By Laura Witjens, Chair of the National Gamete Donation Trust
I’ll never know what made me watch breakfast television that morning. Being a single working mother with two one-year olds, it was a luxury I could ill afford. But I did, and one of the items changed my life forever. The same day, I contacted a fertility clinic and told them I wanted to be an egg donor.
It was the year 2000 and discussions about the removal of anonymity from egg and sperm donors were only just taking place between patient groups and other fertility organisations. For me, at the time just a willing and partly-informed donor, the notion of being known to any resulting offspring wasn’t even a blip on the radar. The counsellor who I saw at the clinic was satisfied I knew what I was doing and, other than the known medical ones, no other long-term implications were discussed. Some months later the deed was done: 13 healthy follicles were harvested and I left the clinic with the feeling I’d done something momentous. Just how momentous, I only found out years later.
Not satisfied with the information available, as well as certain parts of the process, I made another life changing step. I contacted the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT) and asked if I could volunteer. I became a Trustee and, motivated by the pending removal of anonymity and differences of opinion with other Trustees, I went on to become the Chair. It’s a position I’ve held for the last six years and in this time I’ve taken part in many gamete donation discussions.
I firmly believe in leading by example, a philosophy I carry through to my work as a business woman and as Chair of the NGDT. So, with such an emotive subject, how could I lead an organisation without putting my money where my mouth was? If I truly believed in the identity of the donor being disclosed to the donor-conceived person, the legislation at the time of my donation shouldn’t have been relevant to me. I knew that re-registering as a known donor with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) might be futile, since the family created out of my donation would never realise that their donor was willing to be known. Still, it was a matter of principle for me, and one that required substantial soul searching.
I asked myself the many questions that many donors in my position might ask: Can I empathise so much with these people that I’m prepared to open my door, my life, my family at a time that suits them? At the same time, can I be distant enough and accept that whilst I am prepared to make important steps towards that person’s wellbeing, I will never find out if indeed they are well? More importantly, how would my children deal with this? They had absolutely no say in my choice to become a donor, but it’s known that many donor-conceived people are more curious about their half-siblings than their donor. In other words, it wouldn’t be me they were after; they would want to meet my own ‘flesh and blood’ children.
Through the NGDT I had access to donor-conceived young adults, donor conception parents and various fertility professionals. But not surprisingly the act I was contemplating was, and to a large extent still is, uncharted territory. It seemed no one could help me find the answers I needed. As not just a donor but also heading the NGDT, I did not just want to accept it – I had to wholeheartedly support and embrace it.
My answers came through my children. By then my seven year old daughter and son were developing into individuals with their own quirks, traits and habits. I divorced their father when they were one and remarried when they were four. In other words, I have my own social experiment going on with twins fathered by one man, raised by another.
My children have taken on habits from both men. Unlike donor parents, however, I know where this comes from and can share that with them when appropriate. This may seem rather trivial from the outside, but I know from experience that it does matter to them.
I donated to help other people less fortunate than myself. I went through weeks of unpleasant injections and examinations, believing I was doing the right thing. ‘Doing the right thing’ has been my drive through all of this: being a donor, leading the NGDT, raising awareness. And now doing the right thing means giving the children I helped to conceive access to information about me.
I have since re-registered and am happy to make myself available to the child born out of my donation. If I can help to give them understanding about themselves I will gladly help. It may seem like a little thing, but I know from experience it could mean the world to them.