When Kathie Harris spotted a newspaper ad a few years back recruiting egg donors, she passed it on to her daughter. "I was kind of joking," she says.
But her daughter, Melissa Braden, ended up donating six times. Now Ms. Harris, 53, has mixed feelings about it all.
"It's kind of hard," she says. There are grandchildren out there that the family will never meet, she says. "They're a part of you. Because they're Melissa's eggs, they're a part of everybody in Melissa's family."
It's estimated that about one million donor offspring worldwide have been born, most of them through anonymous donations. But when people choose to donate their sperm or eggs, they think of it as a purely personal decision. They forget that their DNA is a family asset, not a private one, experts say.
"The practice has grown up in a consumer context," says Juliet Guichon, a bioethicist at the University of Calgary. "You think you're purchasing a factor of reproduction, but you're not - you're receiving the genetic heritage of a family."
And grandparents, often the oldest surviving progenitors, can feel quite differently about trading away the family code.
This feeling recently intensified for Ms. Harris when one of Ms. Braden's recipient couples sent her daughter a photo of the new baby. At first, Ms. Harris didn't want to see it. Her daughter has two boys of her own, but this couple had had a girl. When Ms. Harris did finally look, she was overwhelmed. "That little girl looks exactly - I mean exactly - like Melissa," she says.
Ms. Braden, 30, insists that she has no maternal feelings for the little girl and that the recipient mom is the only mom. But her own mother feels differently. "In my heart,
I think of her as my granddaughter," Ms. Harris says. "I carry her picture in my purse."
Shana Harter, 31, had a similar difference of opinion with her mother. She donated eggs twice when she was in her
early 20s. But her mother was not happy with the choice. "I caught a lot of flack," the Atlanta resident says.
Almost a decade later, her mother still thinks about them. "I wonder all the time what they look like, if they look like her, what they're doing, where they live," says her mother, Lynn Corcoran, 52. "It's just that feeling of knowing that I have other grandchildren out there. I'll never see them. I'll never know them. I hope they went to good homes."
For a long time the two women stopped talking about it altogether. But when Ms. Harter got married and had trouble conceiving herself, it was the elephant in the room. What if the only genetically related children she ever produced were born to other people?
In the end, after IVF, Ms. Harter gave birth to a little
boy in January. Her own struggle with infertility made her even more understanding of couples who long to have children. "I have a new appreciation myself," she says. "I'm very happy to know I helped make that happen for one or two other couples out there." Ms. Corcoran admits it gave her some insight into the plight of childless couples too.
Kirk Maxey, 53, who donated sperm for almost 10 years,
says he now sees that grandparents are an overlooked piece of the donor puzzle. "There's a set of fully legitimate grandparents out there, who've missed seeing grandchildren, usually all the way through teenage years," he says. His own parents were delighted when two teenage donor daughters surfaced a few years ago. "It impacts grandparents in ways that people didn't really imagine it would," he says.
For some, the relationships are surprisingly warm. Florida resident Christine Striegl has discovered that she's closer to her donor granddaughter than to any of the grandkids born through her son's marriage. She met her son's teenage donor daughter, Virginia, about 18 months ago and they immediately hit it off. "She calls me her grandmother," Ms. Striegl says.
For others, it stirs feelings of regret. Diane Wilkins, 53, of Ottawa, will probably never have the chance to meet any children born through her daughter's egg donation, though she'd love to. "Even if I just got to see them, just to see what they look like," she says. But shortly after the donation, the relationship with the recipient couple soured.
(Since 2004, it has been illegal to pay donors for eggs or sperm in Canada, and though women can still import commercial U.S. sperm, that's not true for eggs, so many women leave the country for such procedures.)
"Grandparents are vulnerable, on the sidelines, waiting to be invited in," Dr. Guichon says. But she also turns the issue around: A recipient couple, she believes, has a moral obligation to consider whether a child would benefit from knowing their grandparents. It could be important to their identity, she says.
Perhaps no one feels the bond more intensely than grandparents whose own children have died unexpectedly.
Marjorie Smith's daughter died before she'd had kids of her own - but she had donated eggs three times, and Ms. Smith (not her real name) knew children had been born. She was ecstatic when a recipient family got in touch. "When I heard from that family, it was like a gift from heaven," she says.
They are hoping to meet soon. "These kids are part of my daughter. They look like my daughter. I hope to become a real grandma to them."
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