A review published in the December issue of Fertility and Sterility centers around two new studies on the long-term outcomes of children conceived through egg donation and their parents. It’s a topic that many intended parents are curious – and often concerned – about when considering egg donation to build their families.
The European Study of Assisted Reproduction Families focused on families with children born in the 1980s and assessed family functioning in a UK sample of families created through egg donation as compared to sperm donation, IVF and adoptive families, both when the children were ages 3-8 and then again at age 12. This particular study examined child adjustment, parental psychological health and parent-child relationship quality using standardized questionnaires, interviews, and a child report measure of socioemotional development.
The other study, the UK Longitudinal Study of Reproductive Donation Families, focused on family functioning in a UK cohort of donor families with children who were born later, in the year 2000. The families were examined in comparison with sperm donation, surrogacy, and natural conception families when the children were 1, 2, 3, 7, 10 and 14 years old. Standardized interviews, questionnaires, and observation of mothers, fathers and later the children themselves were used to assess child adjustment, parental psychological health, and parent-child relationship quality.
It’s interesting to note that a systemic, all-encompassing review was not available due to a limited number of past studies. Previously, concerns about long-term outcomes focused on a lack of genetic connection between mothers and children. Much of that, however, was based on the results from studies of adoptive and step-parent families – not the same scenario.
The studies also addressed differences between mothers and fathers. The perception of family and their place in it varied widely, with women found to perceive higher levels of stigma than men. The report suggests that “they may be more sensitive to assumptions and norms about the nuclear family. Parents raising egg donation children, and children themselves to some extent, thus often navigate family life in cultures dominated by family narratives of genetically related children and parents.”
The issue of disclosure is one major variable within families; anxiety levels were lowest for mothers in families that had disclosed, and levels of depression lowest for fathers that had disclosed. The UK Longitudinal Study of Reproductive Donation Families found that parenting stress was significantly lower among mothers who already planned to tell their children about their donor conception, though no difference was found for fathers according to the intention of disclosure.
When the child was 2, there were no differences in the mothers’ anxiety or parenting stress, and by the time the child was 3, there was no effect of disclosure intention on mothers’ or fathers’ psychological health outcomes. By age 7, 39% of mothers had started disclosing about the use of egg donation. These mothers had lower depression scores than those in non-disclosing families, and fathers also had lower stress levels.
While it’s a tentative finding, similar patterns as the child got older suggest that disclosure may be related to more positive psychological health outcomes for parents. It’s also possible that egg donation parents may just be more psychologically resilient as a group after conceiving through fertility treatment.
As for the children? The European Study of Assisted Reproduction Families found children conceived through egg donation to be well-adjusted in their socio-emotional development at ages 3-8, and at age 12. The UK Longitudinal Study of Reproductive Donation Families had similar results, finding egg donation children to be psychologically well-adjusted at all phases of the study.
What both studies conclude is that “children and parents function well throughout childhood and into early adolescence, although there appear to be subtle differences in mother-child relationship quality. None of the differences found in relationship quality indicate problems in the mother-child relationship and instead reflect differences within the normal range.”
Every child and every family is unique, of course, but this most recent research shows that egg donation families fare extremely well. At all time points, the children did not differ in their psychological adjustment from children born either through other forms of assisted reproduction or through natural conception.