identified regarding adoption and donor conception, one clear difference is that the paramount principle of adoption is to meet the best interests of an existing child. Whereas the focus for donor conception is to meet the needs of parents for a child. Now, this is significant as the child, born as a result of donor conception, has historically been the end product to meet such needs, rather than being thought of as a person who will grow and who may have needs of their own, such as a desire for information about their donors.”. So, you’re quite right that the donor conception world is pretty much handled in the domain of health, as opposed to adoption, it’s handled within the… the child and family social work domain. Now, adoption’s highly regulated and, as you know, any prospective adoptive parent has to go through intense training and an assessment before an adoption can occur, as opposed to donor conception. There’s no assessment, there’s no training, there’s no sort of real counselling or insight as to what might be the needs of these donor conceived people as they grow. And, you know, I probably believe that… that health has little experience and understanding about the life long identity issues that donor conceived people are likely to face if we base this on our adoption practice. And, the follow up counselling and support that they’ll need. It’s fair to say that, you know, some states in this country have not enacted any legislation for donor conception.

Tricia: So it’s really left up to the individuals and their skills, and how they actually might anticipate some of those potential problems.

Damon: Yes, yes indeed. And, when I’m sort of… that’s the main difference, but drawing it back to the similarities, you know, there are a lot, you know. Firstly, adoption and donor conception, they both allow for the development of families outside the traditional married biological model. And both involve self-conscious choices to become parents. The next most obvious similarity is their importance, is the importance of identity, you know. Donor conceived people and adoptees may yearn for knowledge. Knowledge about their family history or their medical history. We also know that donor conceived people, similar to adoptees, have sometimes described this feeling of not fitting in with their family, knowing that there was something different. And, you know, also really wanting to fill in the missing pieces of their life. You know, this is information that the majority of us just take for granted and we have the luxury for knowing. The other big secrecy, um the other big similarity is around secrecy. And as I’ve said, both practices have been strongly shrouded in secrecy. They also talk about adoptive parents and donor conceived parents, you know they fear telling the truth but sometimes, you know, they have every intention to tell the child that they’re adopted or they’re donor conceived but they fear what it might do to their relationship with their child, and it’s a secret that they end up keeping. We know from adoption practice as well, and this still happens now, that they get denied access to information. You know, we know adoption practice has changed over the years and that a lot of the states enacted adoption information legislation, but they still have many, many hurdles to get to, just to access this information, which I believe, you know, a basic human right to have information on your biological parent. You know, this is especially profound for adoptees and their birth fathers, for instance, you know, not many birth fathers are named on an adoptees original birth certificate. So, often in the states around Australia, they can’t access any identifying information about their birth father, cos he’s considered unacknowledged. Donor conceived face these same issues as well, because they don’t even have an original birth certificate. They only have one birth certificate and on that birth certificate is their legal parents, so it doesn’t even name, they don’t have a document from Births, Deaths and Marriages that name their donors. You know, the other similarity I think is, you know, adoptees and donor conceived people may feel torn or disloyal growing up. They think “I want to actually try and search for my birth mother or my donor or someone like that”. Or feel like that might have to wait for their adoptive parents or legal parents to pass away before they instigate that search. So… so there’s many, many similarities.

Tricia: And there’s also the issue of medical information as well, even beyond identity or, or psychological issues.

Damon: Yeah, as I said, I think it’s a basic human right to have information on your biological parent. Basically, you know, I think it’s important that people do know that their, you know like, what their ethnicity is. What their family history is, personality traits. All those sorts of things. But I think it’s equally important that you actually know about your medical history, especially you know, this is going to become more important in later life. Now, you know, there’s only a small number of donor conceived people that have accessed this information due to the legislation in this country. I thought I’d read something that came out of the 2010 Senate inquiry into the past and present practices of donor conception. One woman said, “I cannot begin to describe how dehumanising and powerless I am to know that the name and details of my biological father and my entire paternal family sits somewhere in a filing cabinet, with no means to access it. Information about my family, my roots, my identity. I am told I have a right to know.”.

Tricia: What’s the current state of legislation in Australia? I mean, obviously with past practices where records weren’t kept or donations were anonymous, there’s no information to get.

Damon: Yeah

Tricia: But is there more access now?

