"My sister won't tell her kids they come from my eggs -- should I?"

"More than two decades ago, I donated eggs to my sister and she had two beautiful children. Before the donation, my sister, her husband and I sat down with a counsellor and talked through the issues. One of the things we all agreed on was that the children should be told the truth about their origins. Unfortunately, we did not discuss how that would be done. Recently, they turned 18. They still have not been told, so I raised the issue with my sister. She told me that she has changed her mind and does not intend to ever tell them. I am shocked. I feel like I'm complicit in a lie. Can I tell them myself? Do I have a duty to tell them? If so, how do I do it?" 

I made that question up, but I come across variations on this quite often these days. My first real brush with the world of assisted reproduction was through the eyes of donor offspring. From them I heard a clear message: if there's information out there about their origins, they should know it. 

But how does that work in practice? Does a family member who donated gametes have a right to tell the offspring? What about a grandparent, or another family member who just happens to know? What about a friend who knows? Or a doctor who knows? Who has a right to speak? Does anyone have a right to make others stay silent? Does anyone have an obligation to tell? 

Below, I ask two donor-conceived adults and two professional counsellors how they would respond to the question above and why. 

Egg donor’s dilemma

I would encourage her to reach out to her sister (and her sister’s husband). With DNA testing and DNA databases, it is more likely these days that the twins could discover the truth on their own and therefore feel betrayed by their parents. While telling them during childhood would have been ideal, it is not too late and may protect their relationship with their children too. I would remind the sister of the conversations with the counsellor early on when everyone was in agreement in terms of being honest about the donor conception and why they all had agreed on it in the first place. If the sister gets on board, I think acknowledgment that the twins deserved to know the truth when younger, or even an apology, would be a good idea and healing too.

If the sister still refuses, I think the sister-donor has the right to tell the twins. I would feel it was my duty. I can't think of any reason why it would be in the best interest of the child to instruct others to never tell the child the truth. Telling others they can never tell just sounds like a need for control, perhaps serving to protect the feelings of adults involved in the situation regardless of what is best for the kids. Secrecy is not the right choice. —Kathleen LaBounty was eight when her mother told her she was conceived through anonymous sperm donation

I think the most important thing is you need to make clear to your sister is that her children (your biological offspring) are going to find this information out eventually. They may find out from a commercial DNA test (tens of millions of people in North America have now done these tests). They may find out from an angry, drunk, or dementia-ridden relative. They may find out if the need for medical history ever arises. They will find out.

Would she rather they find out from the two of you as a united front? You still have the ability to control the release of this information — you will not have that ability forever.

Ultimately, our job as parents is to put the needs of our children before our own — to do things that are hard for us because they make the world better for our children.

The fear and insecurity your sister is feeling can’t be ignored — but please don’t let her claim she is doing this because she thinks it will be better for her children. It won’t. Risking the reveal of the secret in another way could cause tremendous, permanent damage to everyone’s relationship with each other, including yours with your nieces or nephews for having kept the secret. — Rob Hunter learned he was donor-conceived at age 22, when he and his grandmother were having a few drinks together, and she let the secret out 

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This situation demonstrates the broader and longer-term impact of 'secrets', and within families this can play out in very complicated ways. When the parties know one another and are members of the same family, it is essential that everyone is on the same page about a plan for the sharing of information. That is why a joint counselling session with donors, their partners and the recipients should happen before proceeding.  

But it's not too late to try counselling again. If the donor-sister were my client, I would strongly encourage her to talk to her sister. I would offer to see them both, with their partners. The goal would be to facilitate open communication between the adults about disclosure, and to focus on the best interests of the young adults concerned.

The fact that this was a 'within family' donation surely suggests that others in the family are also aware of how the child was conceived. It is very likely not a secret at all. It may be more of a 'conspiracy of silence' that other family members may feel has been forced upon them. Perhaps this is an 'elephant in the room' situation at family gatherings — a not-uncommon scenario in family donation.

Does the donor have a 'duty' to tell her niece or nephew? I think if she takes this upon herself as a 'duty' then she risks considerable family conflict. I would also ask why this has not been an issue for the past 18 years. Is there something else going on in the relationship between the sisters that has made this come up now? Her niece or nephew may not necessarily be appreciative of their aunt telling them this. The responsibility to tell primarily lies with the parents.  

Will continuing with the secret affect the donor? Yes, it will be very difficult. It will put a huge strain on her relationship with her sister and with her niece or nephew, and that is why she needs to have a frank discussion with her sister and suggest they get some counselling and advice from a professional. The other issue, of course, is that if the donor has children of her own, then she can argue that she has every right to tell them that their cousins are their half siblings. 

An old school friend in the UK once told me that her friend's adult daughter was conceived from donor insemination, but she and her husband had decided to never tell her. When I questioned why it was okay for my friend to know that but not the young woman in question, she pushed back and said it would be of no benefit for her to know because it would be upsetting. I recall getting into a heated argument about this, and then it was dropped. Later, I met both this mother and her daughter at a wedding. By that time, she was the mother of two small children. I felt extremely uncomfortable knowing this information about her. But I did not feel it was my duty to tell her, and I did not tell her. I just felt sad that she was being deceived by so many people in her life." — Jean Haase is a social worker in private practice, who specializes in donor conception issues

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I do a lot of sister-to-sister consults. We try to avoid situations like this one by counselling on the front end. I usually recommend three counselling sessions: one with the donor and her partner, one with the recipient woman and her partner, and one with everyone together. Unfortunately, clinics often only refer families for a psychological assessment of the donor — not comprehensive counselling — and sometimes intended parents stop there.

As a part of those sessions, we thoroughly discuss information sharing. I would ask intended parents about their plan. Sometimes they say they don't know yet, or they think they'll tell when the child goes off to college. We would talk about that. I would ask the donor her thoughts. She might say that she can't keep secrets. Or that she thinks the children need to know from an early age. If they don't see eye to eye, it can be a recipe for a major rift and not what we want to see happen. We might recommend not moving forward in order to avoid family conflict in the future.

Often I see people reply to questions like this saying, "You should tell them because they should know," and, "They are not children." 

But to tell would really be a betrayal of her sister. Some may say it is also a betrayal of the offspring, and that may be true. However, I don't believe it's the donor-sister's job to decide what's right for her sister's children. She gave up her rights when she donated. She may be their genetic parent, but she never intended to be their actual parent. It is hard to not have control, but that is why we encourage prospective sister-donors to imagine this scenario. Everyone has siblings with different parenting styles. It's not her job to parent them. Would she step in and interfere in her sister's parenting if they were not her genetic offspring? 

There's a fact about your niece or nephew. But it's not your job to tell anyone about that fact. Sometimes families know other facts — about genetic illnesses or family history. It's not her job to alert her sister's children to those facts. We have to respect people's parenting decisions.

On the other hand, if the donor-sister has children, it's her right to say she needs to share this with her own children. She will not be able to promise it won't come out. 

It can be hard to hold on to information. It can be like waiting for two trains to collide on the track. Have as much compassion as you can. — Carole LieberWilkins is a licensed marriage and family therapist, who has for decades been helping parents talk to their children and others about how their families were created. She is the mom to two adult sons who came to her through egg donation and adoption.

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If you have something to share about any topic related to reproductive technology, please get in touch: alison.motluk@gmail.com or 416-465-0497.

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