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Donor Insemination: The Role of the Internet in the Experiences of Donor Offspring, DI Parents and Donors

by Alison Wheatley[1], Department of Sociology, University of Warwick

 

Abstract

This article discusses a study of internet use amongst those invested in donor insemination: donor offspring, parents who have used donor insemination and donors. The study aimed to discover the ways in which the internet was used to negotiate the issues surrounding donor insemination, including its role in providing a support network and as a tool with which to establish contact with donors and other kin. The study used email interviewing to investigate the ways in which groups invested in different ways interacted with each other, and how those interactions shaped their choices. The internet proved to be very important in providing both a community network for support, advice and validation and as tool for negotiating kinship, both through established websites and 'DIY' research.

Keywords: Donor insemination, donor offspring, kinship, internet use, secrecy/disclosure, online support networks

 

Introduction

Donor insemination (DI) is one of the oldest methods of assisted reproduction; experiments with this technique began in the late 1870s (McNeil, 2007: 63). The technique allows infertile couples, lesbians and single women to have children, although in the past official use has been limited to married heterosexual couples. One of the most recent developments in DI law has been the removal of guaranteed donor anonymity in many countries: systems of open-identity donation are in operation in the UK, the USA, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, The Netherlands and New Zealand (Freeman et al., 2009: 505).

Throughout its history DI has been the subject of debates about morality, secrecy and disclosure. These include issues about the ethics of anonymous donation and remuneration; the morality of DI itself and the effect on child development; whether anyone has a 'right to know' their genetic heritage; whether to disclose a child's donor-conceived status; and the emergence of new family forms through the fracturing of reproductive categories into genetic and social parents, among others. In recent years, the media has highlighted parents searching for genetically-related siblings for their donor offspring using the internet, showing the apparent importance of finding and maintaining kinship ties and family medical histories (e.g. Associated Press, 2006; Templeton, 2008). Other stories have focused on women finding donors through unregulated websites, and sometimes engaging in 'natural insemination' – that is, sexual intercourse with the donor (Smith-Squire, 2007). Although often covered in a sensationalist manner, these stories demonstrate the role that the internet plays in facilitating DI both before and after conception. DI debates remain firmly in the media spotlight, and new ways of practising DI and of performing kinship in relation to DI have developed that are bound up with internet use.

This research explores how the internet can be used to negotiate the issues surrounding DI: through supporting donor offspring and their families, as a source of donor sperm, and as a tool for establishing contact with donors and other kin. My research question was split into two parts: firstly, how people invested differently in DI , for example DI parents or donor offspring, use the internet similarly and differently; and secondly, whether contact with others who are invested differently affects the decisions they make, for example whether contact with donor offspring through online groups leads to more openness by DI parents.

 

Literature Review

Despite becoming less taboo over the last decade, DI remains the subject of various ongoing debates. Although legal fatherhood is automatically accorded to married fathers, for example, kinship within the context of DI can be problematic: there are others outside the immediate family who are bio-genetically related to the child and who may wish to make claims on them. Moreover, the legal system frames parenthood through a hetero-normative lens (Jones, 2006).


