Sperm and egg donors: curious connections podcast

What is expected of 21st Century egg and sperm donors, and how does being a donor impact men and women’s own personal lives and relationships? How do donors navigate connections and relationships created by donation? What do these connections mean to them, and to the people around them –their partners, parents, siblings and children?

Join host Thomas Felix Creighton as he speaks with book author Petra Nordquist as they discuss her book Donors: Curious Connections and Donor Conception author.

Speaker profile(s)

Petra Nordqvist is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester and a member of the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives.

Her research explores reproductive technologies, kinship, intimacy, gender and sexualities, and she is particularly well known for her work investigating donor conception and donation from relational perspectives.

She has previously co-authored Relative Strangers: Family Life, Genes and Donor Conception (Palgrave Macmillan 2014, with Carol Smart), and has published widely in a range of academic journals.

In this episode:

  • What is a ‘donor’? What can they be?
  • Why isn’t there a consensus about what is a donor?
  • Should doners ‘know their place’?
  • Who has the right to know?
  • Does the donor’s family know they are a donor?
    • Should they?
    • Which family members should know?
    • When should they know?
  • Things must be handled ‘right’… but what is ‘right’?
  • How has the ‘donor landscape’ changed over the last two generations?
  • How does this affect how we see parentage, lineage, and kinship?

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Sperm and egg donors: curious connections

Thomas Felix Creighton (TFC): Hello, and welcome to the Emerald Podcast Series. My name is Thomas, and my guest today is Petra Nordquist, Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester, and a member of The Morgan Center for Research into Everyday Lives. Her research explores reproductive technologies, kinship, intimacy, gender, and sexualities. She is particularly well-known for her work investigating donor conception and donation from a relational perspective. Her book, “Donors: Curious Connections and Donor Conception” is out now.

As it is the title of the book, would you mind tell us, what exactly is a ‘donor’? How should we understand that term?

Petra Nordquist (PN): That's a good question, actually. So, a ‘donor’ in this book is someone – a man or a woman – a person who decides to donate egg or sperm or embryos to another person or a couple, for them to have a child. So, the donor allows other people to become pregnant, but, without the intention of parenting that child. The donors that we interviewed became donors via clinics in the UK, so they go down a licensed clinic route, they talk to infertility counselors, or fertility counselors, and they sort of they do their donation at clinics. But we also interviewed donors who know their recipients. So, these can be egg donors, too. But it's usually sperm donors who donate to friends, or people they know, perhaps they met them on social media. The way we went about it is that we allowed people to define for themselves if they are donors or not, in the book, would there be someone who we might consider a donor and they would not consider themselves a donor for some reason? Well, I think this is sort of quite a slippery area. So that it might there might be families, for example, who set off with a known donor where that person is intending to be a co-parent of the child. And then for various reasons, perhaps things slip, the relationships maybe don't go so well, will set up as a co-parenting relationship might become over time, more in relationship between the donor and the intended parents. I think the issue in the UK is that often, clinic donors are the donors who are sort of recognized officially as donors. And known donors are seen a little bit as sort of as poor practice is something that happens kind of in the shadows, but it's actually a growing practice people turn to known donation for various reasons, including that they can't afford to go to a clinic to receive clinical treatment. So, it's definitely a sort of a growing practice that we need to consider. And lots of people act as known donors, they might not be seen by clinics as donors, but they themselves might think of themselves as such. That is interesting.

TFC: And you talked about them kind of having the right to know to be anonymous. But in the book, you also talk about them… it's in quotation marks, ‘knowing their place’.

PN: Yes.

TFC: What does that mean, exactly?

PN: The UK has really started from, like, managing donors by making them secret. So it used to be that donors were anonymous, they were sort of really written out of the child's life. They had no access to information, the child had no access to information about them. Since some decades ago, since sort of three decades or so, there's been a huge turn towards openness in UK donation, which means that donors, there is sort of transparency written into the law. So, donors are aware that they can be found by the donor conceived child, when that person turns 18. What we argue in the book is that this has really created a huge shift in how donors think about themselves as donors. So, they think about themselves very much as needing to be available. It's sort of the moral way, at the moment of being a good donor, doing this in the right way; making yourself available to if and when the donor conceived person wants to reach out to you and get to know you. So that is the sort of ‘being available’. But what we found as well, that was the donors really has to balance what that means in practice with not stepping on anyone's toes. So, they're meant to be available that but then they're not the parents and they don't want to be the parents. So, finding a sort of balance between being available, but keeping a distance as well, is something that the donors think about quite a lot… about how to how to sort of balance those things.

