As Mel Macauley stood on Otley Chevin at sunset, she couldn’t quite believe how her quest to find her sperm donor father had turned out. There she was, meeting her half brother, who lives in Tasmania and who just a few months ago she had no idea even existed.
Mel, 46, from Leeds, discovered at the age of 17 that she was donor conceived.
After years of wondering about the man who was her biological father, Mel enlisted the help of television show DNA Family Secrets and presenter Stacey Dooley to help her to discover anything that she could about him - and about any half-siblings she may have.
Speaking ahead of her episode airing tonight, she says: “I couldn’t do it on my own, I didn’t know where to start. I thought it’s my only chance and if I don’t find anything, I’ll put it to bed. But I wanted to give it one last shot and see if I could get some answers.”
The desire to find out about her sperm donor dad had been niggling away at Mel for years and more so since having her own children, now aged 15 and 16.
But the catalyst which set her off on the track to find him was a DNA test discovery in 2019. Mel’s parents had visited a reputable fertility clinic in Manchester and believed that the same donor’s sperm would be used for any children they conceived.
However, when Mel’s brother bought him and her a DNA kit as a Christmas present, it indicated the pair had different fathers and were actually half siblings.
“That was what really kicked it all off, me wanting to start looking then,” Mel says. “But the clinic’s not there anymore, the guy who did it has died and there was just nothing to go off. I didn’t know where to start.”
Though there is a public body - The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) - which licenses UK fertility clinics and collects information from people who donate at them, it doesn’t hold any details about people who donated before 1 August 1991, when the HFEA was set up. Donor conception remained unregulated in the UK until this date.
There is, however, a Donor Conceived Register, which aims to match pre-August 1991 donors and donor-conceived children. But there are challenges in doing so.
Donations happened anonymously at the time and many donors don’t realise that they can have their identity made known.
The majority of donor-conception parents who received treatment before 1991 were also advised by professionals not to tell their children of the nature of their conception and so people may not necessarily-know that they were donor conceived.
Mel recalls the day that she found out from her mum. “We went out for dinner which I thought was a bit odd. So I knew mum wanted to talk to me about something, and the fact it was just me and her, I knew there was something going on.
“She sat me down and said your dad’s not your dad. My first thought was have you had an affair? When she told me what had happened, I was absolutely gobsmacked. I didn’t know anything about sperm donors and sperm banks...
"I was really angry that I’d almost been lied to for 17 years I suppose. It was such a shock. The more we talked about it the more I understood that they were desperate for a baby and would have done anything. I completely understand why they did it. And they had been following advice in that they were told to never tell anybody.”
She adds: “I’ve got a great relationship with my dad, it doesn’t change anything with him but I’ve just always wanted to know. My brother has no interest at all in knowing but it’s always niggled away at me.”
On the show, Mel meets Dooley and one of the UK’s leading geneticists, Professor Turi King to see if the latest DNA technology can reveal her lost heritage. “I’ve got a dad so I wasn’t doing it because I wanted a new dad or anything like that.
“I just hoped for a name, a photo, any information about him to go off as I had nothing. Just to find out where he was from, what he did for a job, something, anything.”
The outcome for Mel was even better than she had hoped for. She learnt that her father was a Mancunian businessman named Gerald and that she has a half brother called Philip.
Recalling the day she found out about her long-lost family, she says: “I was absolutely over the moon, delighted. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Philip, thrilled to discover his half sister after his parents recently passed away, flew out to the UK to meet Mel for the first time in November last year. She is now in regular contact with her half-brother and hopes to see him again soon.
“When I first got a video off Philip, it was just off the scale,” she says. “And it was then so incredible to meet him. It was so emotional. I was stood on the Otley Chevin at sunset and he appeared and walked up the hill and it was just incredible.”
Mel’s husband and children are “chuffed” at the outcome, having supported her through the process - and Mel feels nothing but gratitude after a nerve-wracking and emotional journey.
“I didn’t want to cause anyone else any upset, any heartache,” she says. “I was really apprehensive that I didn’t want to cause any trouble for anybody. I’m lucky how it worked out.”
“I’m not a crier, I never cry,” she continues. “And from the minute we started the process, I was blubbering all the time. I was in floods of tears every time they came to film. I’ve obviously just pushed it away all these years and got on with it. I’m a very together kind of person so it’s amazing where all this emotion came from.”
Tracking down her donor family has been “the best thing I’ve ever done”, Mel says. But she’s conscious the journey could have been very different and each of the possible outcomes played through her mind as she decided what steps to take.
“It’s worked out really well for me but whether I’d feel the same if I couldn’t find him or I had found him and he didn’t want to know or his family didn’t know, it’s a really tough one. But then I think everybody deserves the right to know where they’re from.
“Equally I completely understand why donors would want to be anonymous so it’s a really tricky one...But every child has a right to know where they’re from and know they’re heritage.”
Mel’s story is featured on DNA Family Secrets tonight at 9pm on BBC Two and iPlayer.