Damon: Well, to give you a bit of an idea, Victoria’s been a real pioneer in terms of legislation. They enacted their legislation in 1984, they were… it was the first legislation in the world. And since then, they’ve updated their legislation twice. So now, basically in Victoria, donors, well there’s no anonymous donors, they’ve got to provide their details and donor conceived people can actually go to Births, Deaths and Marriages and when they get their birth certificate it will have a mention that there’s additional information and that will be given to them that they’re actually, they’re donor conceived. So that’s great, it really promotes openness and people knowing that they’re donor conceived. But, it’s important to know that this legislation is not retrospective, although there have been some developments. Last year, the Law Reform Committee at the Parliament of Victoria recommended that they introduce legislation to allow all donor conceived people the ability to obtain identifying information about their donors, regardless to when they’re conceived. And they believe that this right must be given precedence, even over the wishes of the donors who would like to remain anonymous. They looked at provisions along the same lines as we use in adoption in terms of contact vetoes, as a way of protecting donor’s privacy while still allowing information release. But it’s important to know that, I think they had 6 months to respond, and the Government in Victoria asked for another 6 months to research this more. So, these are just recommendations at present. But if this does go ahead, this again will be another world first. It will be the first legislation in the world that allows retrospective release of information. You know, in the most populous state here, which I’m based in, in NSW, our legislation was only enacted in 2010. So, it’s not going to be until 2028 that these donor conceived people can come and get their information about their, their donors.

Tricia: Is there any resistance to this openness?

Damon: Ahh, I think there is. There’s varying degrees, depending on how this should work, I suppose. You’ve got people that did donate historically, under the pretence that they would remain anonymous. I suppose that my view is that, you know, they could turn around and sort of say that, you know, like, “Hey we entered into a contract, per se, with the IVF and we wanted to remain anonymous. And that was the deal with the donor conceived parents when they got my sperm.”. But, it’s probably also fair to say that the donor conceived person, they weren’t privy to this contract, per se, or this agreement back then and so they have rights and needs as well. You know, they may really want to know information about their donor. It’s not about promoting contact and respecting, I think there’s another difference, I suppose, and it’s quite a clear difference in terms of adoption and donor conception is that, with donor conceived people, the donors are likely to have their sperm being used multiple times, so they can have many offspring. They’re also likely to have many half-siblings, too. But, you know, it’s important to know that for a donor conceived person meeting their half-sibling, might be the… or sharing information with their half-sibling, might be the next best thing to meeting their donor if that’s not viable.

Tricia: And I imagine, I might be wrong, but would the IVF clinics perhaps be fearful that the numbers of donors would reduce?

Damon: I think they’ve found, and that’s what I’ve been hearing is, since they ended anonymous sperm donation, the numbers of donors has dropped. I’ve also heard now that a lot of the sperm donation is actually sourced now from the U.S. and other overseas countries. So that’s also a concern and we know that from the work that I do at International Social Service, that when the donor conceived person accesses their information about their donor, and it might be Joe Bloggs, this is his social security number and he’s from the States. They’ve also got to navigate an overseas system to try and get information or contact or outreach their donor overseas. So, you know, that’s an added complication as well.

Tricia: So there’s obstacles at every… everywhere they turn.

Damon: Yeah, and you know, like, similar to adoption too, you know with the Federal set up of Australia, everything is State based. So, you’ve got central registers in some States and voluntary registers, but they’re all State-by- State based. So, and as we know, the world is very global now, people move throughout Australia all the time, but they also move throughout the world. So, trying to find their donor or, you know, get information like their medical history from their donor in 18, 25, 30 years, could pose some real problems. And especially, like you mentioned earlier, if there were no records kept at all or records were destroyed, it’s going to be a constant source of frustration for these donor conceived people.

Tricia: And I presume donors react in very different ways. You know, no two people respond to that need for information in the same way.

Damon: Yeah, that’s fair to say. And it’s fair to say, similar to adoption, you know, some adoptees want to just have their medical history, or find a little bit out about their family history. Some want to have direct face-to-face contact, if that’s possible. You know, there’s various degrees of what people want and what their motivation is. The same might apply in terms of donors, you know. I think I’ve heard, you know like, if you donated your sperm 20 years ago as medical student, as a young 20 year old and you’re now 40, you might have a bit of a moral conscience in thinking “well, I’ve got my own family and, you know, I don’t need, or sort of want to have contact with my offspring, but they might actually really want to know my family medical history, or they might want to know a little bit about my personality traits, ethnicities things like that, and might be willing to provide that information, just so, having a bit more understanding about identity issues, you know. So, I think some people think that donors aren’t willing to come forward and provide this information, but from what I understand, it’s a voluntary register in Victoria and the majority of people on that are donors. So, that shows that they do want to provide… they might not be wanting to have direct contact, but they’re wanting to provide some information. That might also be because donors know they donated sperm, and donor conceived people, there might be a huge number that still don’t even know they’re donor conceived. But, you know, they will eventually find out.

Tricia: Whether it be through some medical issue or someone telling them.

Damon: Yeah, I believe that there will be some that never find out, and same with some adoptees, we know that’s the case. But we just know from adoption practice, from years of practice being shrouded in secrecy, that they do find out. They find out later in life, and you know that’s, that can be really difficult to deal with, when your whole life you believed, believed this was the basis of your relationship. Then find out that everyone had been keeping this secret and telling this lie. And sometimes they come to us and they… they say “it all makes sense now, I always sensed something, you know, there was something different, you know, didn’t fit in”.

