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Information for donors: getting ready for contact with donor offspring

From ISOGG Wiki

We’ve used the terms ‘donor’, ‘donor-conceived person’, ‘donor offspring’ and ‘donor-related sibling’ here but realise that you may use different terms


Who is this guide for?

This guide is for you if you have donated sperm, eggs or embryos in the UK and wish to get ready for contact with any offspring. You may have already heard from someone requesting contact and are keen to be well prepared. Or you may want to be ready in case you’re approached in the future.

Getting ready for contact can prompt a range of feelings, some unexpectedly intense or confusing. It can be an exciting time but can also cause anxiety. This is completely normal. Having contact – whether direct or through a third party such as a friend, relative or professional intermediary – is a big step to take. No-one can ever fully prepare of course, but hopefully this information will help answer some common questions and set out some of the issues that may arise.

Given that it’s more common for donors to be approached for contact rather than the other way round, this guide is written from the former perspective. However, if you’re wanting to initiate contact yourself then you may find it useful to also read the guide we’ve written for donor-conceived people.

What information am I entitled to?

If you donated at a UK clinic after August 1991, you’re entitled to ask the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) (the UK regulator) for details about how many children (if any) were born as a result of your donation, their gender and the year of their birth – but not their identity

If you donated to a UK clinic before August 1991 then you’re not legally entitled to any information from the HFEA but you can join the UK’s voluntary register, the Donor Conceived Register in case anyone conceived from your donation is registered with them now or in the future.

If you donated outside of a UK clinic, either informally or at an overseas clinic, then it’s unlikely that you have any legal entitlement to information.

What information you and the other person(s) share with each other after making contact is entirely up to you.

If I am contacted by someone who believes me to be their biological parent through donor conception, what are my rights?

No-one has a legal right to have direct contact with those to whom they are genetically related through donor conception. Equally, anyone can request direct contact unless there’s a specific legal ban in place (which would be very unusual). Take your time to decide how to respond to a request for contact as you may change your mind several times until you settle on what to do.

You may find it useful to talk it through with trusted family members or friends or with other donors who’ve been down this road. Consider taking the time to talk with an experienced professional intermediary worker and draw on their experience. They can also help make any contact arrangements and perhaps come to a first meeting with you, if that’s what you want. In some circumstances, you may be able to access this service free.

Whatever you decide, it will be very important to the donor-conceived person that they receive a reply from you, even if you don’t wish to take the contact further.

How are you likely to be contacted?

Most contact is made through email, Facebook, DNA testing companies’ messaging systems or (less commonly) letter and is usually done with care and sensitivity. Although the contact is most likely to come from the donor-conceived person themselves, it could also come from a third party on their behalf.

It’s also possible that you could be contacted by close family relatives of your donor offspring if they have used commercial DNA testing sites for other reasons and wonder why you appear to be related to them. This will require caution, sensitivity and tact on your part. Keep initial exchanges short and to the point as you try to establish whether they are aware that you were a donor and hence whether their donor-conceived relative is aware of their origins. If it becomes clear that they are not aware then you have to decide whether to disclose your involvement. Disclosure is likely to cause surprise and (probably) some disturbance for the relatives. It will also leave them with the decision about whether to inform your donor offspring and you might want to tell them of the available support organisations and web forums should they decide to do so. You should make clear your wishes about further contact if disclosure to your donor offspring goes ahead.

How does contact usually progress?

It’s not unusual for exchanges to go backwards and forwards for some time as you explore the way forward with each other and try to find a pace that works. Sometimes everything happens quickly.

If you move on to Skype, WhatsApp or phone calls, decide whether to set up names and numbers specifically for this contact.

There may be a mutual decision to meet up face to face and we cover that below.

At each stage, it will not only be your own reactions and emotions that you have to handle but also theirs.

What if I want to keep the contact private?

Depending on how you have been approached, you can request/set any of the following privacy restrictions; you can always change these later.

