Hair colour: Fair
Eye colour: Blue
Weight: 11.5 stone (73 kg)
For a number of years, these five facts were all I knew about donor C11, my biological father. This reduction gave me nothing of his essence. What did he care about? What made him laugh? Did we look alike, or share interests? Did it matter?
All this was revealed just after I turned 21, when Mum sat me down and explained in halting words that Dad was infertile and I was conceived from donor sperm from a stranger. Known only as C11, I could never know who he was. Later, still in shock, I stared into a mirror and felt a strange dizziness at the unfamiliarity of my own reflection. Left was right and right was left. Everything had changed.
A few weeks later, Mum casually asked how I was going with the news. ‘I’m fine, it isn’t a big deal,’ I replied, quickly shutting the conversation down. But I wasn’t fine. I was wounded in a place I couldn’t locate. Although my feelings towards my Dad hadn’t changed, I felt a strange sense of loss. My internal narrative was confused. I couldn’t reconcile the story shaped by my birth certificate and upbringing with that encoded in the DNA unfurling within my cells. I felt clinical and hollow, like the syringe that had inseminated my mother.
The dominant narrative of assisted reproductive technology (ART) has always focused on the journey of the parent or parents. The birth of the child is the happy ending. As a miracle baby, even at 36 years old, I’m still introduced as a ‘child’ conceived through ART— my life a mere footnote. This endless infantilising and marginalisation courtesy of the policy decisions that underpin my life gave rise to a not-so-happy legal situation: I was denied the right to know my biological parent or access cultural history, even as I worried I might unknowingly date half-siblings and have my health care compromised from an incomplete medical history.
I couldn’t reconcile the story shaped by my birth certificate and upbringing with that encoded in the DNA unfurling within my cells.
Upon inquiring with a government agency I was told about three donor-conceived half-siblings: a man born in December 1981, a woman born in August 1981 and a man born in July 1984. With no better options I started scanning faces as I walked down the street—searching for them and C11. A decade and a half later, I’m still scanning. It is estimated that 90 per cent of donor-conceived people are never told the truth about their origins, but this doesn’t mean they won’t find out. The growing popularity of consumer DNA testing means more people are discovering the secret later in life by logging into a website, by all reports a shocking experience.
After Mum’s revelation I tried talking to a few people close to me about how I was feeling. Frustratingly, instead of acknowledging the trauma of the deception compounded by my inability to seek answers from the bureaucratic vortex nobody seemed to ‘get it’. Instead, they offered unhelpful platitudes: that my parents still love me, that my Dad is still my Dad, seemingly compelled to convince me that nothing had changed. The comments sections of media articles are often plain hostile: Why couldn’t I just shut up and be grateful?
Three years later, relief arrived in the form of a woman with long, brown dreadlocks who liked to dress in bright colours. Narelle Grech was the first other donor conceived person I met and she ‘got it’. She helped me articulate my feelings. ‘I think most people find it difficult to empathise, to imagine what it would be like for us, to really be in this situation,’ she explained. ‘I feel like I’m missing something invisible but vital. That sense of knowing where I come from. I feel untethered, like a tree without roots.’
Over the next decade a group of us called TangledWebs helped build a movement of donor-conceived people dedicated to challenging the legal status quo. In a world first, in 2016 we successfully convinced the Victorian government of our authority to give shape to the Act that states as its core guiding principle, ‘the welfare and interests of persons born or to be born as a result of treatment procedures are paramount’. The law was amended to provide identifying information, with provisions to protect the privacy of donors who did not want contact.
Many of us ‘miracle babies’ feel a responsibility to advocate on behalf of voiceless generations who will be born from current and emerging biotechnologies such as genetic selection and CRISPR, who cannot influence the decisions that will impact the most intimate fabric of their lives. Last November an international cohort born from donor conception and surrogacy, collectively known as third-party reproduction, travelled to Geneva to the UN for the thirtieth anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Their message on the importance of governing biotechnology to protect the welfare and interests of the people conceived, distilled within five recommendations, received a standing ovation.
A donor-conceived man I know felt so much like a product he got a bar code tattooed on the back of his neck.
However, ‘baby blinkers’—the powerful emotional desire for a child at any cost—coupled with profit-driven big business is a potent combination, and the hard-won progress from 2016 is under constant threat. One of the most exhausting and disappointing aspects of this advocacy work is the constant need to defend our altruistic system from the increasing commercialisation of the industry and resulting pressure on governments to shift to free market self-regulation.