TFC: So, to be very simplistic, if you're a donor, they can knock on your door anytime. But you can't knock on their door.

PN: Absolutely. So. The way in which the law regulates openness is that the donor-conceived-person, on turning 18, can trace the donor. The donor can never trace the donor-conceived-person. So, a real strong finding of the study was that donors think of themselves as needing to be available. But the way in which they imagine that relationships is usually in the future. They have a sort of a passive responsibility towards the donor-conceived-person. They are not to make any demands on that relationship. They are to answer questions to be available, but the person in charge is very much assumed to be the donor-conceived-person.

TFC: You make reference in the book to the donor being aware that their family, their immediate relatives, may have a view on this as well.

PN: Yeah, so this can become really quite difficult. I think, you know, in theory, not sort of pushing a relationship might seem quite straightforward. But actually, when it comes to real life, it can become really quite difficult. So, for example, we interviewed a woman who we called Becky in the book. All of the names in the book are pseudonyms. Anyway, Becky became a donor. But as part of that process, she also had a child of her own. So, she went down an egg sharing route, which is where a woman can receive reduced price IVF, if she also agrees to donate some of her eggs. So, Becky had done that. She had a child in this process, and she also became a donor at the same time. And she was really, you know, really content and really kind of on board with this idea that the donor conceived child should be in charge, if they want to contact her, that's absolutely fine. If they don't, that's absolutely fine. She was really kind of fine with that. But, it came more difficult for her when she considered the needs of her own child. And the fact that they couldn't make any demands on this relationship, which some might say is a half sibling, although these terms are very contested. A donor-conceived-child in UK law can trace their donor and can trace half-siblings by donor conception, but a child by a donor has no such rights. So, there is a real sort of discrepancy. And the law really depends, you know, in terms of genetic connections, the law doesn’t treat those connections in a similar way. So, Becky, who was really kind of on board with how we placed her as a grown up the decision that she'd made, she felt much more uncomfortable thinking about her own child and their lack of choice, and their lack of agency, visa vie, this other child conceived with her eggs daughter could not reach out to her, potentially her half-sister. Whereas the half-sister could reach out to them.

TFC: You mentioned right at the start of the interview that the different types of donors included embryo donation.

PN: So, this was this was actually fascinating because it wasn't what we set out to do. But we were contacted by a woman who saw herself as an embryo donor. Now, it's important, I think, to say that embryo donation is a different kettle of fish, mainly because if you donate embryos, there will be full siblings in another family that you don't know. And I think that is often perceived as kind of having quite a heavy sort of charge to have full genetic siblings in another family that you don't know. So, embryo donation kind of needs its own exploration, really, because it has this kind of a different charge to it. But this woman we interviewed, she was really fascinating because she considered herself a donor. But she had access to donor eggs and donor sperm. And embryos were created. She had a child from these embryos, but she had no genetic connection to them. Oh, but of course, the embryos that were still in the freezer were connected to her child. And that was the connection that for her was so vital, and that's how she signed up to the study. So again, thinking back to the question about ‘who is a donor’ was she very much thought of herself as one. Whereas we, you know, people who think ‘what is a donor’ might think, well, obviously, then have a genetic connection to those embryos to what you have donated, but this was really important to her that things were managed, right, because it was about her child.

TFC: That's interesting. I mean, she said it must be handled ‘right’. She obviously had a clear idea of what was ‘right’ and what was ‘wrong’ in terms of how it should be handled.

