When Wendy Oldenshaw’s youngest son bought her a DNA genetic testing kit for her 70th birthday three years ago, she simply thought: “Great, that’ll be interesting.” She had no idea her life was about to be turned upside down.
When she logged onto 23andMe for the results, it showed up a half-brother and half-sister she didn’t know existed. “My first thought was that my father had a wartime fling, but that seemed out of character,” she says. Then came the phone call. “There’s no easy way to tell you this,” said her newly discovered half-brother, who had contacted her on the 23andMe site. “But we were both conceived in a clinic in London using a sperm donor.”
Her head was spinning. Her mother died in 1993 and her social father – as non-biological parents are known – died in 1999, so she couldn’t ask them about the circumstances of her conception. “I felt hurt my parents never told me, and for the first time in my life, had to have counselling to work out who I was.”
But while she was “very, very shocked”, small things instantly fell into place. “I remember my mother once telling me that my father had a low sperm count.” They had resisted other questions. “I wanted to know my blood group – ‘Why was it necessary to know?’ – my parents huffed and puffed.”
In January 2023, new legislation kicked in that allows children conceived from 2005 onwards, using donated sperm or eggs, to request identifying information about their donor when they turn 18. The estimated tens of thousands of people conceived using donor sperm before this time do not have the same rights, but the landscape of anonymity is changing anyway.
The rise in commercial DNA kits are leading people like Wendy to trace their genealogy and uncover the donor conception. As a result, many are discovering multiple half-siblings – in Wendy’s case, 12 to 15 so far, all conceived between 1945 and 1952 – from one of the most active donors at a clinic run by the obstetrician Dr Mary Barton, one of the first to offer donor insemination in the UK.
“He’d died, but I could see from the internet he was a scientist, a doctor, and that he had a particular interest in mental health, as I do. Then there’s this interest in the arts that runs through the family. Seeing a photo of him felt good, too, because I could see the physical likeness in both myself and my youngest son.”
Getting to know nine of her half-siblings has also been “joyful”, she says, although she is quick to add that the overall discovery has been a bombshell affecting her whole being. “People don’t understand the enormity of finding out.”
Sally Chester, 61, who also found out she was donor-conceived as a result of taking a DNA test she was given as a gift, discovered she may have 600 half-siblings. In this case, the donor was Dr Mary Barton’s husband, Bertold Wiesner.
“Very quickly after registering on the site, a chap in Canada said we appeared to be related and could we have a conversation about it,” Sally says. “To my dying day, I’ll be glad it was the beginning of the summer holidays when I wasn’t teaching, because what followed threw me so completely – emotionally and physically.
“It was like all these doors opened in my head to conversations long forgotten. It is only having the half-siblings that made it bearable. While I felt no connection to my donor, I very much do with the 50 offspring I’m in touch with.”
The exact number of donor-conceived adults remains unknown. “That’s one of the most frustrating things,” says Laura Bridgens, co-chair of the Donor Conceived Register Registrants’ Panel. “Before 1991, donor conception in the UK was unregulated so clinics were under no obligation to keep records.
“And because they encouraged the mother and her husband to hold the secret – often not even speaking about it among themselves once the mother fell pregnant due to the shame and stigma – most children were never told. It’s only now, with these DNA kits, that we are starting to understand something of the scale.”
Dr Marilyn Crawshaw, researcher in donor conception and honorary fellow at the University of York, says the discovery is often made by someone else in the family. “They do a DNA test and find these genetic relations they didn’t know about. It can take quite a bit of detective work to find out what’s going on. I know of adults in their 20s having to tell their mum she was donor conceived, having also grappled with what it means to break their grandparents’ secret.”
There are many aspects to finding out you’re donor conceived, says Dr Crawshaw. “There is the obvious one about bringing into question your relationship with your family you grew up with – how do you get your head round having been brought up with a lie about who you are? Then you think: ‘Okay, what does it mean for me that I’m not genetically related to my social father and all his side of the family?’”
There’s a religious aspect, too. “With the Wiesner group, the donor was Jewish, yet some of the offspring were brought up in another religion, which may have been central to their life.”
Large groups of children born to single donors have also got “to deal with the idea of having sometimes 50, 100 or maybe over 1,000 siblings – it’s just mind-blowing”, Dr Crawshaw says.
