Accepted Paper:

Belief, secrecy and the challenge to the elders: the changing views of older men about having donated semen anonymously when young students  


Jennifer Speirs (University of Edinburgh)

Paper short abstract:

Semen donors in the UK were anonymised before 2005 to ensure that their identity was hidden. Secrecy was thought essential by infertility clinicians in order to protect those involved from stigma and risky relationships. I show how the belief in the need for secrecy has been challenged, causing uncertainty in existing relations of trust and authority.

Paper long abstract:

Donor insemination (DI) was a controversial practice in the UK from the beginning, with many commentators including some medical practitioners insisting that it was wrong to deceive children created by DI about the truth of their parentage. Nevertheless the practice increased due to the prevailing social pressures on married couples to have children, and the stigma of male infertility.

The clinicians who provided DI to infertile couples as a 'treatment' for infertility recruited young men, often medical students, as semen donors and made sure that the donors and the couples never met and were never identifiable to each other. Recipients were advised to pretend that any child born after DI was that of the husband, and to tell no one about it. Donors were told to forget that they had ever donated and were not informed as to whether any children had resulted from their donations. In effect they became non-persons.

This paper will show how the belief that secrecy is necessary, which was normalised as a fundamental characteristic of DI services, has been undermined by previous donors who covertly challenged the authority of the clinicians by revealing their donor status to family, friends and colleagues. Some now describe their lack of respect for those clinicians who were their professional seniors. Furthermore, some are seeking to connect with their unknown donor offspring as a result of the influence of their lifecourse and of their current understanding of genetics on their previously held beliefs about the meaning of biological fatherhood.

Panel W112
What happens when we stop believing in/believing that?