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Records of her sperm-donor father didn't exist. How one woman tracked down her 'enormous' family

Alanah Eriksen
By
Alanah Eriksen

Deputy Head of News, NZ Herald

A Washington law professor has packed up her family and moved back to New Zealand to connect with her biological father's family after more than 20 years of looking for him. She's now working with other donor-conceived Kiwis to combat an industry long cloaked in secrecy, writes Alanah Eriksen.

The notification came in January last year as Covid-19 was first getting its claws into the world.

Washington law professor Rebecca Hamilton's DNA had matched with a second cousin in Taupō, New Zealand via the ancestry website 23andme.

It was the closest she'd come in 20 years to finding her biological father, who had donated his sperm anonymously in the late 1970s.

That second cousin was, helpfully, a retiree who had spent hours researching his ancestry and was happy to share the information. What followed for Hamilton was months of working through registration rolls, death notices and social media, and triangulating that information with DNA matches from distant relatives.

"It was labour intensive and emotionally draining, as searching for biological family always is when there have been no records kept, or when records have been destroyed. This is the story of all donor-conceived New Zealanders of my era."

In March, Hamilton's biological father's daughter confirmed the connection. Hamilton discovered he had died when she was 2 years old but it opened up a whole new family.

By August, Hamilton, 44, had packed up her husband and four young children and moved back to New Zealand - which she left when she was 15 - to connect with her new relatives and spend time with her mother, now 78.

Hamilton and husband Ben with their children twins Sami and Hamilton, 4, Baz, 8 and Matilde, 6. Photo / Supplied
Hamilton and husband Ben with their children twins Sami and Hamilton, 4, Baz, 8 and Matilde, 6. Photo / Supplied

"They are an enormous family, which is such a source of joy for me. My Dad died when I was nine and after that there was only Mum and me for a long time ... I am building lovely relationships with many of them, and they have been so generous in helping paint a picture for me of the man whose genes I carry. Beyond the expected physical likeness, the professional similarities between us are absolutely uncanny. And as a mum of four, I'm also grateful to be able to tell my kids about who their grandfather was."

And with much of the US still working remotely, Hamilton has been able to keep her job, conducting her lectures via Zoom from the comfort of her home near Kororāreka (Russell). The hours have been "brutal" with the workday starting about 1am but the sleep deprivation has been worth it with the children immersing themselves in Māori and Pasifika language and culture and connecting with their new Kiwi cousins.

Hamilton's Australian husband, Ben Batros, 45, is an international criminal lawyer and also able to work remotely in his job supporting civil society groups around the world. He's currently working with a Brazilian group trying to stop illegal deforestation of the Amazon.

"So there's a lot of time-zone Jenga in our household," Hamilton says. "We're an awesome team and we couldn't do what we're doing without each other. Plus it helps that our kids are total rockstars. So life is exhausting but fabulous, and we wouldn't want it any other way."

Hamilton's work day starts at 1am. She does her lectures via Zoom for students back in Washington. Photo / Supplied
Hamilton's work day starts at 1am. She does her lectures via Zoom for students back in Washington. Photo / Supplied

Another bonus about being in New Zealand is that Hamilton has been able to continue connecting with other donor offspring, who have formed Donor Conceived Aotearoa (DCA). The group's main goal is to advocate for the next generation who, as a matter of law, will become the first to receive identifying information about their donors when they turn 18.

In an industry that was long cloaked in secrecy, DCA are excited to see change but as the date approaches, they say there is a dearth of information about how it will be implemented and what support there will be for Kiwis applying for the details.

"Unless the wellbeing of these young New Zealanders is given active thought now, one can readily imagine them searching for the name they have been given on Facebook and having to reach out to introduce themselves to their biological parent on social media," says Hamilton.

"One can also foresee situations where, after a lifetime of anticipation about being able to find out who their biological parent is, the donor-conceived person receives their information and discovers that their biological parent has already died.

The four children are loving having new family in Northland. Photo / Supplied
The four children are loving having new family in Northland. Photo / Supplied

"The New Zealand Government has the responsibility to think through what support structures need to be in place for this group of its citizens. No one chooses to be born through donor conception. The adults who facilitated this form of child creation need to take responsibility for mitigating the negative consequences that can flow from it."

Parents told to lie

Hamilton was conceived at Auckland's National Women's Hospital (which in 2004 moved to Auckland City Hospital) in the early days of donor conception, when it was rare - and not a legal requirement - for hospitals to keep records of donors or if they did, give them to the children conceived.

