Can Children Born Through Assisted Reproduction Develop Normally?

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Can Children Born Through Assisted Reproduction Develop Normally?  

Jim Windell


           It is a commonly held belief that children conceived through third-party assisted reproduction, such as egg donation, sperm donation, or surrogacy, are at a disadvantage in terms of their later well-being. Furthermore, many people believe that family relationships for such children will be less than ideal because of the absence of a biological connection between children and their parents.

           Researchers from the University of Cambridge have conducted a pioneering study that delves into the lasting impacts of various forms of third-party assisted reproduction on parenting dynamics and child well-being. Significantly, this study breaks new ground by prospectively exploring how the age at which children are informed about their conception through methods such as egg donation, sperm donation, or surrogacy can influence their adjustment.

           The results of this 20-year study were recently published in the journal Developmental Psychology. To conduct the study, researchers from the University of Cambridge, followed 65 families in the UK who had children born through assisted reproduction methods from infancy to early adulthood at 20 years of age. These families were compared with 52 families who had conceived without assisted reproduction methods over the same period.

           Findings of this study indicate that the lack of a biological link between parents and children in families formed through assisted reproduction does not hinder the formation of strong emotional bonds or impact psychological well-being in adulthood. These results are in line with earlier assessments conducted at various stages of childhood, including ages one, two, three, seven, 10 and 14.

           Professor Susan Golombok, a researcher in Family Research and former Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge, who spearheaded the study further explained, “The assisted reproduction families were functioning well, but where we did see differences, these were slightly more positive for families who had disclosed.” This suggests that early disclosure about their conception to children born through assisted reproduction may have beneficial effects on family dynamics and relationships. This has been observed in other studies on adoptive families as well.

           The young adults in the study generally expressed a nonchalant attitude towards their biological origins. One young adult born through surrogacy stated, “It doesn't faze me really, people are born in all different ways and if I was born a little bit differently - that's OK, I understand.” Similarly, a young adult born through sperm donation 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.” Some young adults even embraced the method of their conception, feeling that it made them special, with one saying, “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.”

           Of interest for clinicians, perhaps, is that the study also revealed that mothers who initiated discussions with their children about their biological origins during their preschool years reported more positive relationships with their children when assessed during interviews at age 20. Additionally, these mothers exhibited lower levels of anxiety and depression. It was observed that most parents who disclosed this information did so by the age of four, and the children generally responded well to the news. This implies that being open with children about their origins from a young age may have advantages in terms of fostering positive relationships and reducing parental anxiety and depression.

           In the last stage of this comprehensive 20-year study, it was found that mothers who had shared information about their child's origins by the age of seven obtained slightly higher scores on measures of family relationship quality, parental acceptance (i.e., mother's feelings towards the young adult), and family communication, as assessed through questionnaires. For instance, only seven percent of mothers who had disclosed by age seven reported experiencing problems in family relationships, in contrast to 22% of those who disclosed after the age of seven. These findings suggest that early disclosure, before the child reaches seven years of age, may have a positive impact on various aspects of family dynamics and communication.

           Also, the study found that young adults who had been informed about their origins before the age of seven received slightly higher scores on questionnaire measures related to parental acceptance (i.e., the young adult's perception of their mother's feelings towards them), communication (i.e., feeling listened to, being aware of what's happening in the family, and receiving honest answers to questions), and psychological well-being. Moreover, they were less likely to report problems on the family relationships questionnaire. Specifically, while 50% of young adults who were informed after the age of seven reported experiencing problems in family relationships, only 12.5% of those who were told before the age of seven reported such issues.

           Overall, the findings of this groundbreaking study suggest that early disclosure, prior to the age of seven, may have a positive impact on the young adults' perception of parental acceptance, communication within the family, psychological well-being, and overall family relationships. Finally, this research indicates that unconventional methods of conception do not interfere with family functioning. The desire to have children and the love and care provided by parents seem to be the most important factors in family dynamics, regardless of the method of conception.

           To read the complete study, find it with this reference:

Golombok, S., Jones, C., Hall, P., Foley, S., Imrie, S., & Jadva, V. (2023). A longitudinal study of families formed through third-party assisted reproduction: Mother–child relationships and child adjustment from infancy to adulthood. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication.




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