Even as a child, Christine Whipp, now a 46-year-old grandmother, says she was aware that somehow life was not as it pretended to be.
Her carpenter father had been an insulin-dependent diabetic who died when she was six. Christine and her mother never got on.
Ten years ago, Christine's mother referred to the secret directly for the first time.
"She told me that I had been conceived through donor insemination (DI) at the Margaret Jackson clinic in Exeter," says Christine. "I was 40 when I found out that my father was a glass jar with a blob of sperm in it. My father doesn't have a face, or a name and he wasn't even a one－night stand. If my mum had had an affair at least there would have been sex and lust, something human rather than something so cold, scientific and clinical. My parents never even met. How weird is that? I still feel like a freak, a fake. I don't feel I know who I am any more."
Between 1940 and 1983, 483 children were conceived through anonymous DI at the private Exeter clinic, most by affluent middle-class mothers, not factory girls like Christine's mum. Christine has never knowingly met a single one of them, though it's almost certain that some-even scores - are her half - siblings. She has no way of tracking the donor or her half-siblings down. Christine has no access to records, and it is likely that none survive. She has no rights to know anything about the man who helped give her life. The situation hurts. 'I was only made to assuage my parents' reproductive vanity,' she says bitterly.
Almost 18,000 babies have been born through donated gametes (sperm and eggs) and embryos in the UK since the regulatory Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority was set up in 1991. Anonymous donations have allowed infertile heterosexual couples, gay couples and single women to create families that would otherwise never have existed. Between 1940 and 1990, tens of thousands more were conceived mainly using donated sperm, the low-tech end of gamete donation which has been around for over a century.
While the first baby conceived with a donated egg was not born until 1987, the first documented case of donor insemination took place in 1884, when the Philadelphia-based doctor William Pan coast inseminated a sedated woman with a medical student's sperm without her permission or knowledge. Sperm insemination remains, by far, the most common donor conception procedure.
No one can say exactly how many people alive in Britain today were conceived through donor conception-estimates put it at around 40,000.
The received wisdom was that secrecy was in everyone's interests. The biological mother and her husband usually wanted to pretend that, genetically, the child was completely theirs. The clinics encouraged women to go home after artificial insemination and make love with their infertile husbands. Then the couple could cling to the possibility-however remote-that the child was really theirs. Some clinics even mixed a sterile husband's sperm with the donor's to keep the parental fantasy alive.
The donor dads were shadowy figures, guaranteed anonymity by the clinics. That way there was no risk of the past —— and, conceivably, hundreds of offspring —— returning to haunt the donors, and clinics did not have the expense and hassle of records. Keep it secret, it's simpler, advised the doctors. But it is not proving that easy. Someone forgot that gurgling, happy babies grow up into adults with complex needs.
"DI robbed me of half my genetic history, and it robbed my children and grandchildren too."says Christine Whipp, she argued that she had the right to know her parentage.
Since 1991, details about donors —— name, place and date of birth, medical history, physical characteristics, religion, occupation and interests —— have had to be registered with the HFEA but offspring have no rights of access. They may only check with the HFEA that they are not related to someone they intend to marry or ask the HFEA —— presumably they have to be, firstly, suspicious —— if they were the product of donated gametes or embryos when they reach 18.
The HFEA says that it has yet to face a situation where it is asked to reveal the identity of a donor because a DI child has a genetic condition or a disease such as leukaemia where bone marrow from a biological father might be needed to save a child's life. "But the law is clear at the moment,' said a spokesman. "The identity of the donor cannot be revealed."
Joanna Rose, 28, DI－conceived, was recently granted leave by the High Court to begin an action under the Human Rights Act that would force authorities to give more 'non－identifying' information about donors to offspring born since 1991. Ms Rose, complains that she and her half-sibling Adam, 34, a conservation biologist, have suffered an identity crisis from knowing nothing about their biological father.
