When journalist Sarah Dingle learned aged 27 that she was conceived using donor sperm, she was shocked that everything she’d thought about her life had suddenly proved false. Yet this was only the first of a string of distressing discoveries. Records that would have helped her to find her biological father had been destroyed, and the more she uncovered about the world of sperm donation, the more horrified she became.
In the midst of the research that would later become a book, Brave New Humans, Sarah met Rebecca Ronan, an occupational therapist who had been donor conceived at the same hospital. Although they quickly became friends, it wasn’t until two years after they’d met that the women found out they were actually half-sisters. Here, they reflect on their relationship and how it has become the “silver lining” of what occurred.
“Bec first reached out to me in 2014, after reading an article about me and realising we were both conceived at Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital the same year. I’d never met anyone from the same clinic who, like me, had also had their records destroyed, so it felt validating: It’s not just me.
Part of me wondered if we could have been related. Then I met Bec in person and immediately thought, ‘There’s no chance!’ Bec is tall with green eyes, tightly curled brown hair and the olive skin of her mother’s Mediterranean roots. I’m half Malaysian-Chinese and we look nothing alike. I also thought when I met my sister for the first time, there would be some sort of cosmic sign. That didn’t happen. Bec was chatty, nice and precise with details. She’d found out when she was a child that she was donor conceived, so she’d had a lot longer to process it.
We became friends and bonded in the support group I’d set up for donor-conceived people.
I noticed a few similarities over the years. I remember walking to the train station together after a meeting we’d had with the chair of the parliamentary committee looking into donor conception issues. We were halfway down Martin Place and at the same moment, we reached into the navy handbag we had each slung over a shoulder, pulled out a lip balm, and applied it. We turned to each other and realised we were using the exact same lip balm. It was like a mirror. I chalked it up as a funny coincidence.
Two years after meeting, I got a call from Bec while I was working on a story down in Melbourne. ‘Sisterssssss!’ she crowed. ‘What the fuck?’ I thought. I was in disbelief as she explained that the DNA tests we’d recently taken had confirmed we were half-sisters with the same biological father. Initially, the website had told us were first cousins because the algorithm couldn’t understand that we were born two months apart. But the amount of DNA we shared was too much for us to be cousins. We were sisterssssss!
Growing up as an only child, I had always wanted a sibling. But suddenly having one as an adult was a spin-out. I didn’t know what it meant to have a sister – let alone how to be one. There was no roadmap.
I didn’t know what it meant to have a sister
After discovering we were siblings through the DNA test, we found our biological father with the help of a genetic genealogist. At first, it was all a bit overwhelming, and I retreated for a while. But when we finally met our ‘bio dad’, as I like to call him, having Bec by my side provided a great sense of reassurance.
He told us that he had given between 150 to 200 sperm donations at the RNSH from 1981 to 1983. Knowing that I could have hundreds – potentially thousands – of siblings is something I can’t comprehend. It’s an idea that’s too big. Humans are not meant to be made like this.
Both Bec and I are still in touch with our bio dad and have separate relationships with him. Bec and I have also grown closer.
Finding out Bec was my sister was the best thing to happen to me since I found out I was donor conceived. She is a really lovely, warm and generous person. She is my silver lining. No one ever wants to go through hardship, but when you come out the other side, you always treasure the scars. Finding Bec has made me feel whole – and at peace.”
“From the moment I met Sarah, I had the distinct feeling that we shared more than just our donor-conception story. We connected in a way that I can’t explain. I felt so relaxed and comfortable talking to her.
Unlike Sarah, I had known for a long time that I was donor-conceived.
I was at a sleepover with a friend and it was the day after my dad’s wedding (he and Mum had split up when I was six). I was feeling a bit down, and my friend said, ‘I don’t know why you’re so upset, it’s not like he was your real dad.’ I thought it was a strange thing to say and didn’t really know how to process it.
After I got home, I asked Mum the question. I remember she was cooking stir-fry for dinner. ‘Why did my friend say that dad wasn’t my real dad?’ I asked. She froze. My stomach sank; I immediately knew what my friend had told me at our sleepover was true.
When my mum told me the truth – that I was conceived at a clinic using a sperm donor – it made me question everything. At 10 years old, I no longer knew who I was or how I fit into my family. I remember looking in the mirror and wondering who was looking back.
I had the feeling that we shared more than just our donor conception story
I was 27 and scrolling through Facebook when I saw a story about donor conception. There was a photo of Sarah holding her hand up with her donor code – AKH – written on it. Reading her story was like reading my own. She was conceived at the Royal North Shore Hospital and born in 1983 – just like me. I contacted Sarah to see if she wanted to chat about her experience and to let her know how bizarre mine was as well.
We got on straightaway and when I casually suggested we should do a DNA test, she agreed, although it took her a while to get round to it.
When our DNA test results came back, I knew in that moment that we were sisters. I was standing in a shopping centre at the time and saw my reflection in a mirror. I looked at myself knowing that I’d just discovered a part of my family that I’d spent so much of my life knowing nothing about. It was a really strange experience.
Reading her story was like reading my own
As newly discovered sisters, we’re blazing our own trail. We haven’t braided each other’s hair or fought over borrowed clothes, but we did have a sisters’ picnic to celebrate our DNA results. We both brought photos of us as kids and shared stories about growing up, our favourite sports and travels – filling in the blanks. That day we took a selfie together and Sarah insisted we do a silly photo as well. We have years of silly photos to catch up on.
I’m so proud of Sarah and all of the work she’s done to uncover the dirty little secrets of donor conception. For so long, [donor-conceived children] had no voice. Sarah has given us that. I’m so grateful that we’ve found each other.”
Brave New Humans: The Dirty Truth Behind the Fertility Industry by Sarah Dingle (Hardie Grant Books, $35) is out now.