Secrecy and Disclosure

One of the most important debates is that of whether or not to disclose to the child their donor-conceived status. In the past, most DI parents have hidden the facts of their conception from children in order to protect them from perceived emotional harm (Daniels and Taylor, 1993: 157; Cook et al., 1995: 553; Gottlieb et al., 2000: 2053). However, this secrecy may stem from the desire to maintain the appearance of being a 'normal family', and to protect the father from the fear of rejection by the child and the stigma of infertility (Snowden and Mitchell, 1981: 41; Daniels and Taylor, 1993: 157; Cook et al., 1995: 556; Hargreaves and Daniels, 2007: 425). This is backed up by the finding that lesbian couples and single mothers are more likely to disclose their DI use to their child at a young age (Jadva et al., 2009: 1917). Various studies show that male infertility is associated with impotence or lack of virility, and therefore disclosing the use of DI can be damaging to men's masculinity as it implies sexual inadequacy (Czyba and Chevret, 1979, cited in Cook et al., 1995; Miall, 1986: 274; Throsby and Gill, 2004). There has also been a desire to protect the donor from unwanted intrusion into his 'normal' family life (Beck, 1984; Daniels and Taylor, 1993: 158). However, since many countries have introduced legislation which allows donor offspring to contact their donor when they reach maturity, this concern is no longer quite as valid. There have been fears over men's willingness to donate without guaranteed anonymity (BBC, 2009), although information released by the Human Fertilisation and Embryo Authority (HFEA) shows that, in the UK at least, there has not been a drop in new donor registrations (HFEA, 2009).

Children who grow up knowing they are donor conceived have been shown to be well-adjusted and comfortable, on the whole, with their DI origins (Golombok and Tasker, 1994; Chan et al., 1998; Lycett et al., 2004; Scheib et al., 2005). However, Turner and Coyle found that discovering their DI origins as an adult, often in sudden or shocking circumstances, could have a negative effect on the self-perception of donor offspring. Common feelings included that their life was a lie, genetic discontinuity and loss and abandonment by their donor (Turner and Coyle, 2000). Similarly, a relationship has been found between age of disclosure and donor offspring's feelings about their mother: those told later were more likely to feel angry and betrayed (Jadva et al., 2009: 1917). This suggests that openness in DI should be advocated from childhood. These studies have some limitations as they recruited from online support groups, which means that the participants were likely to be individuals with concerns or grievances about their donor origins, and that there are potentially donor offspring who do not share these concerns who could not be accessed through support groups.


DI and Kinship

Research into donor offspring with open-identity sperm donors has shown that the majority would like to contact their donors at some point in the future. In Scheib's study, many donor-conceived adolescents wanted to know what their donor was like and why he chose to donate sperm. They also had a desire to meet their donor's family and others who shared the same donor. This desire to establish kinship ties stemmed from a desire to learn more about themselves and their origins (Scheib et al., 2005). One study, which focused on members of the online Donor Sibling Registry, has examined the search for donor siblings and donors by donor offspring and their parents. It found that the main reasons for searching for genetic kin was curiosity, for donor offspring, DI parents and donors, although medical history and a sense of identity were also reasons given by offspring and parents (Jadva et al., 2007; Freeman et al., 2009:507). For the large majority of participants, contacting their donor relations was a positive experience, although some reported a negative experience (Jadva et al., 2007).

Hargreaves identifies the importance of physical resemblance in locating the child as part of a kin group; resemblance to the social father is often emphasised, minimising the donor's contribution (Hargreaves, 2006). It is also considered important in the selection of a sperm donor (Scheib, Kristiansen and Wara, 1997) and identified by donor offspring as a quality they would like in their 'ideal' sperm donor (Scheib et al., 2003: 245). It seems clear that physical appearance is an important issue in DI.


Support and Community

Many donor offspring find it therapeutic to talk through the issues they face with someone else (Turner and Coyle, 2000: 2050). A support network of people with whom to discuss issues was also found to be important for lesbian women considering self-insemination (Haimes and Weiner, 2000: 481). Moreover, the use of the internet in providing support for medical issues is well documented (e.g. Alexander et al., 1994; Smith, 1998; Fogel et al., 2002; Houston et al., 2002). Although some studies on DI have used the internet to recruit participants (e.g. Turner and Coyle, 2000), there has not been any previous work that has focused on the role of the internet itself in providing similar support for those invested in DI; therefore, the main focus of my research is to explore this.