She adds that some donor-conceived people previously acted on shared family medical information they thought was theirs, perhaps choosing not to have children for fear of passing something on from the person they thought was their genetic father. Or thinking they are particularly low risk or high risk for some illnesses.
Jo Davies, 33, was told at 18 by her mother that she was donor conceived but later decided to use a DNA kit to track down her own medical information. “My dad had been diagnosed with bowel cancer and a few months before he died, when I was 18, my mum told me I was donor-conceived, so I knew I wouldn’t be at risk of inheriting it,” she explains. “But fast forward to 2017 when I had my first child and I started to wonder what genes I had passed down [instead].”
In her 2019 address to the United Nations, Dr Joanna Rose spoke about Narelle Grech and Alison Davenport, who both died of cancers they might have survived if they’d known the identity of their genetic father. Grech had searched for her donor for 15 years.
Dr Rose, 50, who herself was donor-conceived, took the government to the High Court in 1998, which helped bring about the legislation in 2005 that banned anonymous donation, and she still campaigns for the rights of donor-conceived people. “Lies and absent or misleading medical information have led to preventable deaths and a lot of suffering,” she says. “It can’t be a case of, ‘Oh whoops, next time we’ll do it differently’, which is the current approach. Why isn’t anyone taking responsibility retrospectively, especially when the numbers affected have increased massively?”
Dr Rose wants to see a public apology, backed up by government-funded, official support, including help linking donors with offspring. “There is the Donor Conceived Register, which was part of my court settlement, but the funding the Government puts in is a pittance.” The Donor Conceived Register is run by the UK fertility regulator, HFEA, a fact which also sits uncomfortably with many.
While many feel the DNA industry are knights in shining armour for finally giving people the control and agency to seek out their genetic truth, Dr Crawshaw also wants pressure placed on these companies to provide both clear warnings and support. “They have shifted a bit, but for the most part they continue to advertise as if it’s problem-free.”
One of the narratives supporting the ongoing secrecy around donor conception is that donors, prior to 2005, were promised anonymity so should expect to have that promise upheld.
But Nick Jones (not his real name), a donor around the Harley Street area from 1980 to 1985, points out that donors’ views often change with the times, too. “I read this article about a donor-conceived adult who discovered the truth during some family row, which is often the case, and was struck by the psychological impact on them.
“Back in the day, I felt I was giving people the opportunity to have children who might otherwise not, but this article opened my eyes to what it must feel like as the donor-conceived person. I joined the Donor Conceived Register and when nothing happened – I thought I’d put myself out there through a commercial DNA-testing kit.
“I’ve been contacted by three offspring so far and have been pleased to be able to fill in gaps about their lives. I meet up with one of them quite regularly.”
Steve Jeanes, 72, who donated twice a week for a period of six months in the late 1970s, says: “I think back and realise the whole system was ridiculous in being completely geared up to gratify childless parents without a thought for how distressing it could be for the children born to this.”
The system in Australia is considered the most progressive in the world for donor-conceived adults. In 2016, the so-called “Narelle’s Law” (named after Narelle Grech) gave all donor-conceived people, no matter when they were conceived, the right to receive identifying information about their sperm donors.
Aimee Shackleton, 45, lives in the Australian state of Victoria. “Six years ago, I received a letter from the government telling me that I was donor-conceived and that my parents’ donor would like to make contact. When I spoke to them, they also told me about my two new siblings. I was in shock. With one letter, my whole identity was turned upside down.”
Referring to it as her “Harry Potter letter” (because it “changed my life and opened my eyes to my genetic reality”), she says that like many donor-conceived adults, she “had the feeling of something missing which all of a sudden melted away. “I share many similar traits, interests and hobbies with my parents’ donor and my siblings. We all have a close relationship. It’s really quite magical that we’ve found each other.”
Many people believe there is much to be learned in the UK from the Australian model, where donor-conceived people’s voices have influenced decision-making more heavily than the fertility industry and parents. There have also been public campaigns, including Time to Tell. As well as campaigns, money has been poured into this area. Funding was put behind the central register, allowing private investigators to find donors even decades later.
Everyone has a right to know the truth, says Sally. “It’s just the most basic of human rights to know who you are.”