Listening to late discovery adoption and donor offspring stories: adoption, ethics and implications for contemporary donor insemination practices by Riley, Helen J. (2009)
In: Spark, Ceridwen and Cuthbert, Denise (Eds.) Other People's Children : Adoption in Australia. Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, Victoria, pp. 145-160.
For most of the 20th Century a `closed' system of adoption was practised throughout Australia and other modern Western societies. This `closed' system was characterised by sealed records; amended birth certificates to conceal the adoption, and prohibited contact with all biological family.
Despite claims that these measures protected these children from the taint of illegitimacy the central motivations were far more complex, involving a desire to protect couples from the stigma of infertility and to provide a socially acceptable family structure (Triseliotis, Feast, & Kyle, 2005; Marshall & McDonald, 2001).
From the 1960s significant evidence began to emerge that many adopted children and adults were experiencing higher incidences of psychological difficulties, characterised by problems with psychological adjustment, building self-esteem and forming a secure personal identity. These difficulties became grouped under the term `genealogical bewilderment'. As a result, new policies and practices were introduced to try to place the best interests of the child at the forefront. These changes reflected new understandings of adoption; as not only an individual process but also as a social and relational process that continues throughout life.
Secrecy and the withholding of birth information are now prohibited in the overwhelming majority of all domestic adoptions processed in Australia (Marshall & McDonald, 2001). One little known consequence of this `closed' system of adoption was the significant number of children who were never told of their adoptive status. As a consequence, some have discovered or had this information disclosed to them, as adults.
The first study that looked at the late discovery of genetic origins experiences was conducted by the Post Adoption Resource Centre in New South Wales in 1999. This report found that the participants in their study expressed feelings of disbelief, confusion, anger, sorrow and loss. Further, the majority of participants continued to struggle with issues arising from this intentional concealment of their genetic origins (Perl & Markham, 1999).
A second and more recent study (Passmore, Feeney & Foulstone, 2007) looked at the issue of secrecy in adoptive families as part of a broader study of 144 adult adoptees. This study found that secrecy and/or lies or misinformation on the part of adoptive parents had negative effects on both personal identity and relationships with others. The authors noted that those adoptees who found out about their adoption as adults were `especially likely to feel a sense of betrayal' (p.4).
Over recent years, stories of secrecy and late discovery have also started to emerge from sperm donor conceived adults (Spencer, 2007; Turner & Coyle, 2000). Current research evidence shows that although a majority of couples during the donor assisted conception process indicate that they intend to tell the offspring about their origins, as many as two-thirds or more of couples continue to withhold this information from their children (Akker, 2006; Gottlieb, A. McWhinnie, 2001; Salter-Ling, Hunter, & Glover, 2001).
Why do they keep this secret? Infertility involves a range of complex factors that are often left unresolved or poorly understood by those choosing insemination by donor as a form of family building (Schaffer, J. A., & Diamond, R., 1993). These factors may only impact after the child is born, when resemblance talk becomes most pronounced. Resemblance talk is an accepted form of public discourse and a social convention that legitimises the child as part of the family and is part of the process of constructing the child's identity within the family. Couples tend to become focused on resemblance as this is where they feel most vulnerable, and the lack of resemblance to the parenting father may trigger his sense of loss (Becker, Butler, & Nachtigall, 2005).