 

Methodology

I conducted this research using an email interviewing method, which was heavily influenced by Kivits' (2005) technique. I began each interview with an email asking for some background about the respondent's experiences with DI. This was important as I wanted to be able to tailor my follow-up questions to their specific situations. I also included some personal information about me, as suggested by Kivits (2005:40), in order to begin to cultivate a relationship with the respondents. I developed good relationships with many of them, who asked questions about me and about the research and in some cases shared their excitement about pregnancy tests or scans with me, similarly to Oakley's (1988: 42) experience with interviewing new mothers about pregnancy. However, some respondents remained distant throughout the interviews and I was not able to establish a similar relationship with them. It is possible that an age or gender difference was responsible for this, or perhaps the medium of text communication lent itself to formality for those respondents.

The interviews were semi-structured; I had a list of topics that I wanted to cover in each interview (see Appendix 1), but much of the conversation was shaped by the responses my participants gave. Each email was structured with between one and three questions – depending on the preference of the respondent to give short or involved answers – that either followed on from the answers given in the previous email or introduced a new topic. Since email is an asynchronous method of communication, the interviews lasted for days or weeks. Therefore it is important to consider that people's opinions may well have changed or been affected over the course of the interview. In general, however, Kivits argues that the 'asynchronicity of the communication is the key to the reflection process' of email interviewing, as it allows both the researcher and the respondent to re-read and reflect on responses, and to re-discuss and elaborate on previous ideas and exchanges, allowing for a more reflexive process and for rich data to be collected (Kivits, 2005: 47).


Access

I recruited participants from a variety of forums/message boards, Yahoo! Groups and infertility blog communities. I used a snowball sampling technique, since this population 'is widely distributed or elusive' (May, 2001: 5); even if I contacted a group who were unable to help, I was usually pointed towards other groups who might be able to assist.


Participants

I conducted thirteen interviews in all. My respondents consisted of adults with various experiences of donor insemination: donor offspring, DI mothers (some who belonged to both categories) and donors, as well as those who had had failed IVF treatment using donor sperm. Only three of my respondents were men: two were donor offspring and one was a donor. The ages of respondents ranged from 30 to 65, although some chose not to disclose their age. The majority of donor offspring I spoke to were in the older age bracket and the DI mothers were uniformly in their thirties. More detailed information about each participant is shown in Table 1:

 

Pseudonym Relationship with DI Location Family Type
Anita Offspring and Parent USA Parents: Heterosexual, Self: Lesbian
Cassie Failed DI attempts (eventually conceived a child 'naturally') Canada Heterosexual
Debra Offspring USA Heterosexual
George Offspring USA Heterosexual
Hazel Offspring USA Heterosexual
Kirsty Pregnant with donor-conceived child USA Heterosexual
Maude Parent USA Lesbian Single Mother
Pauline Parent USA Heterosexual
Randall Offspring Australia Heterosexual
Robin Donor (through websites) UK Willing to donate to all family types, lesbian preferred
Ruby Offspring USA Heterosexual
Sharon Offspring USA Heterosexual
Stephanie Parent Not disclosed Heterosexual


Table 1:
Information on participants in the study


Data Analysis

When analysing the data, I used a system of colour coding to identify themes in the responses. I did the coding by hand on hard-copies of my interviews rather than using qualitative coding software; this was a choice made for practical reasons.


Ethics

When considering the ethical implications of this research, I referred to two sets of guidelines: the British Sociological Association (BSA) guidelines (2002) and the Association of Internet Researchers guidelines (Ess et al., 2002). The BSA notes that internet research does not yet have clearly defined boundaries and standards; where these are not clearly tailored to this type of research, I have attempted to follow general 'offline' ethical procedures as closely as possible.

I sought informed consent from each participant in the form of an email detailing what my research was about and how it would be used, in accordance with BSA guidelines (2002). Since all of my communication with my participants was undertaken via email, it was not feasible to obtain a signed consent form; in this case, the participants' affirmative response to my email was taken to be confirmation that they understood and freely gave their consent to participate. Randomly generated pseudonyms have been used throughout for each respondent, and any other potentially identifying information has been omitted. Although several of my respondents did not reveal their real name to me, I have still used pseudonyms for their online aliases. As Hine argues, to do otherwise would be to 'treat online identities as if they did not matter to participants' (2000: 24).

