Stephanie Raeymaekers is an advocate for donor-conceived children in Belgium. MercatorNet spoke with her recently about her work.
The Belgian advertising industry recently launched a campaign to support sperm donation. Award-winning men donated theirs to boost national creativity. As the child of an anonymous donor, what did you think of it?
I found it an appalling campaign for many reasons. In the first place, their claim is pure nonsense. A creative gene does not exist. Studies prove that the environment where one grows up is more likely to contribute to one’s creativity. Stating that you can create creative people by letting “creative” men donate their sperm is utter fiction. In a YouTube video clip you can see the head of a genetics department supporting this fiction. Because of this I filed an official complaint against her hospital: they are actually lying in the hope of attracting more donors and clients.
It is selling out on so many levels but up mostly it is a sell-out at the expense of the children that are going to be conceived by this sperm. Those children will not be allowed to know whom they descent from and will live their lives trying to fill the gaps in their identity. They will have a huge hole deliberately inflicted by others. They will have no access to their full medical record and will have no means to track down their biological father and potentially a dozen siblings.
Imagine you are one of the donor-conceived persons that was created by one of this guys’ sperm. You will have to live with the knowledge that your biological father did this purely to get his five minutes of fame. The child will end up in a family knowing that his own biological father preferred to give him away to total strangers than to raise his own child.
These young guys clearly didn’t think it through whilst brainstorming on their bright coloured Fat Boys. I sincerely hope their sperm wasn’t good enough to be used. But if so, we have gathered all the information we could find on them and put it in our database of potential donors. It will at least make the search of some children that much easier.
What is your own background?
My name is Stephanie. I am Belgian, 37 years old and donor-conceived. My story starts with two persons: my mother and father. My mother wanted to have children. They desperately tried to conceive. When they didn’t get pregnant they went to see a specialist.
This doctor diagnosed infertility in my father and suggested a “fertility treatment” with the sperm of a man who resembled my father. They paid a lot of money and signed a document. My mother got hormones and they were told that if they did conceive, they should never to tell the truth to the child and even the people around them.
I am an “end product” of the first official sperm bank in Belgium.
My mother was inseminated in the spring of 1978 and in January 1979 I was born. But I wasn’t alone: a brother and a sister joined me. We are triplets. We often cynically joke that they got three for the price of one.
I always experienced a distance between my father and myself. Somehow I could not connect with him. As child you long for the acknowledgement of your parents; you want to be loved, cherished and accepted. But for whatever reason we had very little in common: we didn’t resemble each other and we had different interests. He didn’t grasp my being, my sense of humour. The love I felt for him, however, was unconditional.
As a child you don’t question the reality that is presented by your parents. I never questioned our ancestry. I even wasn’t aware that a treatment with the sperm of someone else was possible.
The discovery must have been shattering for you…
We uncovered the truth when we were 25. It was a surreal experience, that is for sure. Everything changed that day, yet it also stayed the same. It was weird. And as you do regarding significant moments in your life, to this day I can still remember where was I was, who was there and what the place looked like.
Our parents didn’t tell us. The secret was broken to us by our triplet brother who had found out because an aunt had confessed it to his girlfriend. Although the aunt had begged the girlfriend never to tell, she informed him about it.
My brother immediately decided to tell us. You see, we all had suffered from that inexplicable distance from our father. We always assumed that it was because we were not good enough, or smart enough or kind enough to deserve his love. We felt like there was something wrong with us. It has affected our self-esteem and relationships with others.
My identity was partly shattered … you realize that you have falsely identified yourself with someone who you are not biologically related to, someone who lied his whole life to his children making us believe we were related. It was uncovering a fundamental truth about yourself which had been hidden by the two people whom you trusted the most.
It was a lot to take in, and it took some time to come to terms with. I am glad that I know because it gave me an answer to one big question I had (why my father couldn’t love me) but it generated a whole lot of other questions.
You have founded an organisation with a website and blog for donor-conceived children. Can you tell us what you want to achieve?
Back in 2012 the original idea was to create the first safe platform for donor-conceived men and women in Belgium to get in touch with each other. In our group I see that connecting with others enables people to talk about their feelings and issues. Most of them are not able to speak freely about being donor-conceived because they don’t want hurt their parents, or their parents can’t cope with the questions their children are asking. There are a lot of people who found out by accident who are not allowed to talk about it because the other siblings or the rest of the family don’t know the truth. But within the group there are also who have known the truth from the beginning.
With others I started to do a lot of research. I realized soon enough that an industry is the thriving force behind current unethical practices. For over 60 years nobody had bothered to question them.
Over the years we started a lobby. We are very active in creating awareness about the issue and about the implications for the children and the parents but also for the donors.
I want to change the law in our country. I want a total reform. I want ways children can access all the information they need. It is offering them the choice they don’t have now.