When I was conceived, my mother’s treatment was fully subsidised, but these days ART is big business. Clinics are furiously lobbying for structural changes pioneered by manufacturing in the 1980s—namely, permission to slash costs by leveraging global supply chains. Parents want the best for their children, but decisions made now to go overseas to source gametes for reasons of cost or expediency can terribly undermine their future child’s long term best interests and inadvertently fuel exploitation and human trafficking. A donor-conceived man I know felt so much like a product he got a bar code tattooed on the back of his neck.
In response to this industry push, the 2019 Gorton report recommended that eggs and sperm originating from overseas countries such as the Ukraine, South Africa and the US be exempted from independent scrutiny and important regulations that apply domestically, with the stated goal to ‘make access to treatment cheaper and faster.’ If implemented, this will mean another disenfranchised generation of donor-conceived people, for whom any knowledge of their donor beyond the most rudimentary details will be all but impossible. Local and known donors offer more realistic prospects of a meaningful relationship.
All this points to a bigger problem in which market thinking has crept into every facet of human existence, powering the global trend towards industries influencing governments to regulate for their own profit. But a regulatory paradigm distilled through this prism is not appropriate because the creation of human life is not a consumer product or a commodity. As Thomas Keneally urges us as we move into the 2020s, ‘We must abandon the language of the market to reclaim our humanity.’
Benedict Manning CLARK
It is all strange as you say, to be connected to someone who is a fully lived adult, and only discover it out of nowhere.
So began the letter I received after convincing then Victorian governor David de Kretser—the man who had been my mother’s treating doctor—to contact C11 on my behalf. I showed the letter to Mum who said breathlessly, ‘His father was Manning Clark!’ She walked over to the bookshelf and pulled out a book titled The Quest for Grace—Manning’s autobiography. Flipping through I found photographs of Benedict and his brothers and sister. For the five years I searched, the book had sat quietly on the shelf. By coincidence, or cosmic sense of humour, the answers had been there all along, if only I knew where to look.
Three months later I met Ben and his three children. Beforehand I felt nervous, like I had to prove myself worthy or pass an implicit test. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the real person behind the five facts. As we greeted one another there was mutual recognition as I unexpectedly located myself reflected back in the blue pools of his eyes. The experience felt strange—it seemed natural, like we had already met, but also a little awkward. We were connected in looks and interests but disconnected by a complete absence of shared memories. The visit went well, but as I said goodbye I was acutely aware of the possibility of rejection and the fear of it all being ripped away. For me nothing is unconditional or can be taken for granted and it’s been a slow process of acceptance that our connection is something that doesn’t have a name.
It’s a form of grief to see myself mirrored in a family that isn’t really mine.
I feel incredibly lucky and grateful that over the years the large extended Clark family has been warm and welcoming. It’s been intensely satisfying to discover that like many in this family I have a PhD, drive a sensible station wagon, love nature, drop crumbs down my shirt, excel at sports and enjoy being irreverent. Even though I got the best result I could have hoped for from my search, a shadow lurks. It’s a form of grief to see myself mirrored in a family that isn’t really mine. A part of me feels cheated, swindled out of the opportunity to grow up already knowing all the things I am gradually discovering about myself by knowing these people.
When I finished high school I wasn’t sure how to resolve my dual loves of maths and English. I loved writing, and received top marks in English, but didn’t know anybody who was a published author so chose the path of aeronautical engineering. After the surprise discovery of my biological heritage I reflect back on my choice in a different light. A few years ago I stayed with Ben’s sister Katerina at her home in Connecticut. Upon my arrival I stared at her bookshelf. It wasn’t just Manning Clark’s six part opus A History of Australia, or Katerina’s own academic blockbusters on Russian history and culture, but the entire literary Clark family: Books by Manning’s wife Dymphna, their children and grandchildren, everything from poetry to biography to political analysis. Seeing this combined weight of the Clark oeuvre on Katerina’s bookshelves, I finally felt the confidence that writing was something I could do.
A person longing to, but unable to have a child has a word—infertility—to describe their experience. But the reverse condition does not have a name. Without specific language it’s difficult to describe the fragmentation and desynchronisation of being different to the family I grew up with, and not quite belonging to my biological family. I’ve long searched for a way to reconcile these two truths, and have found clarity in realising it simply isn’t possible. Still, the transition leaves lingering feelings of dissonance. The two pieces didn’t quite fit together and from the core of their disjuncture arises this feeling that has no name. There’s always a strange sense of moving between two worlds, both real in their own way, but somehow they can’t be mapped onto each other.