 

Findings

Three overarching themes emerged from my analysis of the interviews: biography and community; kinship and the meaning of 'family'; and ethics and disclosure.


Biography and Community

Biography is an important element of my research, as my participants are not all invested in DI in the same way (see Table 1). Indeed, some participants fit in to more than one 'category', such as donor-conceived adult and DI parent. There are also further differences in the way in which people came to use DI: many of the women that I spoke to used DI because their partners experienced fertility issues or had a condition that they were concerned about passing on to a child, but others used DI because they are lesbians. The ways in which people come to DI appears to have a distinct effect on how they view the practice. Most of the parents that I spoke to said that they were comfortable with the use of DI. However, almost all of the donor offspring told me that they wanted increased regulation, and some were in favour of abolition. Randall, a donor-conceived adult, was vehemently anti-DI and felt that the practice was 'hypocritical' in prioritising biological connections, but to only one parent. He felt ashamed of his donor-conceived status and compared his conception to 'creating more stock for the human herd'. However, for Randall and other donor offspring I spoke to, DI was extremely important to their identity, even though they had negative feelings about it. On the other hand, Anita, who is both a donor-conceived adult and a DI mother, told me: 'I do not think of DI as something that defines me'. This shows that the ways in which people are invested in DI can colour their opinions, but also that the different 'groups' of people invested in DI are not homogenous.

Relationships with Others Invested in DI - Online and Offline

Contact with others invested differently was not restricted to online spaces dedicated to DI but also extended to offline spaces, such as conferences, as well as online and offline groups related to wider issues such as infertility. Most of my participants told me that contact with others invested in DI in the same way as them was important in providing support and comfort, as the literature had suggested. For example, George, a donor-conceived adult, told me that the community he joined helped to 'strengthen connections with others conceived through DI throughout the world' and several donor-conceived adults spoke of 'validation'. Similarly, Kirsty, who discovered that she was pregnant with a donor-conceived child in the course of the email interview, said that talking to other mothers in a similar position was 'wonderful' because it helped her to know that 'there is an end in sight if you stick at it long enough'. For Stephanie, whose husband is opposed to disclosing their use of DI to anyone except for their parents, the friends that she met online provide her with someone to share problems and issues with when she has no one that she can turn to in 'real life'. The online communities that my participants are members of provide them with information, advice and support, as well as providing a space potentially to find kin in the case of the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR).[2]

However, interactions with those invested differently were not always framed in a positive light. Cassie, who had several DI attempts that did not result in pregnancy, described an anonymous comment left on her blog from someone who was anti-DI:

I [responded] that unfortunately, for many people, donors are the only way they can have a family and that while she was welcome to voice her own displeasure [...] hiding behind anonymity was rather cowardly.

Here we can see the tension between the two standpoints. It is interesting that even online, where 'virtual anonymity' is intrinsic and can be used to mould a particular persona (Argyle and Shields, 1996), it is important for people to be seen to 'own up' to their words by providing a name in order for them to be taken seriously: Cassie says that she would have engaged differently with her if she had not commented anonymously. However, it is conceivable that this commenter made a conscious choice to remain anonymous knowing her opinion might not be well received. George described how he belonged to a group that was a 'safe haven for DI adults only', which was necessary for them to express their feelings. He had experienced aggressive responses from DI parents when engaging in online discussions; he admitted that 'occasionally these are deserved', but also that responses from parents were sometimes 'insultingly dismissive' even if he had presented his case for openness 'as rationally as possible without personal rancor'. These experiences suggest that the way in which arguments are presented can be crucial to whether any dialogue between the various standpoints can be fruitful; many people are unwilling to listen to an argument that they feel is presented inappropriately, and both sides can become defensive.