I want a national and international register. I want politicians to take their responsibility towards these children and to reduce the power that clinics and doctors have. But I also want to achieve greater awareness so that this complex issue can be addressed more correctly, offering tools for all parties involved.
You must have met many people with a similar background. How do they feel after they have become adults? Accepting? Angry?
I know a lot of donor-conceived people. Some young, some old(er), from all over the world, those who were told from the beginning, those who found out at a later age and from all different types of families.
Till this day I find it still strange when I meet these people for the first time, how similar our questions and issues are. We have donor-conceived people in our group who have no issues about being donor-conceived. Some of them do experience a curiosity about possible siblings. But we also have a number of people who are tremendously affected by the fact they were created with the genetic material of an unknown person.
Most of them suffer in silence, because nobody takes them seriously. We often get presented the terms the industry has created so we can distance ourselves from the issue.
But it is what it is: the deliberate creation of people with the genetic material of someone who will not raise his children nor be a part of their lives. Doctors, but also parents, overlook the fact that there was a third party involved. Someone who contributed an equal part in the actual existence of a person. Erasing him or her can be more convenient for them, but that doesn’t mean that the child does not miss this person or has a fundamental need to know who that person is.
They often state that a donor-conceived child is so deeply wanted, longed for and cherished … if so, why do we intentionally ignored its needs to comfort its parents? There is no love, or justice in that whatsoever.
What do you think of businesses like Cryos, the Danish company which ships “Viking sperm” around the world? They argue that most donor-conceived children are happy and that they should be grateful for having been born…
I saw Ole Schou, the managing director of Cryos, at a conference last summer in Ghent. His presentation was what you expect from a macho businessman.
At the conference he said that most donor-conceived people and their families are happy. He told us that children were not commodities and that he was only offering a service to those who wanted a child.
Afterwards we were allowed to ask questions. I introduced myself and told him that not all donor-conceived people are that happy with their status. I referred to the case of the Cryo donor 7042. This was a sperm donor who had a genetic disease. I told him that I was the one who uncovered the Belgium part in this scandal.
(The first diagnosed baby was a Belgian baby. The Belgian clinic alerted the Cryo bank. However they decided not to inform all the other clinics because they assumed the defect was created in the womb and not by the sperm donor. Due to other diagnoses of babies all over the world, the Cryo bank decided to examine the donor. It was proven that the donor was the carrier of the NF1-gene and six months after notification of the first case other clinics were informed and the sperm was destroyed. You need to know that during those six months other women conceived children with this sperm.)
I told him that at least the lives of 50 children and their parents were shattered due to this terrible disease. His “everybody is happy” argument is a non-argument to justify the injustice that is created when there is a system that inflicts a fundamental suffering on those who are being conceived that way.
I also told him that he was liar when he stated that he doesn’t consider children as commodities. I referred to the Cryos website where you can shop for sperm like you would go online to find a new pair of shoes. Browsing through a catalogue of baby pictures of potential biological fathers, stats of their height and intelligence, the colour of their skin, eyes, hair and so on. And when you think you have found your perfect match, you can add your choice in to a basket which is the symbol of a baby pushing chair.
With a swipe of a credit card, you can order your sperm online and get it delivered to your home. It is hypocritical to say that you don’t consider children as commodities when you enable a total commercialisation of having children and refusing to take any responsibility towards them.
In some jurisdictions, like the United Kingdom, donor anonymity has been abolished and children can contact their biological father (or mother) after they turn 18. Is that a solution?
At first glance, the policy in Britain seems a perfect example that could help my country and others to finally modernize but also humanize the current policy. They seem to have everything in order: the right to know one’s parents, a register, a DNA database, a huge support network, research, better guidance for children, parents and donors, donor families …
But still it is not good enough to counter the inevitable consequences of donor conception. For example: a person starts to build his identity from the beginning of his life. Can you really accept or justify that that person has to wait they turn 18 to be granted something that should be naturally available?
Donor conception is built on a pile of contradictions and kept together by the interest of others involved.
It is sid that it is in the best interests of a child to be raised by its biological parents or family. Donor conception generates a direct conflict with this specific interest because it deliberately withholds from the child the possibility of being raised by both of its biological parents as well as denying him or her the possibility of building a meaningful relationship with them.
Donor conception comes forward due to the demand of intended parents with a desperate desire of having a child and an industry that makes money out of this. There is a huge conflict of interest due to the fact that the best interest of the child is inevitably undermined by it.
In the UK the right to lineage for donor-conceived people is endorsed in the law, but not automatically granted nor guaranteed. Parents can conceal a child’s real origins. If a child is not told, there is little chance it will ever find out. That is unfair and unjust. The government has a responsibility to grant the truth about their origins towards the children that were created through fertility treatments with donor gametes. Birth certificates do not reflect the truth about the child origins. Not putting all, incorrect or partial information on it, is a form of forgery.