If you’re approached through email, decide whether to set up a separate email address for future correspondence, for example if you want to keep it private from anyone who has access to your existing email and/or separate to your existing email so that you only look at it when you feel ready to do so.

If you use Facebook in your personal life or through a public account that you’ve set up specifically to make it easier to be traced, review your current privacy settings to make sure they feel right in the light of this new contact. The settings may need checking from time to time as Facebook tweak their privacy settings regularly. Think about which profile photo you’re using and how much information you post.

If you’re approached by letter, decide whether to use your own address for future correspondence (assuming it has come to your home address) or a different one, say that of a trusted friend or relative. Of course, you can’t insist on this.

If you’re approached through a commercial DNA testing company such as Ancestry, My Heritage or 23andMe the request will come via the company’s messaging system, assuming you have signed up to ‘relative matching’. If you test at FamilyTreeDNA contact is made by email. You will already have decided before testing on a username (your own or a pseudonym) and email address through which to be contacted so decide whether to continue with those. If you’ve already uploaded a photo and some information about yourself in your profile, decide whether to review it. If you change your mind about contact you can opt out of relative matching at any time and opt in again at a later date.

How much information should I reveal about myself?

It’s usually a good idea to provide limited information in the early stages, especially if you’re not 100% confident that the other person is indeed genetically related to you. You can’t be sure who else will see your exchanges and you need to be as confident as you can that you won’t later regret any information you share, including about other people close to you.

If you have difficult information to share (for example that you have a genetic health condition that may affect them too) then it’s usually better to share this a little later, assuming you will have the opportunity.

Decide whether there are any specific questions that you want to ask about the other person at each stage.

What happens if I don’t hear any more?

It’s important to prepare yourself for the possibility that the exchanges dry up. There may be a range of reasons for this. For example, your reply may have gone into spam, the person may be on holiday, they might be ill, may be having second thoughts or may want to slow things down.

If some time passes without hearing back, then consider sending an email using the option to be notified when it has been ‘received and read’, or a letter by recorded or special delivery (i.e. one that has to be signed for and that you can track on line to see if it’s been delivered). But it’s worth being cautious.

When is a good time in my life to agree to contact?

This can depend on many factors. Where you are in your life at the moment may affect how you can cope with the possible ups and downs of this process, especially if you have recently been through a major life event such as a relationship breakup, birth, or death. It’s important to take into account what else is going on for you at this time or for those close to you.

Take the time to think about what you expect from contact, what your hopes and fears are and how you might manage your reactions. Contact may not live up to your expectations or it might exceed them. The other person may be very welcoming or want to keep you at arm’s length.

What are your best/worst case scenarios in the short and longer term? There are many possible outcomes and it’s helpful to give some thought to different possible scenarios.

Whatever you think at this stage may change in the event of actually having contact and might continue to keep changing over the months and years ahead. This is understandable but it’s important to be as clear as you can with the other person(s) as this is likely to be a confusing or unsettling time for them too.

Should I involve my family and friends?

Agreeing to contact can raise strong emotions in those around you as well as in you yourself. Their reaction may depend on how recently they became aware that you’d been a donor and whether they were involved in the decision. If they aren’t aware, then it’s important to decide whether and who to tell before any contact starts. While this is not always an easy thing to do, going ahead with contact without the knowledge of key others in your life can bring its own challenges.

Including your family in this process and being as open and honest as possible may help them and you feel more at ease (unless they specifically ask not to be kept informed). However this isn’t the case for everyone: you may be afraid of upsetting them or your relationships with them may be especially tense. Some family members may prefer you not to agree to contact. This may cause you to have mixed feelings towards them if they’re not supportive. Will this make a difference to your decision? How will you handle it either way?

It can be helpful to talk to friends or others who are aware of your situation (such as your doctor, minister of religion or counsellor) and whom you trust and know will support you. They may help you identify the pros and cons of contact as well as your expectations, hopes and fears and the possible impact on you, your family and your networks as well as on those with whom you have contact. But at the end of the day the decision is yours.

What if I know the other person’s parents?