Debate between those who believe in DI abolition and those who do not was present even within the group mentioned. One member told me:

I find [the group] difficult because there is a vocal minority of people who [...] believe that DI is the cause of all of their pain [...] I honestly think that I speak for the majority of DI conceived people in not opposing DI itself but wanting to reform the practice.

Since the abolitionists were more vocal, she felt they had alienated others, who often left the group shortly after joining. This again highlights the tension that can exist even within groups that we might expect to share a particular view. Much of the literature divides those invested in DI into identity groups such as 'lesbian couples', 'single mothers' and 'donor-conceived adolescents', but we should be wary of using these identities to make generalisations.

Despite the potential for disagreements, most of my participants had engaged with the experiences of others invested differently. Kirsty, for example, said that she was 'very interested in perspectives of donor-conceived children'. However, because she is married and used a known donor, she felt it difficult to connect with some of the perspectives, such as those of single mothers. This emphasises the broad spectrum of experiences that come under the banner of DI. Several participants had taken part in conferences relating to DI and infertility, and Sharon in particular found meeting donors a positive experience. This demonstrates the scope for dialogue between DI parents, donors and donor offspring in online and offline spaces. George described this as 'crucial to the evolution of a practice that respects the [...] identity rights of everyone'; in his experience, 'many parents and gamete donors tend to become supporters of [reform]' after engaging with donor offspring.

Blog Use

One important site for the community was blogs. Four of my participants regularly kept blogs relating to their experiences with DI and infertility; three were DI parents and one was donor-conceived. Cassie talked about the usefulness of their blogs in raiding awareness of and educating people about the issues that they face; she thought that publicising her blog has 'opened a few people's eyes'. Stephanie, on the other hand, started her blog before she thought about using a donor but password protected it when she found out she was pregnant; for her, the blog was a private place to 'express [her] feelings and to talk to others in a similar situation'. Kirsty's original audience for her blog was family members; she started the blog to keep them informed on the progress of her IVF treatment but found that they didn't read it. Eventually, similarly to the other bloggers, 'it became more about writing to get through the day as opposed to news' and she believes that 'there is an importance of getting [their] story out if only to tell other that find themselves where [they] are and have been, that they are not alone'. In all of these examples, there is a sense of writing a blog in order to get support from others and to work through their own feelings, regardless of whether the audience is a select few or anyone.

Cassie told me that some people had asked her if she would be making blog into a book for her child.[3] She doubted that she would, but said that she would use the blog to show her daughter how much she was wanted. When I asked the other bloggers if they would consider this, they were also hesitant. Stephanie felt it was not appropriate to share her whole blog, but might consider sharing the part about trying to conceive. Kirsty would consider it but was concerned about whether her child would be able to understand fully. All three wanted to share parts of their blog with their children, but had concerns about the manner of sharing, what to share or when to share it. This shows the value of blogs as both a means of working out feelings for the blogger and also in helping to explain the issues involved in DI to the child, but also highlights the limitations of the medium.


Kinship and the Meaning of 'Family'

One theme, which interacts with the other two, is kinship and the importance (or not) of biology and genetics. The main reasons participants gave for wanting to find their donor were a desire to know their medical history, details about their ethnicity and where their traits or those of their children that did not exist within their social family had come from.

Negotiating Kinship

Several of my donor-conceived participants found they desired more information about their family history after they had children of their own. Hazel, for example, felt that her children had a right to 'know who they are' but had not felt this was important for herself. Randall came to view his donor as a father when he felt a biological connection with his daughter. This picks up on the difficulties of describing the donor (Scheib et al., 2005) and suggests that parenthood can act as a catalyst for thinking about kinship issues.