PN: What often happens to people is that some people have to go abroad, as they find the waiting lists in the UK are too long. They can't access donor embryos or donor eggs specifically and so what they do is they go to another country. Each and each country have their own legislation on these matters. Even within Europe, it varies vastly. And whereas in the UK, we have had a legislation that provides these kind of pathways to openness. For some time now, across Europe, we still have a lot of anonymity. So, she had gone to a country where all donors were still anonymous. And she felt really strongly that she wanted her child to be able to find out. So, she couldn't change the law. But she was very forcefully sort of saying, Well, I have made a note on my records, I want to be contacted, I want my child to have that contact, if these donors are at all available or want to make themselves open, we are here and we want contact. So that there are very sort of strong moral sentiments around how this should be handled and what people want from it.

TFC: And the regulatory environment here has changed in the last 20 years. You referenced the law, the change in 2005, I believe?

PN: Absolutely. Yeah. So, since 2005, children born after that date, when they turn 18 can access identifying information about their donors. So, 2023 is a very important data because children will start to turn 18 at the end of this year, it will be really interesting and a bit of an experiment to see what is actually going to happen when people might start to make requests to open the register. So, this is… I mean… it's a timely time for the book for this podcast, because we're coming up to the big change. Absolutely. And about half of the donors we spoke to were clinic donor, so they had no knowledge of their recipients, they had no knowledge of the child or the children who had been conceived. But many of them were saying, ‘you know what, I'd be open to contact’. The current legislation does not allow any contact, there are no ways of making yourself contactable as a donor’. But quite a few of the women, especially the egg donors, especially, we're saying, I'd be really quite happy if they want to talk to me. But at the moment, the law is very sort of rigid on those terms, and does not allow a more flexible arrangement depending on what people want. So that I think is one of the findings that come out of the book to sort of that it doesn't necessarily fit all that well with how people themselves experience what it is like to be a donor. See, and you see the big distinction between male donors and female donors. And it's a very different process.

TFC: You set that out in the book is a very different, it's more intrusive for women.

PN: Yes, a lot more intrusive for women. There were gender differences. But they were also complicated. Whenever we thought we'd sort of said, right, this is definitely gender, then there would always be someone who sort of model muddied the waters somewhat, because there's always one of the issues which is more complex. And also, they might speak of things in slightly different terms, they might speak of the same issue in slightly different terms. For example, we tended to be more men than women who spoke of being a donor as a sort of insurance policy, almost. And this is as a sort of, ‘if I never have children, then at least I will have some genetic offspring out there’. And this Lea Gilman, my co-author has written in a separate article about the more ‘selfish’ element if you like, in quotation marks of donation. Now that tended to be men, but there were women who saw it as a sort of, I want my genes to be out there, that sort of narrative, which, which isn't necessarily the more known narrative about what it means to people to become a donor.

TFC: Can I ask, what was the most surprising finding that came up in your research?

PN: Well, I think one of my sort of favorite findings, if you like, is perhaps that there isn't a settled understanding about what being a ‘donor’ means. And there also isn't a settled understanding about what these connections means in families. So for example, then we had a lot of donors who sort of say, well, I've just donated an egg. I wasn't using it anyway, it was just going to go to waste. These are by no means my children, right? Both women and men would tell us that. But they may well then go on to have conversations with their children, who would say, ‘oh, well, that's sort of a half sibling, isn't it?’, or with the parent who might say, ‘oh, that means I've got a grandchild out there’. And at that point, the donors would say, ‘no, no, no, really not’. Quite often, in a lot of families, this didn't lead to any kind of conflict. It was just kind of held within complex family relationships anyway, but that were moments where a donor…  So there's one particular example I'm thinking of where we interviewed a sister of a donor, actually. And the donor had been very casual. You know, it didn't carry any weight for her, really, it was just a good thing she'd done. But for this sister, it meant a huge amount because she had a child of her own. And to her, the donor conceived offspring were actually cousins in her mind. And that's what kinship thinking does, you know, these, some people may well consider these children cousins, there was a real sort of sense of tension in a way, but how should we think about these donor offspring out there somewhere? How should we think about these connections? Yeah. Can I tell you my second favorite finding?

TFC: Oh, please do! Yes, please.