If you donated to someone that you knew, say a family member, a friend or someone you met through an online matching service, then the situation may differ depending on whether you have kept in regular contact, whether there have been any rifts or disagreements and who else is aware of the situation. You may feel unsettled by the approach for contact if you agreed with their parents that there should be no contact or that the donor-conceived person should not be told of your role in their conception. Nevertheless, consider such a request carefully, given that the donor-conceived person themselves cannot be bound by earlier agreements.

What if more than one person in the same family was conceived using my donation?

This may not be clear when you are first contacted but it is something to be aware of. If there is more than one person, the implications may differ depending on whether any are not yet adult (in which case you may want to suggest involving their parents), and whether any or all are aware of their origins and of the approach to you.

On the whole, it’s better to encourage openness about any contact as most donor-conceived people, regardless of age, prefer being kept in the loop so that they can then decide how much they want to be kept informed. But you have to decide in what ways, if any, decisions made by the other person to withhold information from their siblings or parents affect what you agree to do.

What about the impact on any other donor-conceived offspring in the same family?

As above, be alert to the possibility that such contact might have repercussions for any siblings that weren’t conceived with your donation, including ones who aren’t donor-conceived. Although such repercussions are clearly not your responsibility, they may affect the way you approach the contact.

How much thought should I give to the other person’s expectations, hopes and fears?

Being approached may have come as a complete shock and you may need some time to work out how to respond. This may be your (or their) first contact with someone genetically related through donor conception. Or either or both of you may have already had contact with others. All of this can affect reactions so is worth being prepared for.

Your expectations, hopes and concerns may be quite different to each other and may keep changing. Are you or they expecting to have just a one-off communication and/or photo, or more? How will you manage any differences?

Take your time to see if you can reach a compromise over any differences. Think about involving others – friends, family or a professional intermediary – if you find it difficult to negotiate them.

What if they are totally different to me?

Consider how much, if at all, it will matter to you if their lifestyle and circumstances are totally different from yours – or if they’ve not anticipated yours. For example, you may be surprised by each other’s family set up or sexual orientation; you may not share the same social/educational/cultural background; you might have different political or religious views; you could have very different life experiences and lifestyles; and your first language may not be the same.

All these factors can impact on the contact and any relationships that may develop. You (or they) may be curious about the differences or you may find them unsettling. These are quite normal responses. Talking to trusted others can help.

How significant will be ‘nature versus nurture’ issues in whether the contact is successful?

How well you get on with each other will depend on a range of factors, so it’s difficult to estimate the influence of nature and nurture. For example, if you share the same values, interests and sense of humour then you’re likely to find it easier to get on. Some donors welcome seeing offspring that appear to share some of their own physical and personality traits (or those of their own children if they have any) but others can find that unsettling. Sometimes, neither party can find any identifiable physical and personality traits with the other and, if you had been hoping otherwise, that can be disappointing.

At any stage it’s likely that you will experience a range of emotions, sometimes intense and confusing. This is normal and don’t be afraid to seek support.

Is it better to use a third party in the arrangements?

There are pros and cons. The first consideration is whether you know anyone to act as a third party. If it’s a friend or relative you need to be sure that they will maintain any confidentiality you ask for, will go at your pace and that your relationship with them will not be compromised. The same is true if you use a professional intermediary; their advantage is that your relationship is solely to do with managing the contact and they have experience to draw on, whereas the disadvantage is that you may have to pay for their service and there are not many available.

What should I do if several people contact me at once?

This would be quite unusual but not impossible. You may be contacted by several people at around the same time who are related to you through donor conception but don’t know each other. Or an approach may come from one person on behalf of a group who already know that they are donor-related siblings. If so, check whether they’ve known each other for a while; whether new members have joined recently; and whether any have known about your identity for some time.

Decide whether you prefer to start with contact with just one person, or a few or (if they already know each other) all at the same time. Some donor-related sibling groups already have a mechanism for communicating with each other such as through an email, WhatsApp or secret Facebook group.