"[The doctor] told my parents to lie to me about it. This was the norm at the time. To this day there are likely to be many New Zealanders who simply do not know that they are donor-conceived."

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Hamilton with her father Eric, when she was about seven. Photo / Supplied
Hamilton with her father Eric, when she was about seven. Photo / Supplied

Luckily, her parents didn't oblige. Hamilton's father died of cancer and she didn't get a chance to discuss any future search but she knows he would have supported her.

"He was the best dad you could imagine and I am so grateful to have known he wasn't my biological father from the beginning, because if I had only found that out after he died it would have been devastating. Unfortunately, that is exactly what has happened for plenty of donor-conceived people around the world. Too often they have learned the truth in the midst of a traumatic event, like a family death or a divorce."

A former Kristin School student, Hamilton moved from Auckland to Melbourne aged 15 to join the National Theatre as a ballet dancer. Later, a female friend encouraged her to re-enter the education system.

In her 20s, her search for her biological father ramped up and she pursued "every possible avenue", including making a documentary that screened on TVNZ in 2001 and placing advertisements in the Herald.

She wouldn't join online DNA testing websites until about 2014 so her only option was to publicly appeal for men who donated around the time of her conception to test their DNA against hers. She didn't match with any of the five donors who came forward, but it showed that just because people donated anonymously in the 1970s or 80s, didn't mean they wanted to stay anonymous.

According to the New Zealand Law Commission, up until around 1990, sperm was donated on the basis the donor could be anonymous. It was considered desirable because it ensured they wouldn't find themselves burdened with legal parental responsibilities. The Status of Children Amendment Act in 1987 released donors from legal liability.

The harm that secrecy does to families, in particular to the children, was raised following closed adoption debates that led to the Adult Adoption Information Act 1985. Fertility clinics began altering practices so comprehensive records of donors were kept.

Then in 2004, the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act (Hart) was passed. Those conceived via the donation of eggs or sperm on or after August 22, 2005, can apply to get identifying information (name, address at time of donation and place of birth) about their donor once they turn 18. Or they can apply to the family court at age 16.

"So while I didn't find what I was looking for from doing the documentary, I was at least comforted by the fact that going forward, children in this country would have their right to identity preserved for them by law," Hamilton says.

Hamilton interviews Sudan's Vice-president, Riek Machar, for the Washington Post in 2011. He had just cast his vote for independence. Photo / Cedric Gerbehaye
Hamilton interviews Sudan's Vice-president, Riek Machar, for the Washington Post in 2011. He had just cast his vote for independence. Photo / Cedric Gerbehaye

Meanwhile, Hamilton's professional life soared. She completed a BA in psychology at the University of Sydney but, after working at the Villawood Detention Centre that housed refugees seeking asylum in Australia, she changed tack and moved to the US to do her masters in public policy at Harvard University. Her CV includes stints as a journalist for the Washington Post, Reuters in New York and serving as a lawyer for the International Criminal Court in The Hague - where she met Ben - working on cases in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Uganda and Sudan. She's now an associate professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law.

Her new family is spread across New Zealand, Australia, and the UK. Some are based in the Far North and she sees them most days. Other members have travelled to visit and a niece organised a gathering last year, where Hamilton met 30 new relatives.

"It was surreal to be in a room full of people who looked like me for the first time in my life."

Hamilton has no idea how many times her biological father donated.

"So far at least, I haven't identified any donor-conceived half-siblings, but it's always in the back of my mind that one day I'll be notified of a new relative through ancestry.com or 23andme.com."

In her new book, ABC journalist Sarah Dingle, who was donor-conceived in Australia and spent years investigating the industry, cites a 2009 study that found only about a third of New Zealand donor offspring aged 17 to 21 had been told the truth by their heterosexual parents, which increases the risk of half-siblings getting into sexual relationships. It has happened in Australia. In 2010, politician Joanna Gash said she knew of a case in her electorate of Gilmore, on the New South Wales south coast, in which a half-brother and half-sister married without knowing they were related.

"I have never come across a single donor-conceived person made by a donor to a fertility clinic who says, with confidence, that they know who all of their brothers and sisters are," Dingle says in her book. "Some have hundreds.

