Adults conceived by donor insemination often suffer a collapse of trust in their family and struggle to deal with their new identity if they discover the truth about their origins, a study has found.
In the first research of its kind, psychologists found that keeping secret the genetic origins of donor offspring, as the overwhelming majority of parents do, can have a serious impact on their psychological wellbeing.
The study, by Amanda Turner and Adrian Coyle at Surrey University, will be used to devise counselling strategies and could also have a bearing on whether parents of children born after pre-implantation genetic screening, such as Adam Nash, should explain the circumstances surrounding their origin.
In the United Kingdom, 1,321 babies conceived by donor insemination were born last year. Clinics offering the service advise parents to consider whether to reveal the truth to their children, though most are thought to keep it secret. However, Dr Turner warned: "It was the withholding of information about their conception that had the most impact on the adults in this study, in part because of its effect on their whole family."
The psychologists discussed the experiences of 16 adult donor offspring, aged between 26 and 55, in the UK, North America and Australia, who knew they were the product of donor insemination.
The research, published in the journal Human Reproduction, reveals that while individual responses differed, there was commonly family mistrust, poor self-perception and frustration at the impossibility of discovering their biological fathers.
Many said they were shocked when they discovered their status as donor offspring. One woman reported she only learnt after her mother died. "I felt my entire life was based on a lie and I was furious with my mother for dying with this secret," she said.
In some cases, the revelation helped explain unusual behaviour on the part of the parents and a few offspring were relieved to find they were not related to a father they were never close to. Most said they had tried to trace their biological fathers and had been upset when they failed.