Egg & Embryo Donation Families: Terminology

By admin on March 18, 2020

The mission of the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) is to educate, connect, and support all those in the donor family: parents/prospective parents, donors, other relatives, and most importantly, donor-conceived people. All connecting takes place on the DSR website, but our Facebook group helps fulfill our mission to educate and support because it’s where DSR families come to ask advice, share experiences, and educate themselves about donor industry issues and recent news.

A recent DSR Facebook discussion took a deep dive into the terminology used by some egg and embryo donor parents. This discussion highlighted some confusion regarding what a “biological” or “genetic” parent actually means. A few mothers chimed in:
“I used donor embryos to conceive my daughter. She is not genetically linked to me, but I carried her and gave birth to her. I’m her bio mom, and she has genetic donors.”

“I used a donor egg and donor sperm … I carried them. I am clearly their biological mother — just not their genetic mother.”

…biological mother and genetic mother are different, though.

It is also not uncommon for me to hear when on a phone consult with an egg donor mom, “I carried and delivered my child, so I AM the biological mother. 

To these women, I ask: When your children are older and have taken 8th-grade biology and want to know about their biological mother — the woman who contributed approximately 50% of their genetics, physical attributes, ancestry, and medical history — what will the conversation sound like? Will you tell them that even though you used an egg donor or a donated embryo, you are the biological mother and the woman who donated the egg isn’t?

A biological parent is the same as a genetic parent. A biological/genetic parent gives approximately 50% of the DNA to a child. Each person has two genetic/biological parents:* One provides the egg and one provides the sperm. Yes, the woman who carries/delivers the child has some influence (epigenetics, diet, stress, etc.) but she is not the biological/genetic parent. 

Only the biological/genetic parents can pass along ancestry, physical and mental traits, blood type, and medical and genetic diseases. They are also who the child will match with as “parent” on any DNA test. A surrogate who carries and delivers a child with someone else’s egg is also not the biological/genetic parent — and will not be related via DNA, either.

The person who carries and delivers a baby, whether it’s the mother or a surrogate, is not the biological/genetic mother if she didn’t contribute the egg. Her ancestry, physical traits, and biological predispositions are not passed along to the child.

I was stunned this past January when I was on a panel at an egg clinic in Denver and a mother in the audience stood up to share that because her daughter so closely resembled her, she simply didn’t believe the science. She asked how I might explain the close physical resemblance if her genetics were not passed along to her egg-donor-conceived daughter. Closely watching the clinic staff, waiting for them to gently step in and educate the woman, I was shocked when no one uttered a word. It was then that I understood how some of these mothers could so easily slip into denial, thinking that they were magically genetically related to their children even though their eggs were not used. 

I know this discussion is often frustrating for donor-conceived people to hear, as they desire and expect honest communication from their parents. In the DSR Facebook discussion, one offspring explained exactly why proper terminology is so important for all donor families:
As a DC person, the amount of answers here trying to twist language around to make DC [donor-conceived] kids somehow biologically related to their non-bio parents is making my head hurt. The definition of biological parent is the person who supplied your DNA. That’s what it means. And in certain medical situations, accurate information about this and access to people you are related to can mean life or death, so twisting this around to support your own emotional needs is deeply selfish. If you were really all as ok with the DC process as you claim, you would be ok describing it as what it is, which is a very early form of adoption. There IS a legal process of transferring child custody over from the bio parent to the recipient parent, that’s what all those forms you filled out at the fertility clinic were.

Truly supporting your DC children means not stigmatizing, twisting, and being in denial about the basic facts, which includes not being so secretly bothered by the lack of genetic connection that you try to usurp and manipulate language to muddy and conceal the basic scientific realities of our bodies.”

“Parent” is both a noun (sperm and egg contributors) and a verb (parenting by the parents who raise you and who love you), so shying away from accuracy only indicates that there is something still unsettling about the reality that you don’t have a biological connection to your child. Not having a biological connection to your child in no way diminishes your role as a parent or the importance of carrying and delivering your baby. If you are a non-bio parent of a donor-conceived child it’s important that you work through any grief or sadness you may have about not having that biological connection with your child before you start having conversations with your child about the way they were conceived, which ideally should be when they’re pre-verbal. 

Ultimately, this discussion is about the children. We would never want donor children to be afraid to use accurate terminology for fear of hurting their parents. It’s important that as we talk to our children we use honest and accurate terminology and give them the freedom to try on and use whatever terms they’re comfortable with. We want our children to know that they’re a special and unique combination of both nature and nurture and how, through the use of a donor or donors, they came to be.

biological-parent noun (plural biological parents)
One of a child’s natural parents, either the male who supplied the sperm or the female who supplied the egg which interacted for the child’s conception.

genetic mother – Legal Definition
The mother who provided the egg from which an embryo developed and, therefore, contributed to the genetic makeup of the ensuing child.

Our children’s book can be helpful to parents struggling with terminology.
Your Family: A Donor Kid's Story

*Except in the case of mitochondrial donation; then a child will have three people who contributed genetics.