When I was a kid, I longed to discover I was adopted. I whiled away many a summer’s afternoon and winter’s evening convincing myself that, unlike my younger siblings, I was not the fruit of our parents’ loins. I went through family photo albums with a fine-toothed comb, looking for I am not sure exactly what. I poked around on the shelf in my parents’ bedroom closet, hoping to find adoption papers or perhaps a birth certificate with a different name or a photo of a more exotic mother or father who I could claim for myself.
There was, of course, no such evidence to support my fantasy. Eventually, I had to concede that I was, undeniably, exactly who my parents told me I was – their first child, as biologically part of the family as the five that eventually followed me.
This fantasy did not grow out of a particular dislike for anyone in my family. I loved my parents and, for the most part, got on fine with my siblings, even if some days there seemed to be an awful lot of us.
Searching for excitement
I simply longed for a life more exciting than that offered to a middle-class white girl in suburban 1960s Ontario. The excitement I hoped for was pretty predictable: rich, famous, perhaps even royal parents who would realize the error of their ways in giving me up for adoption and come to whisk me off to a life filled with wealth and adventure.
My childish fantasies were born of privilege: on some level, I always knew exactly who I was and who my family was and I knew I was loved and nurtured within that family.
Such is not always the case. Disgraced Ottawa fertility doctor Norman Barwin, who is no longer practising medicine, has much to answer for in this regard. Now the subject of a class-action lawsuit, it appears that Barwin breached the trust of a significant number of women who came to his clinic for reproductive assistance. At least 11 times, he implanted his own sperm in them, when the women believed they were receiving their partner’s or donor sperm. Other times, he implanted different sperm than that requested by the patient.
New siblings; oh my!
The children of these patients, now young adults, have discovered that their fathers, at least biologically, are not who they have thought them to be. Some have discovered half-siblings about whom they knew nothing.
The ever-growing number of sperm banks has created a situation that no one could have imagined when I was 10 years old and idly wishing I had a secret parent. While a few countries have regulated the number of children any one donor can conceive, Canada and the United States have not. As a result, some donors have spawned more than two dozen children, all with different mothers.
Finding Waldo . . . or is that Mary or ?
With high-quality DNA testing available through the internet, more and more of these offspring are finding their half-siblings, and a whole new world of donor-siblings (known as diblings by some) has been created, along with the requisite Facebook pages.
Even though these half-siblings have purely genetic connections, many of them want to get to know one another. There are some practical reasons for this – genetic information can be important when serious medical issues arise – but for most it is more than that. As one woman puts it:
“We have a connection. It’s weird, but it’s there.”
Her new DNA family is so large, and still growing, that she has created an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of everyone she is related to.
In 2000, Wendy Kramer and her son, Ryan, who was conceived with sperm from a sperm bank, established the Donor Sibling Registry, which assists individuals conceived through sperm, egg or embryo donation to find their genetic relatives. It has assisted with thousands of matches around the world.
What makes a family?
I cannot even imagine what it would feel like to learn that my child had a different bio dad than the one I believed them to have. Similarly, I can only imagine what that discovery would feel like if I were the child. In that position, there is every chance I would pursue all avenues to find out as many genetic connections as I could.
But, my days of wishing for a different family are long over. I know who my family is: it started with my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings and it has grown to those I have added; my children and grandchildren, of course, but also people with whom I have no DNA in common (or at least I don’t think I do!): my partner and the friends with whom I share values and principles and who nurture and sustain me.
Family is about biology, yes, but it is also about much more than that.