Children born via egg or sperm donation, or via surrogacy, have the same psychological wellbeing as those who are biologically related to both parents, according to a new study.
The study, published in Developmental Psychology, tracked more than 100 UK families for twenty years.
It found no difference in wellbeing between 20-year-olds who were conceived via assisted reproduction, and those conceived naturally.
These findings are consistent with the six other assessments done of the group over the children’s lives.
But the researchers did find that there was a slight advantage for parents who told their children about their origins earlier.
“Despite people’s concerns, families with children born through third-party assisted reproduction – whether that be an egg donor, sperm donor or a surrogate – are doing well right up to adulthood,” says lead researcher Professor Susan Golombok, former Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, UK.
The researchers have been following a cohort of 117 UK families for two decades: 26 with children born by sperm donation, 17 with egg donation-children, 22 with children born by surrogacy, and 52 control families with children born by unassisted conception.
Parents and children in these families were regularly interviewed, with a final round of interviews and questionnaires taking place for mothers and their children when the children were 20.
Children conceived via assisted reproduction had the same levels of psychological wellbeing as the control group. They were also, generally, unconcerned about their biological origins.
For instance, one participant said: “My dad’s my dad, my mum’s my mum, I’ve never really thought about how anything’s different so, it’s hard to put, I don’t really care”.
Others were actively supportive: “I think it was amazing, I think the whole thing is absolutely incredible. …I don’t have anything negative to say about it at all”.
“Today there are so many more families created by assisted reproduction that it just seems quite ordinary,” says Golombok.
“But twenty years ago, when we started this study, attitudes were very different. It was thought that having a genetic link was very important and without one, relationships wouldn’t work well.
“What this research means is that having children in different or new ways doesn’t actually interfere with how families function. Really wanting children seems to trump everything – that’s what really matters.”
The researchers found big differences in whether parents chose to tell their children about their origins. Only 42% of sperm donor parents had disclosed the information to their children by age 20, while 88% of egg donor parents had done so and 100% of surrogate parents.
For ethical reasons, 20-year-olds who were still unaware of their assisted conception weren’t asked to participate in the study – just their mothers.
There was a slight advantage for the mothers who’d told their children about their origins, especially at younger ages.
Mothers who’d disclosed the information to their children by preschool age had more positive relationships with their 20-year-olds, and showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Mothers who’d disclosed by age seven also had slightly more positive scores on measures of family relationship quality, acceptance and communication, and children who’d been told before age seven reported similar results.
“The assisted reproduction families were functioning well, but where we did see differences, these were slightly more positive for families who had disclosed,” says Golombok.
“There does seem to be a positive effect of being open with children when they’re young – before they go to school – about their conception. It’s something that’s been shown by studies of adoptive families too.”