Tricia: So, what about services, Damon. I mean, should we be, should we have or do we have post-donor support, the same way as we talk about post-adoption support?

Damon: No. And that’s again, like you mentioned in terms of that health domain. Victoria, again is a very progressive State. And they’ve set up VARTA which is the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority. So, they provide a lot of training, you know, “Time to Tell” campaigns. But, I know that Vanish down in Victoria as well, which is a post-adoption service, provide a little bit of counselling. What you’ll find is that the professionals working within the post-adoption field are probably the closest equivalent field to work with these donor conceived people, especially around their issues of identity, grief and loss. It’s no coincidence that when they set up a matching and linking service in the U.K., called U.K. Donor Link, they based it within After-Adoption Yorkshire, because they believed that the adoption professionals working within their organisation had already the skills to deal with intermediary work, counselling around identity. But they just needed that additional training to really understand the additional needs and issues in relation to donor conceived people.

Tricia: So, are IVF specialists starting to include some of these concepts in their thinking?

Damon: I think so, I think they’re… I’ve talked to some counsellors and social workers that work in hospital IVF fertility clinics and they’re understanding that the need to base their work on an adoption model of reunions, doing intermediary work, supporting the client through this process. So, I think that they are trying it and it is happening, but I think the problem arises when the person goes back to the IVF clinic where they were conceived and there isn’t any records and they’re hitting brick walls or they’ve registered their details on the register and they’re still not getting any information about their donor or their half-siblings. My view is, and this is what I’m trying to work towards, is DNA is the way forward in terms of it’s the gold stamp, in terms of proving a match between family members. Now we’re already using it a lot in the adoption field, especially in the reunions for the birth fathers. An adoptee will, often when they’ve been linked or when they’ve found a birth father in an adoption/post-adoption case, they will often go down the route of doing DNA testing, just in order to firm up and really conclude that they are biologically related before they invest a lot of time and energy into a relationship. Now with the lack of records and the lack of legislation around Australia, I believe that having a national voluntary DNA database and linking service the donor can see persons and donors, is the way forward. Like I’ve said they already… the obstacles are State based, so national is the key, having something national. Voluntary is another key, I obviously don’t want anyone to provide their DNA or want to be linked or matched with their donor or half-siblings if they don’t want to. And using post-adoption professionals to provide that counselling and support through that process and really understanding what the other party wants in terms of the contact, like we do in adoption. Really basing that on an adoption model. So, I see that as a way that people who are just hitting all those brick walls and they can’t get any information, as another viable option. There’s nothing, nothing nationally out there. Look, there’s nothing nationally in the adoption field now, and look when we changed, you know, adoption information in most States and Territories was enacted in the 1980’s to provide access to records and openness, yet there’s still nothing nationally that an adoptee can do to find information about, in this coordination between the States and Territories.

Tricia: So Damon, if there’s anyone listening out there who, who can relate to this experience, should they be contacting the adoption service, post-adoption services in their State?

Damon: I think so, I think that’s the most obvious first port of call. And try and talk, they will be the, they will understand the issues that they may be facing, probably more than any other professional field. So, I would be suggesting that.

Tricia: Final words, Damon, half an hour’s gone quickly.

Damon: Yeah, well basically, I suppose I just really would like to say that, you know, the adoption practice has really changed over the years. We’ve learnt from our mistakes and we really practice in the spirit of openness. You know, openness provides stability but without withholding information about their biological family. We definitely know that adoption’s life-long and the past adoption practice is still felt by many. Therefore, I believe it’s critical that families and professionals in the donor conception field, they reflect and they learn from this adoption practice and not repeat the mistakes. I believe the world of adoption has a wealth of experience that’s highly relevant to donor conception. As I mentioned, there’s already a large number of donor conceived people and this number will continue to grow. Often, and still some States have not got any legislation at all. As I said a lot of donor conceived people don’t even know the details of their conception. And this is a practice that occurred in past adoption practice that is not being repeated. As we talked about too, on top of not understanding information about your family history, their medical history is equally as important. And this can be very significant, especially in later life. So, I believe there’s a new opportunity for the donor conceived world, and this means the clinics, the professionals involved, the donors and the parents of donor conceived people to lift the cloak of secrecy and embrace openness. And this would include keeping detailed records and ending all anonymous sperm and embryo donation. I also believe it’s imperative that families tell their child, from a very early age, that they’re donor conceived, as this is likely that they will grow up well-adjusted and happy. This approach avoids secrets and issues of betrayal. Parents who bring up a donor conceived child need to know that it’s perfectly natural for a child to want to know about their family and medical history.

Tricia: Damon, thank you very much.

Damon: Thank you, Patricia, thanks.

Tricia: Bye.

[Musical outro 30.40 to END]

Interview ENDS: 31.08