Funding threat to charity will prevent children tracing their biological parent

A charity that reunites children with their biological parents and siblings is fighting to stay afloat. Sarah Freeman reports on UK Donor Link.

Shirley was nine-years-old when she discovered the man she had always thought of as dad, was not her real father.

The news was broken by a family friend as her mother hovered, embarrassed and anxious, in the background. It was the 1950s, and after shuffling uncomfortably as her Uncle Eric told her she had been conceived through artificial insemination, the subject was closed.

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“He told me that I had been conceived in the same way that cows conceived calves,” says Shirley, now a head teacher. “I felt very awkward. I stared at the privet hedge very hard and tried to digest this new gobstopper sized piece of information.

“Back then, ordinary decent folk didn’t discuss their feelings and most families operated on the philosophy of least said soonest mended.

“The only reason that I was told then was because the man who I thought was my dad had been diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. I didn’t know the details of the condition, but clearly he was not well and I had decided in pragmatic childish fashion that I would never have children as they might become like him.

“My mother thought that if I knew he was not my father all would be well. I was told not to tell anyone, not even my sister and was made to promise never to say anything to dad.”

For Shirley’s mother that was the end of the matter. For Shirley it was only the start of a long and painful journey to find the truth about her biological father.

“The next thing I remember is lying on my bed, face down on the dark pink candlewick bedspread that smelt faintly of dust,” she says. “I was given to self-dramatisation, but I honestly felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach and my sense of self had been shattered. Bewildered and confused, over time mum told me the donor had either been a doctor or a policeman. He had three children of his own and it was know that he was healthy and normal, but that was it.”

Those few snippets of information were enough to fuel Shirley’s imagination. From that day on she dreamed that her donor father was like those doctors she watched in the medical soap Emergency Ward 10. Later she decided that he was in fact a well-to-do GP with a large town house and when they were finally reunited he would greet her with open arms and a large smile.

“In the mid 1970s I wrote to Mary Barton’s clinic where I had been conceived to see if they could tell me anything about my donor only to be told that the clinic had closed and all the records had been destroyed,” says Shirley. “It was impossible. Sometimes I used to think that I would go to the other side of the world to find him, but over the years I became resigned to the feeling of emptiness. It was something, I told myself, I would just have to live with.”

However, when she read an article about other children born through donor insemination at Mary Barton’s clinic and of their attempts to trace their biological parents, Shirley’s hopes were reignited. It was 40 years since she had been told the truth about her birth and in the intervening decades huge strides had been made in DNA testing and the Department of Health had launched a pilot project UK DonorLink specifically to help people like Shirley trace their biological relatives.

“It was an emotional rollercoaster, but the day I was told I had two half siblings will remain with me as one of the most wonderful moments of my life,” says Shirley, who also discovered the identity of her donor father. “He had died about the time I decided that my daydreams of ever finding him would best be put away, but now I have a new daydream. I imagine him listening as I tell him that against all the odds I found him and thanking him for giving me life. It’s a life that now feels much more complete.”

Shirley is not the only one that has been helped since UK DonorLink opened in 2004 to help those conceived prior to 1991 when a statutory register was set up by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

The Leeds-based organisation now has more than 400 people on its register and has successfully linked a number of half siblings as well as donors to their biological children. However, despite its work being praised by the Government, the Department of Health has pulled its funding and by the end of next month the service could have closed for good.

“It’s been an incredibly difficult time,” says Marilyn Crawshaw, Honorary Fellow at the University of York and national adviser to UK DonorLink. “The service needs £90,000 to keep going, but alternative sources of funding just aren’t there. We all recognise that these are difficult times financially, but it just seems like a terrible waste.”

Registrations to UK DonorLink have increased year on year as more people have become aware of the service. The grant runs out at the end of next month, but the organisation has already suspended registrations for fear of not being able to process the DNA testing in time.

“There are potentially thousands of people still to come forward,” says Marilyn. “Those for whom we cater were conceived when secrecy was the norm. It was felt that it was better for the child if they grew up in ignorance and many using our service often only learn the truth in adulthood. It can be incredibly traumatic, but for the last seven years, UK DonorLink has provided vital support to these people.

“Of course it’s fantastic when they find say a half brother or sister that they never knew they had and everything works out, but for a lot of people just knowing they are not alone is a comfort.”

With just a few weeks to go before the organisation is mothballed, those who have benefited from its help are now trying to raise awareness of the vital role it plays. One of them is Sylvia Barr who 20 years ago became one of Britain’s first anonymous egg donors.

At the time all she was told officially was that the donation had been successful and the recipient had gone on to conceive twins. However, after reading a newspaper article about a woman who had successfully become pregnant with twins using artificial donation, Sylvia was convinced she knew exactly who her eggs had been given to.

Joan Isherwood’s story was a harrowing one. Having seen her two boys killed in a car crash on holiday in Crete, in her mid 40s she was desperate to start another family and turned to artificial insemination. Conscious that any attempt to contact the family could be construed as interference, Sylvia waited until the twins had celebrated their 18th birthday before seeking advice from UK DonorLink on the best way to make contact. It is inevitably a sensitive process, one often fraught with heartache, but Sylvia is now in regular contact with the twins and Joan.

“Our experience is evidence that it can work, you can have a relationship and that people do not need to be threatened by it,” says Sylvia, who also conceived her own son, 19-year-old Elliot through sperm donation. “There is a connection there, it is undeniable and I do not see anything wrong with it. Everybody has their own opinion, but I feel it has been good and positive for us all, particularly for the twins who now know that missing piece of the jigsaw.”

Unfortunately, if UK DonorLink can’t find a new funding source, those kind of happy endings may be a thing of the past.