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To Tell or Not to Tell? Secrecy vs. Openness

Third-party reproduction was born in secrecy. In the 1800s, using simple techniques learned from animal husbandry, small-town doctors were able to help their male patients become fathers through artificial insemination. Nobody needed to know that a sperm donor was involved, the doctors reasoned, and patients were cautioned never to reveal the secret to anyone – especially not the child.

Today this philosophy is criticized. Many professionals believe that secrets can strain family relationships and cause psychological harm to children. They argue that being open with children about their genetic origins lessens any sense of negativity or shame, and protects kids from finding out accidentally later on in life.

Although research is still preliminary, openness does not appear to hurt children. Some studies have shown that children told about the means of their conception are well-adjusted. Others indicate that early disclosure may have positive effect on parent/child relationships, while secrecy may lead to mistrust, frustration, or hostility towards the family. In its 2004 report, the American Society of Reproductive Medicine supported disclosure, encouraging parents to tell their offspring about the use of donor sperm or egg in their conception.

Emily Gilbert Gilbert Family

The Gilberts:
Gary Gilbert, a dentist, had testicular cancer as a young man, which left him infertile. He and his wife later had twins with the help of a sperm donor. Doctors advised them at the time never to tell the children about their origins, but keeping the secret eventually became too much for Gary to bear. He revealed the truth to his children Andrew and Emily when they turned 21.

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The JohnsonsThe Johnsons:
Lily Johnson, 14, and her brother Chase, 10, always knew they’d been carried by a surrogate mother, using the surrogate’s egg and their father’s sperm. Their mother, Fay, began telling them the story of their births from the time they were very young. As you’ll hear, their experiences were quite different from those of the Gilberts.

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Philip Himberg, Jim Ballantine and Fanny Ballantine-HimbergPhilip Himberg, Jim Ballantine and Fanny Ballantine-Himberg:
The Ballantine-Himberg family was profiled in the documentary film Daddy & Papa. They faced a different set of challenges. Fanny was 13 years old when we spoke with them.

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Elaine Gordon, Ph.D.Many parents put off discussing ART with their children for fear of hurting them, or of creating confusion. If you have never told your teen about his or her origins, and would like to, the task is tricky but doable. Finding out later in life can feel like a betrayal to kids, and parents need to be prepared for their reactions. As Dr. Elaine Gordon explains, it may help to have professional counseling before you make the disclosure. (See How to Find Help for information on how to find a qualified counselor near you.)

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"I felt I was relieving myself of the biggest load I had carried my entire life. I felt that because I wanted them to know—and I wanted them to know before I wasn't here to tell them myself."
— Gary Gilbert


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