If You Were Conceived from Donated Sperm or Eggs, Would You Want to Contact Your Parent?
If you haven’t heard about assisted reproductive technology yet, now is the time! Due to rising rates of infertility, the use of donor eggs and sperm is becoming an increasingly popular method to conceive children.
People who are donor-conceived may have unique and complex relationships with their biological and non-biological parents. There are different family forms, but on a basic level, a person who was conceived from donated eggs or sperm may have a biological parent who shares a genetic tie with him or her; a non-biological, “social” parent who plays a role in his or her upbringing but bears no genetic relationship; and a sperm or egg donor who may be either known or anonymous.
Although some donor-conceived people try to find and contact their donor, others choose not to. Why is it that some donor conceived people are more curious about their origins than others? Attachment style – the way a person relates to others in the context of close relationships – may help us answer this question.
Attachment theory emphasizes individual differences in the way people experience their relationships. One major way in which people differ from one another is that some people are more anxious about their relationships than others. People who are high in attachment-related anxiety tend to fear rejection or abandonment and worry about whether others really love them. With this, they may be preoccupied with their relationships and need extra reassurance from the people around them.
To study how people differing in attachment-related anxiety react to being donor-conceived, Chris Fraley and I partnered with the Donor Sibling Registry, a non-profit organization founded by Wendy Kramer and her donor conceived son, Ryan, to assist individuals who were conceived as a result of sperm, egg, or embryo donation, and their families. We used this registry to recruit 488 adults who had been conceived with donated eggs or sperm. The people who took part in this study were asked to complete questionnaires about their personality and experiences with donor conception.
Our results showed that people who are high in attachment-related anxiety (those who are more insecure about their relationships) were more curious than those low in attachment-related anxiety about their donor conception. The more people were generally anxious and worried about being loved, the more they wondered about their donor conceptions. Despite this curiosity, however, highly anxious people were not more likely than others to search for or make contact with their donor. These findings suggest that attachment anxiety may play a role in how donor-conceived people think about themselves and their unique birth status, but this may not affect their actual actions.
Our results support the idea that people who were conceived from donated sperm or eggs who are high in attachment anxiety are more likely to be curious about their donor conception, potentially as a means of compensating for unfulfilling or unsatisfying relationships with the parents who raised them. However, despite their curiosity, they tend not to seek out the donor or make contact with him or her.
For Further Reading
Lozano, E. B., Fraley, R. C., & Kramer, W. (2019). Attachment in donor conception: Curiosity, search, and contact. Personal Relationships, 26, 331– 344. Doi: 10.1111/pere.12273
Ehrensaft, D. (2008). When baby makes three or four or more: Attachment, individuation, and identity in assisted-conception families. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 63, 3-23. Doi: 10.1080/00797308.2008.11800797
Hertz, R., Nelson, M. K., & Kramer, W. (2013). Donor conceived offspring conceive of the donor: The relevance of age, awareness, and family form. Social Science and Medicine, 86, 52–65. Doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.03.001
Elizabeth B. Lozano is a fourth year doctoral student in social/personality psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Her primary line of research explores the relationships of people born and affected by assisted reproductive technology.