World-first study allays fears over emotional health

July 03, 2001

Lausanne, Switzerland: The world's first study to follow the fortunes of children born through assisted reproduction from babyhood to the brink of adolescence has found the children generally emotionally healthy, well-adjusted and thriving in the care of stable and loving parents, Europe's leading reproductive medicine conference heard today (Tuesday 3 July).

Professor Susan Golombok, Director of the City University Family and Child Psychology Research Centre in London, unveiled unpublished data from four European countries - Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK , which have all been involved in the European Study of Assisted Reproduction Families.

The first phase of the study in 1996 had compared IVF children, children conceived via donor insemination, adopted children and naturally conceived children, and charted their progress between the ages of 4 and 8. It involved over 100 families in each category and the findings had indicated that concerns over the emotional wellbeing of ART children were probably unfounded.

But it is at adolescence that issues of identity become salient and parent-child conflict is most likely to occur, Professor Golombok told the European Conference of Human Reproduction and Embryology. So a follow-up phase revisited 400 of the families when the children were between 11 and 12.

Mothers, fathers and children were interviewed and completed questionnaires focusing on the parents' marital and psychological state, the parent-child relationship and the children's social and emotional functioning.

More than 90% of the parents were still married and researchers found no evidence of emotional or marital problems among the ART parents.

"In general, assisted reproduction families with an early adolescent child appear to be characterised by stable and satisfying marriages, psychologically healthy parents, a high level of warmth between parents and their children, accompanied by an appropriate level of discipline and control and well-adjusted children," said Professor Golombok.

"If there were any differences between the ART families and either the natural conception or adoptive families these reflected more positive functioning among the ART families, with the possible exception of the over-involvement with their children of a small proportion of ART parents. ART fathers, in particular seemed to have a warmer and less authoritarian relationship with their children."

Professor Golombok said that there were no differences between the IVF and donor insemination families and DI fathers were just as warm and involved as IVF fathers. "This suggests that the absence of a genetic link between the father and the child does not interfere with the development of a positive relationship."

However, the research teams discovered that most DI children were growing up unaware that their father was not their genetic parent, as under one in 10 DI parents had told their child about his or her genetic origins.

"In spite of this the children do not seem to experience negative consequences arising from the secrecy," said Professor Golombok. "But this does not mean that it is preferable for children not to be told. Many parents have told other people and this creates a risk that the children will find out from someone else. Furthermore, the increasing use of genetic testing could result in the children discovering the truth from medical practitioners and we don't know the consequence of non-disclosure for later adolescence and adults."

She said that systematic studies were necessary to understand fully the long-term consequences of DI for the individuals concerned.
Abstract nos: O-094 & O-171

Participating research centres:
Family & Child Psychology Research Centre, City University, London, UK
University of Leiden, The Netherlands
University of Milan, Italy
Institut Dexeus, Barcelona, Spain
Goldsmiths College, University of London, UK

Further information:

Press Office: (Sunday 1 July -Wednesday 4 July)
Margaret Willson, Emma Mason, Janet Blümli
Tel: 41-21-643-33-33 or 41-21-643-33-32 or 41-21-643-33-23
Fax: 41-21-643-33-28

European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology

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