Where more people are involved, each will be coping in their own way and they may each have differences in their hopes and expectations from making contact with you. They may have a range of ages if your donations were used over some time. They may come from a range of backgrounds. Some may have been raised in the same family but it’s likely that most will not, so you will be potentially getting to know about a lot of different family and social networks too.

There may be others who join the group in the future and wish for contact. Or some who contact you direct, unaware of the existence of the group.

Bear all this in mind when thinking about how to approach this current contact.

What if I’m approached by someone who is unaware that I already know other offspring – should I tell them?

If you are aware of the identity of other people conceived as a result of your donation then you will have to decide if, when and how to share this with your ‘new’ contact. You will need to check out how much information they have already and whether they are keen to know more. It is also important to know how much information you have permission to share about those you already know.

You will need to decide at which stage and how to share the identity of your ‘new’ contact (with their permission) with your existing ones.

What is the best way to arrange a face-to-face meeting?

If at some stage you and the other person/people want a face-to-face meeting then decide together where would be the best place. Many people prefer to meet on neutral ground. If this feels right for you, decide on the type of place: a public space such as a café, hotel lobby, railway station or pub? Or an outside area such as a park? It will also be different if several of you are meeting and, if so, whether this is for the first time for you all or not.

In order to recognise one another, consider exchanging photographs beforehand or let each other know what you will be wearing or holding so that you can be easily recognised.

It can be useful to have some open discussion beforehand about any particular wishes and needs you each may have for your first meeting. For example, do you want to bring someone else along – maybe a family member, friend or professional intermediary – and do you want to have photographs or video recordings taken at the meeting? Although no one can predict the emotions and feelings you will experience when you first meet, it’s worth considering the range of reactions you may have, from elation, joy and fulfilment to sadness, anxiety and disappointment. It will not only be your own reactions and emotions that you have to handle during the meeting but also theirs.

It’s completely normal that your feelings and reactions – and theirs – will continue to unfold long after that first contact.

What if something goes wrong with the arrangements?

Hopefully nothing will go wrong! But sometimes, through no fault of either of you, something prevents you from meeting up as arranged. Rarely, one of you may feel so nervous that you fail to turn up. It’s important to discuss these possibilities beforehand. Think about how you can let the other person know if you’ve been held up or feel unable to meet face to face after all, for example sharing mobile phone numbers or checking if you can each access emails on your phone. If you don’t want to provide your personal mobile phone number then you’ll need to supply a different number or be prepared to take the risk of not being able to let each other know that the meeting is not going to take place.

Sometimes people find from the meeting that they have little in common or that they feel satisfied with a one-off contact and are therefore not sure if they want to take the relationship any further forward. This can be difficult if one person wants to continue contact and the other person does not.

Always seek support if you are feeling overwhelmed or distressed. There is no need to soldier on alone.

What happens if I find myself strongly attracted to someone I have contact with?

We’ve learnt from the adoption community that there’s the potential for intense physical and emotional feelings on both sides from face-to-face contact with someone to whom you’re genetically related, but don’t yet know. The other person could feel like ‘the son or daughter that you never had’ or you may not feel any connection to them at all. Occasionally people experience sexual feelings or what is known as ‘genetic sexual attraction’. If you experience such feelings, or think the other person feels this way, remember the roles and boundaries of any relationship with them. It could be useful for you to talk to a counsellor, either through your GP or privately. If you’re using a professional intermediary, for example through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority or the Donor Conceived Register, you might also talk with them about this.

How am I likely to feel after the first meeting?

Whether or not the first meeting has gone well, people sometimes describe feeling deflated the following day or so. Such meetings are major events and the high emotions that can be felt in the lead up to the actual meeting can contribute to a feeling of anti-climax afterwards. But not always.

You may both need time to digest all that went on during your meeting and all that you spoke about, so consider before you part what’s likely to happen next and in what time frame. If it’s clear from your meeting that you both want to meet again, discuss how and when this is likely to happen. You may prefer to speak to each other on the phone a few days after the meeting or to keep in touch by email, Facebook or letter.