ABC journalist Sarah Dingle, right, who was conceived using a sperm donor in Australia, with her half sister Rebecca Ronan. Photo / Supplied
ABC journalist Sarah Dingle, right, who was conceived using a sperm donor in Australia, with her half sister Rebecca Ronan. Photo / Supplied

"Think about the terror and the enormity of that ... Have you kissed, or slept with, more than one of them? Have you had a child with them?"

Dingle tells of a man from the Netherlands, Joey Hoofdman, 32, who discovered the doctor who treated his parents for fertility problems was actually his biological father. He found 75 siblings around the world.

Through her investigation, Dingle met Rebecca Ronan, also donor-conceived, and the pair became friends. Years later they discovered they had the same biological father. They managed to track him down together and discovered he had donated to the Royal North Shore Hospital hundreds of times over two years in the early 1980s.

Making changes

The first cohort of donor-conceived people affected by the Hart Act can technically start applying for their donor's information in about a year's time. Births, Deaths and Marriages say there were 28 born between June-December of 2006 who will be 16 in the second half of next year.

But the numbers are increasing substantially each year (81 in 2007 and 312 in 2018) so there will likely be a steady stream of applications to follow. So far, Births, Deaths and Marriages have a total of 2678 births registered since the act came into effect but it is still counting records from 2020 and 2021.

"For too long, donor conception has been a conversation between adults who want a baby and the fertility clinics and/or donors who can help them get that baby," Hamilton says.

"The Hart law steps in to help ensure that the rights of that baby - a future New Zealand adult - are protected because it is really hard, when you're desperate to start a family, to be focused on what the needs of someone who hasn't even been conceived yet will be in 15, 20, 30 years time."

DCA want a government-run public service announcement so donor offspring, donors and their families know about the Hart Act and understand the rights it provides.

They want ongoing support and education for parents in telling their donor-conceived children the truth from an early age.

And they want resources to help guide them through contacting their biological parent.

They also want counselling offered. As it stands, fertility clinics provide it for donors and recipients and Hamilton said it had been suggested they might extend those services to donor-conceived adults. But, she says, their area of expertise did not prioritise the best interests of the people they helped create, Hamilton.

DCA wrote to Ministry of Health deputy director-general Clare Perry to ask about counselling and was told there was not a specific programme of work on it although staff were regularly in touch with Births, Deaths and Marriages, the Ministry of Justice and some fertility clinics about how it might be addressed.

The representative noted that both the ministries "are aware of the importance of such a service being available and of the potential need for counselling. However, neither ministry is responsible for the day-to-day running of the register and cannot advise you how donor-conceived people would make such enquiries."

The ministry reiterated those points when the Herald on Sunday inquired. When asked what preparation was underway for 2022, a spokesman added "we are aware of information beginning to be circulated to key organisations and interested parties. This information campaign will continue with increasing intensity over the coming months."

They supported a public service campaign to advertise the register and when it comes to parents telling their children how they were conceived, they supported transparency around children's origins.

For too long, donor conception has not looked after the rights of the resulting baby, says Hamilton. Photo / 123rf
For too long, donor conception has not looked after the rights of the resulting baby, says Hamilton. Photo / 123rf

Six members of DCA met with Births, Deaths and Marriages recently and the group were invited to give input on the forms that will be used to request their records, as well as the way in which they will be presented, and on what information can be provided so young people know what support is out there.

Registrar-general Jeff Montgomery says they are looking to see how they can make the forms and information more user-friendly. They also plan to use social media to raise awareness of the register.

Voluntary register

For people such as Hamilton, conceived prior to 2005, a voluntary register was also set up under the Hart act. As at June 30, 28 donor offspring had signed up with the earliest birth recorded in 1977 - likely Hamilton's - along with 24 donors (22 sperm and two egg donors). The number of people who had connected through it were not recorded but Montgomery says they expect it is very low" (less than 10).

Birth, Death and Marriages is also in the process of improving the register which was designed in the 1990s, "quite cumbersome, and very difficult to generate statistics", Montgomery says. It is also planning to publicise the register via social media.

The ministry spokesman said they support transparency and use of the register, noting it is voluntary. "The ministry is regularly in touch with DIA [Department of Internal Affairs] to update progress around this."

Hamilton is conscious of how lucky she is as she knows not every donor-conceived person gets a happy ending when they connect with their biological family.

"There are also some members of the family who do not want anything to do with me, and that is perfectly fine also. I came into this with no expectations whatsoever. I just wanted to know my identity - the fact that in finding that out I have also discovered that I am related to people who are warm, interesting, and willing to welcome a stranger into their lives, is an incredible bonus that I will never take for granted."