The fertility industry is already issuing dark warnings that an end to anonymity will create a shortage of sperm, eggs and embryos, a terrifying prospect for the women having trouble conceiving, and the men who have difficulty fathering a child.
Melissa was conceived through DI 37 years ago. Melissa's mother blurted out the truth in 1996 during a heart-to-heart chat. But it was five months before her father knew the secret was out. Her mum feared he might have a heart attack.
Father and daughter have rarely discussed it since. Melissa, an only child, loves her dad.
Melissa would like to discuss with her father the possibility of being more open with their friends. She spent two years abroad after learning the truth and discovered she felt "freer" when she could speak about being DI. "When I'm home I feel I'm an actor in a play again," she says. Melissa felt something was not quite right as she was growing up. There was nothing she could put her finger on, or articulate, just this lingering unease. She grew up oddly disappointed that she was not at all like her father."He's extremely capable, practical and focused," she says. "I am the opposite extreme and I always felt he deserved someone more like himself."
Since 1996, she has veered between the joy of the truth and despair at an "insoluble situation". She, too, talks of identity crisis. She wants to find her donor father but does not know how. She is most angry at the Government which, she argues, ought to do more to protect the rights of the DI children that adults are desperate to have. "My mother didn't think about the long－term implications," she says. "They just wanted a baby so much."
Melissa argues that in future clinics should only recruit donors willing to be identified. She also wants a voluntary register for past donors. Because the consultation paper only consider the possibility of identifying future donors, Melissa says tens of thousands of DI offspring are being offered no hope of ever finding their donor parents. Melissa asks why, when adoption law changes were made retrospective, that is being ruled out by the Government for DI.
The motivation of sperm donors varies. There are students who think, "￡15 a throw, twice a week, good beer money", older men with perhaps more altruistic motives and, of course, egotists who, before limits were put on the number of sperm donations, seemed keen on hundreds of "mini?me's" running around.
Until a couple of years ago there had been little research into the happiness and wellbeing of DI children. But a few studies since suggest many grow up feeling a secret is being kept from them, and at least half suspect their 'social' dad is not their genetic father before being told. Most think they have a right to find out who the donor is, and 60 per cent want to meet him. Despite evidence that secrecy is damaging, one study of DI families in Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain found that only 9 per cent of parents had told the truth to their children by the age of 12.
William, 18, from north London, is a rarity. He cannot remember a time when he did not know that another man had helped his parents, Walter Merricks and Olivia Montuschi, create their family. "It is something I completely accept," says William.
His sister, Susannah, 15, conceived through another sperm donor, recently wrote touchingly of her interest in the man who 'gave me life and my parents great joy'. But William has no curiosity about his donor. He does not look at all like Walter, a lawyer, but he says he shares many of his personality traits. It's proof, William says, of the power of nurture.
William thinks it would be "outrageous" to identify past donors, who were previously promised anonymity. He argues that the rights of adoptees to information about their birth mothers is greater than those of DI offspring. In DI, I see the sperm and eggs as components in baby-making, like the wheels are components of a car. Giving up sperm is not like giving up a baby.
William's parents decided to be honest with their children from the start. Their motivation was not fear that their children might suffer an identity crisis as adults, but a gut feeling that a solid family could not be build on a lie.
Canadian filmmaker Barry Stevens, conceived through DI in London 49 years ago, argues that even if sperm donations drop when anonymity disappears, why should DI offspring sacrifice their rights so sperm banks can be full? Stevens, who recently made an award?winning film about trying to track down his biological father —— and perhaps 200 half-siblings —— is part of a lobby pushing the Canadian government to give DI offspring more details about donors.
Stevens now argues the state has a duty to children whose parents lie to them. "The first relationship between a citizen and larger society is the birth certificate. In the case of these children that document is a lie. I would like to see everyone have access to their birth information." How, he asks, can genetic heritage be so deeply embedded in our culture and then DI offspring be expected to accept that, for them, it does not matter?
"Everyone was so keen to tell us it didn't matter. And then suddenly I felt this enormous anger-that was for me to decide."