If your meeting didn’t go well and you found it difficult to talk comfortably, you may want to ask for time to think about how to go forward before committing to anything, and suggest that it may be a few weeks before you’re in touch again.

However the meeting has gone, it might be a good idea to take the time afterwards to make notes about what you have found out about, or from, the other person while it’s still fresh in your mind. It’s easy to forget details if you leave it.

What if the other person/people want to meet my family (and my children) and vice-versa?

For some people, wanting to meet with each other’s family members will be a natural progression, particularly if the contact’s gone well and you have a lot in common. Others may feel uncomfortable about doing this, particularly if they’ve kept the contact secret from their family or their family have reacted badly. Relationships within families have to adjust as you – and they - try to make sense of what is happening.

It’s important for both sides to take their time and not feel under pressure. If you’re both ready then agree what words/terms you’ll use to describe your relationship to your families and on how you’ll explain the reason for you being genetically related. You always need to be ready for the possibility that some people in each of your families will opt out but also that this may change over time.

You’ll have no control over whether your agreements about who is informed and what terms and explanations are used are respected, especially once the information starts being shared more widely, but it’s an important starting point.

What self-help and peer support groups are available?

The situation regarding self-help groups and forums for donors is still very limited. These are almost all online, can include people from all around the world and often include donor-conceived adults and recipient parents as well as donors. As well as enabling you to have contact with others, some provide links to resources such as podcasts, clinic groups, films about donor conception and academic papers. There is a face-to-face group in the UK for donor-conceived adults and donors: the Registrants Panel of the UK Donor Conceived Register meets from time to time and also has a closed Facebook page. We are not aware of any ‘donors-only’ groups.

Remember that you’ll not all share the same views about donor conception. Donors will have had a range of experiences since they donated and will have a range of views about what having been a donor means to them today. Each group will have a different feel with the tone set by the moderators in charge of it. Some groups are secret and accessible by invitation only. Other groups are closed, which means that anyone searching Facebook can find them and ask to join, though the posts in the group are restricted to members only. There are also some public groups where all posts can be seen by anyone on Facebook.

Think carefully before sharing any information about yourself – once shared it’s out of your control. Always respect the privacy and sensitivities of others affected.

The US National Genealogical Society provides some useful guidelines on sharing information with others.

What professional and other support is available?

Unfortunately there are very few professional support services available.

For those using the UK’s Donor Conceived Register (for anyone who donated before August 1991), time-limited professional help is available free of charge. There is also some time limited, free professional support available through the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) for anyone who donated in a UK clinic after August 1991. This includes helping you make a decision as to whether to re-register as being identifiable (this applies to anyone who donated between August 1991 and April 2005) and help if you have been ‘matched’ with someone. This professional help can be either to help you manage any actual contact (known as professional intermediary services) or for therapeutic counselling. But for anyone else – including anyone who donated overseas or outside of a clinic – there are no free dedicated services in the UK.

Some people might be able to get free professional counselling through their GP but these counsellors are unlikely to be familiar with the impact of donor conception and/or making contact with genetic relatives. There are also private, fee-charging counsellors but, again, not necessarily with knowledge of donor conception or making contact with genetic relatives.

Top tips

✓Take your time deciding how and when to respond; having contact can bring ups and downs

✓ Remember that the experience of contact can vary – and that you or the other person/s can slow it down at any time or stop it altogether

✓ Have support in place, either family or friends or professional support or an independent third party; consider having contact with other donors or online dedicated support communities

✓ Consider those around you as they will be affected - and their reactions will affect you in turn

✓ Remember that contact may lead to you finding more persons conceived as a result of your donation over the months and years to come, some who already know each other and some who don’t

✓ Be prepared for the unexpected – you and the other person(s) may be very different to each other, including in your expectations of the contact

✓ Accept your changing emotions throughout; they are normal. It can take time to get contact right and comfortable for everyone, so be patient and kind to yourself

✓ Look after yourself and don’t underestimate how physically as well as emotionally tiring this can be

See also