Most donor offspring had made some attempt to find their donor, but none had managed to make contact. For many, the internet provided a valuable tool for researching kin, and not only through websites designed for the purpose. Sharon, for example, went online to find information about the medical students who may have been her donor, but was ultimately disappointed when the man she thought the most likely donor refused to take a DNA test or meet with her. It can be extremely difficult for people conceived in the early days of medicalised DI to find their donor, as in many cases records did not exist or were destroyed (Haimes, 1993: 1519). In Debra's case:

The donor father's attorney asked that no other contact be made. [...] I could appreciate his position since acknowledging me could have legal ramifications.

The idea that children could make claims on a donor's estate is a common theme in the literature and the main argument put forward by those in favour of anonymous donation. This attitude is also what makes it difficult for Sharon to accept the potential donor's assurances that he is not her donor. Robin was interested in being involved in the lives of children born from his sperm, but not as 'father', again raising the problem of defining the relationship. Unlike the other donors, he wanted contact and said he was prepared to deal with any legal consequences; this perhaps shows how donors have changed since the early days of DI.

Some donor offspring had had contact with half-siblings or other relatives, and DI parents were also concerned with the existence of half-siblings. Stephanie knew of children born from the same donor through the DSR; she was unsure but thought she would like to contact them at some point as she was worried about her son '[going] through life feeling alone or different.' Similarly, Anita was aware of half-siblings of her child through the DSR. However, she was more positive about them and had contacted the other parents, as she considered it her job as a parent to maintain kinship networks for her child. Almost all participants considered genetic connections important and were interested in finding and maintaining such connections.

Choosing the Donor

The variables involved when choosing a donor, such as whether to use a known or unknown, anonymous or open-identity donor, have implications for kinship. Some DI parents preferred a known donor because they could know his history and reasons for donating. However, the use of relatives as donors was not clear-cut. Kirsty used her husband's fraternal twin brother, and emphasised the importance of his genetic connection. On the other hand, Stephanie considered using her husband's brother but decided against it, feeling that 'knowing the person would make it more difficult to see the baby as [her] husband's'. This again shows that identity groups are not homogenous and kinship relationships are not straightforward.

During the process of choosing the donor, including known donors, all of my participants had a preference for selecting donors with similar characteristics to the social father or lesbian co-parent. In some cases similarity to the mother was also desired. These characteristics included ethnicity, appearance, interests and personality. The idea of kinship being negotiated through looks was a very important theme in my research; many donor offspring mentioned that they looked different or had different traits from other family members and in turn this created a sense of isolation. Randall, for example, said:

I feel like a fraud in my own name, I am nothing like the other [family members], in looks or personality.

This idea of the importance of resemblance has been widely discussed in the literature (e.g. Scheib et al., 1997; 2003). However, it is interesting to note that characteristic matching was also important to lesbian couples, as the literature on this particular subject had tended to focus on resemblance to the social father.


Ethics and Disclosure

The final theme was that of secrecy and disclosure in DI, at various levels including parent to child, family to others, and the medical profession.

Disclosure to the Child and Others

Almost all of the DI parents that I spoke to said that they would disclose the child's donor-conceived status to them at an early age, using age-appropriate language; Kirsty compared it to the adoption strategy of 'tell them early, tell them often'. However, although Stephanie wanted to disclose, her husband feared the way he would be viewed by society and his children. Similarly, although Kirsty planned to disclose to the child, she found her blog problematic to write because her husband felt that it was 'not anyone else's business but [theirs]' and she was careful to censor herself. In both cases we can see tension between partners in terms of disclosure, as has been discussed in the literature (Gottlieb et al., 2000: 2055).

