My scattered grandchildren
Globe and Mail, 13 September 2009
Kathie Harris spotted a newspaper ad a few years back recruiting egg
donors, she passed it on to her daughter. “I was kind of joking,” she
But her daughter, Melissa Braden, ended up donating six times. Now Ms. Harris, 53, has mixed feelings about it all.
kind of hard,” she says. There are grandchildren out there that the
family will never meet, she says. “They're a part of you. Because
they're Melissa's eggs, they're a part of everybody in Melissa's
It's estimated that about one million donor offspring
worldwide have been born, most of them through anonymous donations. But
when people choose to donate their sperm or eggs, they think of it as a
purely personal decision. They forget that their DNA is a family asset,
not a private one, experts say.
“The practice has grown up in a
consumer context,” says Juliet Guichon, a bioethicist at the University
of Calgary. “You think you're purchasing a factor of reproduction, but
you're not – you're receiving the genetic heritage of a family.”
And grandparents, often the oldest surviving progenitors, can feel quite differently about trading away the family code.
feeling recently intensified for Ms. Harris when one of Ms. Braden's
recipient couples sent her daughter a photo of the new baby. At first,
Ms. Harris didn't want to see it. Her daughter has two boys of her own,
but this couple had had a girl. When Ms. Harris did finally look, she
was overwhelmed. “That little girl looks exactly – I mean exactly –
like Melissa,” she says.
Braden, 30, insists that she has no
maternal feelings for the little girl and that the recipient mom is the
only mom. But her own mother feels differently. “In my heart, I think
of her as my granddaughter,” Ms. Harris says. “I carry her picture in
Shana Harter, 31, had a similar difference of opinion with her mother. She donated eggs twice when she was in her
early 20s. But her mother was not happy with the choice. “I caught a lot of flack,” the Atlanta resident says.
a decade later, her mother still thinks about them. “I wonder all the
time what they look like, if they look like her, what they're doing,
where they live,” says her mother, Lynn Corcoran, 52. “It's just that
feeling of knowing that I have other grandchildren out there. I'll
never see them. I'll never know them. I hope they went to good homes.”
a long time the two women stopped talking about it altogether. But when
Ms. Harter got married and had trouble conceiving herself, it was the
elephant in the room. What if the only genetically related children she
ever produced were born to other people?
In the end, after IVF, Ms. Harter gave birth to a little
in January. Her own struggle with infertility made her even more
understanding of couples who long to have children. “I have a new
appreciation myself,” she says. “I'm very happy to know I helped make
that happen for one or two other couples out there.” Ms. Corcoran
admits it gave her some insight into the plight of childless couples
Kirk Maxey, 53, who donated sperm for almost 10 years,
he now sees that grandparents are an overlooked piece of the donor
puzzle. “There's a set of fully legitimate grandparents out there,
who've missed seeing grandchildren, usually all the way through teenage
years,” he says. His own parents were delighted when two teenage donor
daughters surfaced a few years ago. “It impacts grandparents in ways
that people didn't really imagine it would,” he says.
the relationships are surprisingly warm. Florida resident Christine
Striegl has discovered that she's closer to her donor granddaughter
than to any of the grandkids born through her son's marriage. She met
her son's teenage donor daughter, Virginia, about 18 months ago and
they immediately hit it off. “She calls me her grandmother,” Ms.
For others, it stirs feelings of regret. Diane
Wilkins, 53, of Ottawa, will probably never have the chance to meet any
children born through her daughter's egg donation, though she'd love
to. “Even if I just got to see them, just to see what they look like,”
she says. But shortly after the donation, the relationship with the
recipient couple soured.
(Since 2004, it has been illegal to pay
donors for eggs or sperm in Canada, and though women can still import
commercial U.S. sperm, that's not true for eggs, so many women leave
the country for such procedures.)
“Grandparents are vulnerable,
on the sidelines, waiting to be invited in,” Dr. Guichon says. But she
also turns the issue around: A recipient couple, she believes, has a
moral obligation to consider whether a child would benefit from knowing
their grandparents. It could be important to their identity, she says.
Perhaps no one feels the bond more intensely than grandparents whose own children have died unexpectedly.
Smith's daughter died before she'd had kids of her own – but she had
donated eggs three times, and Ms. Smith (not her real name) knew
children had been born. She was ecstatic when a recipient family got in
touch. “When I heard from that family, it was like a gift from heaven,”
They are hoping to meet soon. “These kids are part of
my daughter. They look like my daughter. I hope to become a real
grandma to them.”