Background - So how did it all begin?

The history of the Network

Sheila Cooke describes how things got started

In 1982, having worked for ten years in Family Planning I was asked to set up a clinic for conceiving with the help of donated sperm within the University Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the Jessop Hospital in Sheffield. At that time I knew nothing about the technique or its implications. My husband, Ian, head of the department, had for many years been researching female infertility and was keen to have a closer look at males, both fertile and infertile. An AID clinic (Artificial Insemination with Donor as it was called then) would give him an ideal opportunity.

I visited a couple of well established clinics to find out as much as I could, took on board their good ideas and identified things I didn't like e.g. donors walking past women waiting for treatment, husbands excluded when their wives were being treated and only minimal screening and counselling for donors. Our Clinic was going to be different.

The HFEA didn't come into existence until 1990 so clinics in 1982 made up their own criteria for best practice. Discussion around whether or not to tell any resulting children about their origins seemed to me to be essential, with all the pros and cons addressed, but couples (and in those early days they were all married couples) should always feel it was their decision.

The inevitable question that followed was" How does one tell?" Two couples, Jane and Neil Offord and Angela and Andy Mays stood out in those early days by both stating on their first visit that they couldn't imagine not telling the children. This was unusual! Jane talked about writing a story and so the idea of writing a story that would help others to be open and honest, but couldn't find the words, became an exciting possibility.

Angela, Jane and I got together one morning. Angela typed the simple text on her lap-top and we passed it on to Julie Heath, a friend of Jane's who drew the delightful pictures to fit the text. None of the publishers we approached was interested in a little book that would have such a small circulation so after months of fund raising and receiving a small grant for the project we had it printed privately. In October 1991 My Story came out and our dream became a reality. Promotion of a book without a publisher is a problem. We sent copies to all the DI clinics and anyone even remotely interested in infertility, but how were we to make contact with those parents who already had their children?

We had two lucky breaks! A freelance journalist Ann Lloyd, interested in Medical Ethics, came to talk to me one day about male infertility. When I mentioned My Story and the difficulties with promotion she offered to write an article for one of the women's magazines. This proved difficult, but Ann persevered and, nearly a year later, on 29th September, 1992 she managed to get the article published in The Times. This evoked a lot of interest and requests for the book.

One of the first letters came from Olivia Montuschi who added "We would be very happy to take part in any research on this issue" Another letter from Maggie Manicom in Canterbury said "Do you know of any help groups for the parents of AID children who are committed to telling their children?" I didn't, but thought it would be a great idea to get one started. The Offords and the Mays agreed enthusiastically and so one Saturday afternoon in February 1993 we all met up in the University Clinic in Sheffield along with Maggie and Charlie and Charlotte from Canterbury, Olivia, Walter, William and Susannah from London and Sandra Giddings from Carnforth.

Everyone had different stories to tell, good and bad, and we were all committed to setting up a group to help others who would benefit from making contact. We agreed to meet up again in a couple of months. Fate stepped in again! Within a month of our meeting I received a phone call from Debbie Davies who was making a documentary for a BBC programme called "Public Eye". She wanted to compare DI in the UK and the USA. Could I put her in touch with any parents of children conceived through DI who would be prepared to go on TV? When I contacted everyone the response was a definite 'yes'. We couldn't have been offered a better opportunity to spread the word.

In 1993, this was a brave decision. Filming took place in April, in one of the local hotels in Sheffield, in a local park and in the Clinic. Simon and Andrew Offord and Ben and Sally Mays joined the other children who were filmed reading "My Story" ( a nice bit of publicity for the book!) Debbie said there was bound to be a big response to the programme, so we needed a contact name and an address.

We decided on "DI Network" with a PO Box , Sheffield address so mail would come to me at the hospital.

The programme came out a month later with the somewhat dubious title of "Seeds of Secrecy" (I wonder if anyone reading this article ever saw it?) and the rest , as they say, is history.

Sheila Cooke 1993