Stephanie was worried about the risk of the child finding out accidentally in later life and having the disclosure 'cause problems'. Indeed, most of the donor offspring that I spoke to had discovered their origins as an adult after their parents had been advised by doctors to keep it a secret, and many had felt shocked or disturbed when they found out. However, not all were upset by the revelation; Debra had wondered whether she was adopted from a young age and 'found it interesting more than disturbing' when she found out from a donor brother that she was donor-conceived. Randall, on the other hand, was aware of his donor origins from childhood and, although he accepted it at first, as he grew older he began feel unhappy about his conception. This suggests that telling children early about their donor origins is not a guarantee that they will accept them; however, since of the participants who found out in adulthood, the majority were distressed, 'telling early and often' still appears to be the best option. One interesting issue that emerged was that of donor-conceived adults disclosing their origins to their own children. Hazel had also chosen to adopt the 'telling early' approach; although her children are currently too young to understand, she said that she would 'definitely discuss it with them when they get a little older'.

Ethics and the Medical Profession

A common theme in my research was issues with the medical profession; almost every participant identified at least one. For most, it was a perceived lack of regulation and the ethics of DI. This included moral questions such as whether payment should be allowed for donation. Another common issue was doctors heavily influencing DI choices; for example, Cassie was given very little choice about how and where to find a donor and only had the option of using the particular cryobank that her doctor worked with, and Kirsty was told by one doctor to 'just adopt'. George spoke of the 'paternalistic attitudes' of the medical profession. He was unhappy that many people were not aware of the discussions available online and instead had to rely on doctors for information; he felt that the profession has not embraced the discourses that have developed and is still biased in favour of secrecy, meaning that online dialogues are not effecting change.

 

Conclusion

My original research question focused on how those invested in DI in different ways used the internet. In fact, I found that they used it very similarly, with all of them belonging to at least one online forum or mailing list that provided support either specifically for DI or, in the case of DI mothers, infertility more widely. These groups provided validation and allowed for a feeling of normalcy in knowing that there were others with similar experiences and feelings. The communities allowed my participants to develop strong connections with others in a similar position to them, which in turn provided them with an important resource for information, advice and support, as well as a 'safe space' in which to speak freely. This was particularly true in the case of those that kept blogs about their experiences. There was also the potential for these blogs to be used as a historical reference for explaining to children the circumstances of their conception and showing that they were loved and wanted. In terms of kinship negotiation, the DSR was one important resource both for DI parents and donor offspring, and most DI parents said that they would like to develop relationships with their children's half-siblings. However, other 'DIY' methods of investigating biological relatives were also employed; the internet has played a large role in enabling this, as searching is much easier than with paper records.

The idea of physical resemblance as a marker of kinship had been widely discussed in the literature and was identified as important by almost all of the people that I spoke to. However, the lesbians in my sample also noted that physical resemblance to the co-parent was important to them when choosing a donor. This suggests that the relationship of physical resemblance to kinship negotiation goes beyond simply disguising or minimising the donor's contribution to facilitate secrecy or to preserve the social father's masculinity. It seems that the appearance of biological relatedness is considered one of the most vital indicators of kinship; for example, the feeling of 'not belonging' in terms of physical appearance played a large part in Randall's discomfort with his DI origins.

The second part of my research question focused on how those invested differently in DI interacted. My results were not conclusive; all of the parents that I spoke to said that they had already decided to be open without the influence of donor offspring, but several of my donor-conceived respondents had engaged in discussions with other DI parents in which they felt that they had managed to change their mind. It is possible that all of the parents in my sample were predisposed to disclosure and a different sample would yield different results.

I discovered that the main dialogue between DI parents and donor offspring centred on the morality of the practice of DI; whether it should stay as it is, be reformed or be abolished altogether. However, it is important not to fall into the trap of treating these groups as homogenous: there was a great deal of variation in the opinions within the donor-conceived group. My research suggests that these dialogues can be productive, but that they are easily derailed by 'tone arguments' about how viewpoints are presented. Moreover, it was felt that the medical profession had refused to engage with these online dialogues, and that this was holding back reform.

Although not specifically part of my research question, the question of intergenerational kinship emerged and has not been discussed in the literature. Several of the donor offspring found that they had become more interested in finding out about their donor and family history after having children of their own. This suggests that the notion of genetic 'connectedness' or the desire to form kinship ties becomes stronger once an individual considers passing on those connections. I believe this topic is worthy of further investigation, perhaps in relation to experiences of adopted children, as there may be parallels.

