Donor-conceived woman helps others learn their origins
Driven by the secrets of her own past, Steph Raeymaekers is part of a team that helps people track down their biological parents
The donor detectives
The team consists of four Dutch and two Flemish women, all of whom were conceived via donation. One of them is Steph Raeymaekers, from Antwerp, who’s also the founder of the non-profit Donorkinderen (Donor-Conceived Children), which facilitates the exchange of experiences between donor-conceived children and fights for their right to know their fathers.
When she was 25, Raeymaekers, now 38, overheard that she and her triplet siblings had been conceived via donation. After her father was diagnosed with infertility – wrongly, as it later turned out – her mother decided to undergo treatment with donor sperm at a private clinic.
“Lots of things suddenly made sense to me,” says Raeymaekers. “Most importantly, the fact that I never had a close relationship with my social father,” she says, referring to the man who raised her.
This summer, she also found out that her sister doesn’t have the same biological father. The doctor who helped their mother conceive, it turned out, mixed two samples of sperm, believing this would make the treatment more effective.
Neither Raeymaekers nor the rest of her family know who the biological fathers are. Until 2007, Belgium had no legislation concerning donors’ privacy, but fertility clinics, as a rule, guaranteed their anonymity. Since 2007, in addition to anonymous donors, fertility centres can also accept sperm from people who are known to the prospective parents, such as close friends or family members.
“My parents were told that it was better not to talk about it with us at all, that this would avoid problems,” says Raeymaekers. “But the long-held secret only undermined our family and had a huge emotional impact.”
The long-held secret undermined our family and had a huge emotional impact
According to Raeymaekers, anonymity of sperm donors should be outlawed, just like it is in the Netherlands, which banned it in 2004. “Your genetic descent is an important part of your identity, your parents are like a biological mirror,” she says. “The right to know your parents, which is also included in the UN convention on the rights of the child, is fundamental, and so many donor-conceived children are discriminated against.”
Fertility centres, in general, favour anonymity because they fear that it would otherwise deter many possible donors and cause a shortage of sperm at a time when demand for fertility treatments is increasing, as more single people and gay couples explore this option.
“Donor anonymity works to the advantage of fertility centres because they don’t have to be transparent about their practices,” says Raeymaekers. “Under the current system, however, many donors are people doing it for the money, like students who are looking for extra income, without fully grasping the consequences.” Centres pay up to €80 for a sperm donation.
Another argument for keeping donors’ identities hidden is that children conceived from their sperm should not be involved in their life. “Even if the donors made a naive decision at one point in their life, by now they should have realised that giving sperm is not like giving blood,” says Raeymaekers. “Their decision resulted in new human beings who are the most affected by it.”
If donors are angry, she continues, “they should be angry at the fertility clinics, the doctors and the policymakers who didn’t inform and prepare them sufficiently.”
Raeymaekers has recently received death threats, which she says prove that certain donors are angry about the possibility of being identified. She reported the threats to the police. “The person accused me of going after my biological father’s inheritance, which is of course nonsense,” she says.
Warning to others
Part of the reason she’s determined to locate her biological father is to do with finding emotional comfort. Then there is her health. A few years ago, Raeymaekers was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an inherited eye disease that gradually reduces her sight.
She’s worried her own children could have inherited the disease. For now, they don’t show any of the symptoms, but a genetic test when they’re older could reveal whether or not they also have the disease.
Your genetic descent is an important part of your identity, your parents are like a biological mirror
“I have RP because of a combination of my mother and my biological father’s genes,” Raeymaekers says. “I want to warn my possible half-siblings, so they are aware of the risks.”
The key for donor-conceived children to finding their biological father lies within their DNA. Through the Donor Detectives Foundation, Raeymaekers and her five partners inform their peers about the ways they can track down the missing link in their life, by providing advice online and through training sessions.
On the case
People are first advised to order a DNA kit from one of the three main international private DNA databases: FamilyTreeDNA, 23andMe and Ancestry.
With the DNA kit, they collect some saliva or take a cheek swab and send the sample to the database, where their DNA is linked to their profile, allowing them to look up people with a similar genetic makeup.
Once they match with someone in the database, the next step is to create an accurate family tree. This can be done by looking through obituaries and online genealogy communities.
With the help of a detective who specialises in family history, one of the Dutch founders of the Donor Detectives Foundation followed the steps and was able to find her biological father. In her case, the man reacted positively and was more than happy to establish a relationship with her.
“But such a sudden intertwining of lives is of course a very complex matter. It affects many people, so it requires a lot of cautionary effort,” says Raeymaekers, who recently tracked down one of her ancestors in Canada and is now developing a family tree to discover her roots.
On the horizon
In the meantime, she’s lobbying for changes in the Belgian legislation, so that future donor-conceived children don’t have to face the same difficulties. In recent years, several parties have proposed legislative changes, but progress is slow. While the Christian democrat CD&V and the nationalist N-VA are in favour of abolishing anonymity, liberal Open VLD wants to keep it.
Apart from the anonymity issue, Raeymaekers is also calling for the creation of a national register that would collect the data from all donors. This central system, she says, would ensure that donors respect the maximum limit of donations. The 2007 legislation says that donors can only provide sperm to six women, but because hospitals don’t communicate with each other, many men get away with going over the limit.
According to Raeymaekers, such a national register should also be linked to registers from abroad. This would help prevent scandals like that of a sperm donor from Denmark who carried a severe genetic disorder and whose sperm was used by fertility clinics around the world, including Belgium.
In 2012, it emerged that several of his offspring had neurofibromatosis 1, also known as Von Recklinghausen’s disease, which causes tumours, bone deformities, learning disabilities, vision disorders and epilepsy. The disease also increases the risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Of the 19 children who inherited the disease, three live in Belgium.
One recent success for donor-conceived children is the Belgian DNA database, which will be launched next year. An initiative of the Flemish welfare minister Jo Vandeurzen, the database was created to enable mothers to reunite with children they were forced to put up for adoption. It should also allow donors and donor-conceived children to find their biological family.