To sign up for the voluntary register or find about the mandatory register, visit the NZ Government website.

'Completely useless'

At age 27, Sarah Dingle discovered that the man who brought her up was not her biological father.

She was celebrating Easter at a Vietnamese restaurant when her mother dropped into conversation that she and her father had used a sperm donor. They had no idea who he was.

It sparked a decade-long investigation by the ABC journalist, which uncovered shocking practices in the fertility industry, including as part of her own conception - the Royal North Shore Hospital had destroyed donor codes, the vital information that linked donors with the babies they helped make.

In her new book, Brave New Humans, she interviews the daughter of Noelene Cliff, who underwent three rounds of artificial insemination in the 1980s, using three different donors at Sydney's Westmead Hospital. She was infected by HIV positive sperm from the first donor and died in 1991 from Aids. Three other women were infected using donor semen at Westmead. All died.

Sarah Dingle has spent years investigating donor conception. Photo / Supplied
Sarah Dingle has spent years investigating donor conception. Photo / Supplied

In another case, Dingle interviewed Natalie Parker, who donated an embryo to a woman she met online, and planned to have a relationship with any resulting child. She and her husband had been through IVF to have their own two boys and had three leftover embryos.

They went through a fertility clinic, signed agreements and had counselling but after the transfer, they never heard from the woman. She had told the clinic she had had bleeding but Parker went through the woman's Facebook page months later and saw a photo of the resulting child, who looked a lot like her younger son. There is no way of knowing if the boy will ever know he is donor-conceived.

"So if a woman can have her child stolen in the past five or six years, that tells me that the fertility industry in a first world country like Australia is not doing okay," Dingle tells the Herald on Sunday. "None of these problems have been fixed."

And, she says, stories like this are not unique to Australia, where regulation of the fertility industry is left up to states and territories, creating a massive inconsistency, with half of them having no laws.

"I'm not a conspiracist, but honestly, the stories that donor-conceived people tell around the world are so similar you've got to wonder if individuals at organisations are swapping notes on how to destroy records.

"It's similar no matter where you are ... There's fires, flood or simply they were never kept in the first place. There are so many fires that occur in fertility clinics ... it's very, very strange."

Dingle's state of New South Wales has a voluntary register like New Zealand for donor-conceived people born before January 1, 2010. But she describes it as "near useless, if not completely useless". It is poorly advertised and those wanting to join it need to provide details of their conception but they can get those records only if their mother, as the patient, agrees. Even then, the state applies to the clinic to verify the information, which doesn't work in cases like hers when the files have been tampered with.

In 2015, she asked how many successful matches had been made on the register and was told just one. She asked again when writing her book in 2020, and was told "we do not keep that information".

"This is a register set up with the express purpose of making matches and it does seem to me that if you are going to do that, you should keep a record of whether you are actually doing it with any success."

Dingle and her parents. Photo / Supplied
Dingle and her parents. Photo / Supplied

Western Australia also has a voluntary register but Dingle spoke to a woman who was on it for 14 years alongside her half brother and they were never matched.

She has a message for our lawmakers for when our mandatory register takes effect: "support has to be done properly". In Victoria, counselling is mandatory before you can access your own records, which she described as "a slap in the face".

"It tells us once again that we are not to be trusted and we're infantilised. Donors of course don't have to go through any counselling to access their data."

Donor offspring should also be able to nominate their own counsellors. Too often, counsellors working for the fertility clinics are offered.

In November 2019, Dingle presented at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, to commemorate 30 years of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human rights treaty signed by world leaders. It was the first time they had heard from a group of the people created by the practices.

Dingle's new book.
Dingle's new book.

She told the room: "For donor conception and surrogacy to be ethical, all children must have a legal right to know their biological parents, all of their biological siblings, and also their birth mother, whether or not she is also a biological parent. They have a right to know that none of those parties were paid, compensated or otherwise rewarded."

The UN delegation drafted principles for donor conception and surrogacy to provide minimum standards for laws and practice in Nation States where surrogacy and/or donor conception are already permitted or tolerated. The principles require strict regulation of such practices to uphold the human rights and best interests of people born as a result.

After struggling to enact change through official channels, Dingle hopes her book will
bring the general public into the discussion. "All politicians, the law, medicine - none of those powerful sectors really care."