Gail Pascoe and daughter Lara. Photo: Joe Armao
Families come in all shapes and sizes. These days, children can belong to a traditional nuclear family, an extended family household or a blended family, and have single or same-sex parents. But what if you were to grow up knowing more than 50 siblings, all within a couple of years of your age?
At last count, 17-month-old Lara Pascoe had 25 sisters and 28 brothers. The oldest recently celebrated her fourth birthday. The siblings are dotted around the world, with most of them living in the United States.
I assume she will have relationships like any siblings do - she'll connect with some and won't connect with others, and that's fine
Lara is a donor-conceived child.
"Growing up, I always assumed that I would have children," says Lara's mother, Gail Pascoe, 44. But when she was 40, and with a partner who did not want any more children, Pascoe realised she would need to go it alone. "So I left [the relationship] and went down the path of using a donor because that was simpler than meeting somebody - it would have taken some time to get a new relationship to that stage."
Lara will know the circumstances of her birth from the moment she is old enough to understand. Pascoe already tells her the story and has started putting together a book to help her comprehend how she came to be.
A shortage of gametes available in Victoria led Pascoe to sourcing sperm from overseas. The Xytex clinic in the United States provides profiles listing the known medical history of the donor, photographs, an essay stating why they donate and an audio file.
Gail Pascoe chose Lara's biological father because "he sounded like a kind, caring person and the essay that he wrote really touched me, because it was written as though it was directed at the child."
Once Lara was born, Pascoe was curious about any half-siblings her daughter might have. She discovered an independent website that made it possible to contact other parents who had used the same donor. This is how she discovered that Lara had 53 half-siblings.
"Initially, I was quite shocked," she says. "But then I thought it was a waste of time thinking of the negatives, and now I've just embraced the idea."
Pascoe made contact with many of the other parents. Some of them have formed a private Facebook group where they post pictures and stories of the children, many of whom share similar physical features and traits. There's talk of having a physical get-together once the children are a little older.
Victoria leads the way
Since January 2010, there's been a limit on the number of children that can be conceived from a single donor's gametes in Australia. In Victoria, the limit is 10 families, including the donor's own family.
Before that legislation, there was no limit; there's at least one instance of more than 30 people conceived from one donor's sperm within Australia.
Up to a decade ago, parents were counselled not to tell their children they were donor-conceived. As a result, many adult donor-conceived people don't know their origins. Now, experienced counsellors and psychologists recommend telling children early, as the consequences of finding out later in life can often be distressing.
Louise Johnson, the CEO of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority, says Victoria is leading the way with counselling for families. "The benefits of counselling are enormous," she says. "We know that openness is healthy for families. [Research shows] people that know they are donor-conceived believe that openness is very important for their sense of identity, knowing who they are.
"It's not that they want a replacement mother or father - they have parents already. But they want to be able to have access to information about their donor if they choose to."
Under current Victorian law, the right to access information about donors and half-siblings varies depending on the date of conception. People conceived before 1997 can only access identifying information about their donors with the donor's consent, and about half-siblings through a voluntary register. People conceived before 1988 have no right to any information at all.
The Law Reform Committee tackled these inconsistencies, and in March made the controversial recommendation that all donor-conceived people should have access to identifying information about their donors. This includes identification of people who donated on the condition of anonymity before 1997, although they would be allowed to request contact not be made.
As the eldest of the people who were donor-conceived reach their 30s, a recurring theme is the fear that half-siblings will meet and form a relationship. It is unknown how statistically likely this is, but Terri Kelleher, of the Australian Family Association, says research shows that often the children of sperm donors are geographically close.
Johnson believes donor-conceived children are capable of forming sibling-type bonds with their half-brothers and sisters. She knows of parents who have established friendships through the voluntary registers in Victoria.
Pascoe has embraced the idea of a possible extended family for her daughter.
"I think it's fantastic for her. She can meet her siblings if she wants to, and she doesn't have to if she doesn't want to. And I assume she will have relationships like any siblings do - she'll connect with some and won't connect with others, and that's fine too."
There is one most important thing, no matter what shape a family takes, Johnson says. "We know from the research that's been done that it's love and nurturing that is really what counts for families."
This article first appeared in the The Age.