The study has some limitations. The sample size was small, and several voices, such as those of social fathers and DI mothers who find their sperm donors online, were absent due to access limitations. Although the sample size was small, this is illuminating: it underlines the private nature of these groups; suggests that many of those invested in DI are uncomfortable with sharing their thoughts and experiences in public spaces; and therefore hints at the stigma that DI still carries. One of the negative responses I received from group administrators cited existing research, saying they did not wish to bombard members with research requests; therefore it is also possible that those that I approached were suffering from research fatigue, where 'previous experience of being involved with research is used to justify not participating in future research' (Clark, 2008: 954-55). Research is not experienced passively and individuals can become tired of engaging, especially when they are asked the same questions repeatedly but never see the results or any positive changes, a recurring theme in this study.

It may also have been useful to discuss responses with reference to nationality but I felt the sample size was not large or representative enough to allow this. My data cannot be used to make generalisations, but it can be used to indicate trends that merit further research, either into specific topics or in general using a larger, more representative sample. I believe that a more detailed study of blogs and bloggers with more participants would be interesting, for example. This study also focused exclusively on sperm donation, partly due to the prevalence of sperm donation support groups compared to egg donation or general gamete donation groups, but in future a comparison of the experiences of those invested in egg donation in relation to internet use may be illuminating.

In conclusion, I have shown that the internet can be very important to the experience of those invested in DI, providing both a community network for support and advice and a tool for negotiating kinship. There are long-running debates online between those who believe in reform of the practice of DI, those who support it and those who oppose it entirely, but these debates will not lead to the kind of changes that many of those invested in DI want to see unless they are engaged with by the medical profession.

 


 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank my supervisor Dr Anne-Marie Kramer for her support, enthusiasm and insight throughout this project; Dr Carol Wolkowitz for her helpful comments on an earlier version of this paper; and my respondents, without whom this research would not be possible.

 

Appendix 1

Interview Topic List
All

What websites do people belong to? Who can access support? What support is available? What motivates parents to seek out siblings to their children?

What contact have they had with others invested differently? How has this affected them?

What motivates children to seek out their parent/half-siblings or not? What are the experiences of people who have found family members this way? How do they feel about these family members? How does it affect relationships with other family members?

What happens when they cannot be found? What happens when they do not wish to establish contact?

Donors

What motivates men to donate sperm?

Why do men advertise/respond to online requests for sperm?

Do sperm donors consider themselves to be 'fathers'?

What motivates donors to seek out children conceived from their donated sperm? How does this affect the donor's family?

DI Parents

How is the experience of finding online donors different from using a sperm bank or clinic?

How do women/couples make choices about who they accept sperm from? Is it important to ensure that all children have the same donor? What happens if this cannot be achieved?

What is the experience of men who are fathers to donor-conceived children?

How do they feel about their children wanting to find their biological father?

How do they feel about them finding their siblings?

 

Notes

[1] Alison Wheatley graduated with a BA in Sociology with a Specialism in Research Methods from the University of Warwick in Summer 2010. She is now beginning an MA in Social Research at the same institution, and plans to undertake a PhD in Women and Gender Studies on the subject of masculinity and donor insemination in Denmark and the UK from 2011.

[2] www.donorsiblingregistry.com. N.B. I did not recruit any participants through the DSR but many of my participants were also DSR members.

[3] Software is available to facilitate this: e.g. www.blurb.com/create/book/blogbook

 

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To cite this paper please use the following details: Wheatley, A. (2010), 'Donor Insemination: The Role of the Internet in the Experiences of Donor Offspring, DI Parents and Donors', Reinvention: a Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 3, Issue 2, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/go/reinventionjournal/archive/volume3issue2/wheatley Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite this article or use it in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal@warwick.ac.uk