The suffering of infertility or inability to procreate is officially recognised. A huge support network has been established through private initiatives and at hospitals. The government financially supports some of those. On the other hand the suffering of donor-conceived people is still not recognized, nor are efforts being made to acknowledge it or actually to do something about it.
There are millions of pounds/euros/dollars pumped into the industry: fertility techniques, counselling for parents, aftercare, choices, research … but donor-conceived people in the UK are only offered 2.5 hours with a counsellor. In other words: there is money to create donor-conceived children but when it comes to taking responsibility or accountability for the direct consequences, hands go up in the air.
What do you think of surrogacy? It seems like a social necessity for gay couples to have children.
Surrogacy is the next level up in making it possible for those who are short of a uterus and/or eggs sperm of their own, to have a baby. A “treatment” not only at the expense of the child, but also at the expense of the surrogate. Surrogacy is also used by heterosexual couples and singles like Tyra Banks, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Ricky Martin.
I am against all forms of surrogacy, even the so-called altruistic kind. It is just another way of not wanting to accept that there is a limit to pursuing fulfilment of a personal desire by desperately trying to bend ethical, natural and juridical laws.
I went to a surrogacy fair in Brussels last year where everything was up for sale: sperm, eggs, surrogates, lawyers, gender selection … You just place an order and draft a contract where conditions are set. Prices are put on renting a woman’s body and the delivery of a child or children. It is a business deal where human lives are reduced to objects and human beings to services. It is the dehumanization of the moral values our ancestors fought so hard for.
Surrogacy should be banned, not regulated or facilitated. From the moment money is exchanged, even in the form of fee for expenses, it is the outsourcing of pregnancy where at the end of the line a child is traded. What will be next: selling and trading older children? Or do we only keep selling the smaller and younger ones?
And why if someone really wants to have a child, why don’t they have it themselves? They should consider a uterus transplant. If they are not willing to do this, how can they dare to ask a friend or a stranger to take on all the risk?
If anonymous sperm donation were abolished, it would be very difficult for single women and lesbians to have children. Isn’t there a right for people to have kids?
It is not true to state that when abolishing anonymous sperm donation there would be a shortage. In the UK they achieved a rise in the number of donors when they changed they law.
There is no such thing as being entitled to or having a right to have kids. I can understand the desire of wanting to become a parent. But somehow society shifted when they started to shift their reasoning. It is quite simple, though: it is called nature. Nature provided laws regarding procreation. We started to bend these rules to fulfil personal desires.
However you can never justify that by claiming that you are suffering a self-proclaimed injustice and that as a person who is infertile, single, lesbian or gay, it is all right to inflict an actual wrong on the innocent human being that comes out of this. You don’t remove an injustice by deliberately creating an even greater injustice.
If you don’t include all the interests of the child, then it has never been about that child but only about a personal egocentric longing. Real parenting lies in the fact that you are able to put your child’s needs first. Most of the time I blame the industry for this. They are the ones who tell intended parents that love is all the child needs. They mislead them at a very vulnerable stage in their lives. They tell them it is OK to seek treatment with anonymous gametes or they make them believe that by following their guidance they will get a child out of this.
American stand-up comedian Bill Hicks once said: “We’re a virus with shoes”. Well, we are an even greater virus when money can be made out of the desperation of someone else, leaving the bill to be picked up by the children.
You have two children of your own now. How has the experience of raising a family shaped the way you feel about the fertility industry?
For me, becoming a mother was my point of no return. At first you need to know that my partner and I struggled to get pregnant. We did undergo fertility treatments with our own genetic material. It was very hard and it gave me an insight into the emotional rollercoaster you end up on when you really want to become a parent.
We had set our personal limit on these kinds of treatments, and for us it was never an option to use the sperm or eggs of someone else. If it didn’t succeed with our own material we accepted that we would live a life without children.
Eventually I got pregnant. For me was very strange because it was the first time that I could see myself in another person. I am adding this picture so you will what I saw. Looking at my children made it all so obvious. It was nature speaking out in its clearest voice. It made my missing part undeniably visible.
In the image above, at the top left is a picture of my husband when he was a child. To the right you see a picture of our daughter. On the bottom left you see a picture of our son. Beside him is a picture of me when I was little.
Becoming a mother made me also realize that being donor-conceived not only affects me as a person, it also affects my children, my relationships, my family, and when my children have children, it will also affect my grandchildren.
My children should also have the right to know their biological grandfather; he is also a part of them. They also should be allowed to get access to vital medical information. And there is another thing that people should be aware of: it is possible that my children will cross the paths of other children descended from a donor-conceived person who is the offspring of the same donor. My children and their partners are going to be tested to see if they are not related. As a mum I cannot take the risk.
My children are nine and seven years old now. They are aware of the work that I am doing. It is sometimes hard to explain the world where we live in. But I do my best and try to teach them the values that makes us human: to live free and not at the expense of others.