PN: There is a sort of a social norm at the minute that partners definitely need to know. And fertility counselors are also sort of stuck strongly pushing that line. So what we found was whilst the donors would usually tell their partners, they were much more flexible in terms of telling their own children, most of them felt that children probably should know. But when they told and how they told there wasn't a social norm established in that same way. Then when it came to telling parents there was a lot more flexibility, telling one's family of origin, a lot of flexibility. So that meant that you may well get these kinds of pockets of secrecy within families where people have been told selectively, which could lead to all sorts of really interesting situations where secrets might be kept. There was quite a few of our donors who said, ‘yes, I told that sister, but I haven't told my mum or dad, and don't you dare tell them’. So you have these kind of Kim's acknowledge being kind of negotiated and the donor, the donation leading to these kinds of quite interesting relational issues within families. I'm curious if donors have talked about this with their families beforehand, rather than revealing later, while they say that they would normally tell a partner beforehand, so a partner gets a say. So obviously, then they will know if a partner disagrees or not. Families of origin, so parents or siblings, in the absolute vast majority of cases did not get a say, Okay, so there's a real sort of interesting mix in terms of what relationships are valued in what particular way, what relationships are kind of perhaps seen as more fragile, or a couple of relationships seem to sort of, we need to sort of look after them a bit more than we look after relationships with our parents and our siblings. Whereas partners were invited to have a, say, parents and siblings we're not we didn't manage interview that many siblings, but the siblings that we did manage to interview there, were sort of saying, well, ‘am I allowed to have any feelings on this matter?’, you know, there was a sort of sense in which they were not supposed to speak of it, they were not supposed to feel anything in particular about it. But that didn't necessarily mean that they didn't have any feelings. But it was difficult to voice those feelings, if that makes sense. Because they somehow didn't have a legitimate platform, to voice their concerns or feelings.

TFC: That came up for me years ago, a friend of a friend was a donor. Somebody said, if your nephew dates girl from Leeds, and you know, your donor children are somewhere in Leeds, would you then inform that side of the family?

PN: Well, it can become really sort of, you know, in small communities, where there might be one donor who's been really very active within a particular region. It can raise all sorts of really interesting kind of, questions, like, ‘do I need to now make decisions around disclosure? How do I do that?’ – and how do you then navigate the fallout or the potential fallout?

TFC: This was a small community, and it was somebody who, when he first said was a donor, people thought, okay, that's really interesting, that he started to say how many, he got a bit of a reaction. And then he started to ask, so what's the right number? And that was a very interesting discussion. A decade ago, and I still remember it.

PN: You know, going back to the beginning of the conversation, we talked about the right way of being a donor, but you know, the number is very much part of a sort of moral normative understanding, I think at the moment about what that there is a right number. So, UK clinics, a donor who has a clinic donor can donate to a maximum of 10 families. So, they can obviously be a number of offspring within those families. So, it might be, say, 20 children or something, maximum. Um, but the donors that we interviewed to quite a different approach, there was quite a few donors who had donated to one family, they were not happy with the idea of donating to more. And similarly, we had donors at the other end of the spectrum who had donated, you know, there was only a few less than a handful of those donors in the study, boy who had donated to a lot more than, than the clinic, the current clinic guidelines. So, I think there isn't a necessarily an agreed upon sort of sentiment, even that the clinic guidelines are correct. And we've seen a lot of change, as you said, in the environment over time, do you find that donors themselves they might have donated 20 years ago, 30 years ago? Do you find that their views of donation have changed? As well, I think the social landscape has changed. So, I think as people within society, necessarily people's understandings of what it is they're doing will change too. And interestingly, we interviewed a couple of men. So, the study was about the current social climate around openness. But we included a couple of men who had donated in the 1980s. And their accounts were really, really different. Actually, they were anonymous, they were really happy about being anonymous, they didn't share this kind of idea about needing to be available.

TFC: Would you say that's generational? Is this a generational societal change?

PN: I think what people are told to think at different points in time has shifted hugely. I think they donated at a time when they were not encouraged to think of this as meaningful in some way, or as meaningful in the in the sort of, you know, think 10 years ahead, 20 years ahead. donors who donate these days are very much told that, you know, this is, you know, the child will have the right to find out your identity, you need to consider the potential impact, that this can have some years down the line, it's a very different context in which to be a donor to act as a donor. Similarly, we see the same with parents, you know, parents used to be encouraged to sort of go home and forget about having used to donor secrecy would be sort of in the child's best interest. And that has changed hugely. So, you get these kinds of families where the parents actually did exactly what they were told. And now we have a really different society, where they are being seemed to have done something wrong. But of course, you know, that decision then became part of how they operated as a family. I think it's really important to understand people in their context, you know, acting that they it wasn't necessarily that they took a decision that was out of step with moral guidance at the time, maybe their decision was actually completely in step with what they were told to do. It's just that what we understand to be the moral way to do things have changed.

TFC: So, they did good, but ‘good’ has changed.

PN: Yes, that’s true actually.

TFC: I'm very interested in your book, you do reference popular media, right, and the quest for parentage and the quest for bloodlines, and so on. I'm very interested in how you now perceive that media. You cannot forget your research as you as you engage in media.

PN: Absolutely. I think kinship is just fascinating. And I think it's fascinating to people. I think what was so interesting about the donor study was that we found that these connections are charged, you know, they carry a sort of potency in everyday life. And I think that's where you get in popular media, too, that this is something that matters to people, they want to find out their potential data that they've never known there is a potency to kinship connections in society, that's kind of our culture. But what was so interesting about our study, I thought was that that potency, didn't necessarily follow genetic lines. So one example was that we interviewed a lesbian couple who one of the women had was the egg donor, and the other woman had carried both children. And the egg donor wasn't particularly interested in… you know, she kind of, you know… she was aware of her responsibilities as a donor, but it was the partner who actually was much more interested in future contact or who these children were and who or who the families were. So the charge, the potency of kinship was very much there. But it didn't necessarily map on to who was actually genetically related to whom it's kind of experience. Yeah. And it might be that, in that family, for example, there was already a child that she had had that once so that the birth mother, who wasn't the genetic donor, she already had a child and their story was very much that child. Old was very much part of their story. It was also her future was also about her. And kinship has this kind of fabulous flexibility to encompass all sorts of ways of being connected. And sometimes that is about genetic connection this but often it's not, but it doesn't make it any less strong. Do you feel that policy is fit for purpose. So, I think what our findings are showing is that the current policy was written at a time where the donor conceived person's need for openness was really the kind of the real sort of key concern for policy. And that came out of, I think, a place where donor conceived children's needs had not been prioritized. And here policy was going to prioritize children's needs. So great. That means that currently we have a legislation that sort of legislate for openness. But it's a very partial kind of openness. So, the only people who can seek information are the donor conceived person. For example, donors can't seek any information about who has been conceived. Equally, recipient parents can never seek identifying information about the donor. But our study showed that donors and recipients for example, has, that connection between the two of them at can actually matter in its own right. It doesn't only matter because of the donor conceived person, but it matters because a gift was given. And it enabled a woman or a couple to have a child. And donors can feel really, really strongly about that connection in its own right, you know, to the mother to the imagined mother, for example. And similarly, as I've already mentioned, donor own connections, their partners, or their parents or their children can feel really strongly about these connections. And there is no pathway whatsoever for them, to add their names to registry or to seek any kind of information. So, I think there could be a case to be made about the law, taking a more flexible approach, you know, perhaps allowing donors own children to sign up to the donor sibling link, if they choose to do so. And that could be perhaps more done by mutual consent. As opposed to having this really quite rigid approach to this field.

TFC: There are obviously important social issues to do with family relationships. Have you seen this well portrayed in a drama? Anything from a TV episode, to a movie in English, or any other language, or play, or a book? Have you seen anything that really handles this issue in an interesting way, a way that you personally engage with, and might recommend to others?

PN: I'm not sure actually. We have returned as part of the project. If I could do a bit of self promoting, we've written sociological fiction based on the stories. So we worked with a creative author called Becky Tipper, and she has dramatized based on our stories. She's written short stories, based on the interviews and they are really lovely, actually.

TFC: Petra, thank you so much. It's been a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you.

Thank you for listening to today's episode. For more information about our guests have a transcript for today's episode, please see our show notes on our website. I'd like to thank Katy Mathers and Daniel Ridge for their help with today's episode, and Alex Jungius from This Is Distorted.

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