In the Internet Age, Is Sperm and Egg Donation Ever Truly Anonymous?

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Culture & Conversation LGBTQ

In the Internet Age, Is Sperm and Egg Donation Ever Truly Anonymous?

Lindsay King-Miller

And how should parents—especially queer parents—manage their expectations around it?

My friend’s daughter Emma looks a lot like my daughter Alice (both pseudonyms): the same blue eyes, the same “I’m about to start some trouble” grin. At their house, the other day, Alice pointed to a framed picture of Emma and said her own name.

“It really could be the same person,” my friend said, laughing.

“They look so much alike,” I agreed. “Did your husband ever donate sperm?” And my heart stopped beating for a second as I silently pleaded, Don’t say yes.

We bought sperm from another state, so it’s quite unlikely that I’ve ever walked past my daughter’s donor without realizing it—or that I’ve befriended that donor’s family, unbeknownst to either of us. Still, sometimes I look at people I pass on the street and wonder: Is it you?

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It’s strange to think that someone I’ve never met is indelibly tied to our family. I want to find out more about that person, but I hesitate to go looking for clues. I’m not sure I’m ready to know yet.

We spent days talking about what we wanted in a sperm donor: medical history, education, personality (based on what little we could discern from the short essay in each profile). We filtered by donors who matched my eye and hair color, and strangers tell me all the time how much my daughter looks like me. We chose an ID disclosure donor (his name and contact information will be released to our child when she turns 18), but have otherwise made no effort to obtain information beyond what the sperm bank included in their dossier. But that information is out there, and we could probably find it if we wanted to—as many families in our situation have.

What it means to be a donor-created family is changing quickly in a time of increasingly accessible assisted reproduction technologies, online genetic databases, and a growing field of knowledge about child development among donor offspring. And the expectations of parents and donors alike are struggling to keep up.

New Scientist reported in 2005 that it was possible for donor-conceived offspring to track down their donors via DNA testing sites. The Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), meanwhile, allows families who used the same donor sperm or eggs to connect with each other by mutual consent, and it’s not uncommon these days for children who have the same donor to grow up in touch with each other, in a new kind of extended family. Even gamete donors who once opted to remain anonymous have used the DSR to find offspring sharing their genes.

With genetic information easily attainable online, and the ability to contact donor siblings and their families no matter where they are in the world, it’s fair to say that whatever the sperm banks promise, there are effectively no anonymous donors anymore. Donors have little recourse in the event of unwanted contact from donee families and offspring, since all this sleuthing involves publicly available information; I can find no instance of a donor suing a donee for breach of contract. While researchers are just starting to investigate how this will impact donors and donor-conceived offspring, and the very real risk that the inability to guarantee anonymity will mean fewer donor gametes to go around, even less is being said about what it means for the parents of donor-conceived children.

In generations past, parents who used a sperm or egg donor were usually urged by their doctors—and, implicitly, by society at large—to keep that information to themselves. By hiding their use of a donor, they could avoid infertility stigma and maintain the façade of a “traditional” cisgender heterosexual nuclear family. Not even the child needed to know their genetic origins. A woman conceived using a donor in 1977 said that her mother was assured “there would be no records kept and that no one would ever have to know.”

What we know now, from many studies of adult donor-conceived offspring, is that the promise of a one-time transaction with no lasting implications (for the donor or the donee family) was unrealistic. Family secrets usually come to light, and research shows that donor offspring who learn about their origins later in life have more negative feelings about being donor-conceived.

Dianne (a pseudonym) and her partner used an ID disclosure donor from a local sperm bank to conceive their second son. “I realized there were a lot of little details in his profile and the interview, and because we’d ordered from a local bank, I could also guess his location.” A quick Google search brought up a LinkedIn profile with a picture that looked a lot like her son. But once she was sure of the donor’s identity, Dianne had second thoughts. She hasn’t tried to contact the donor yet, and she still feels she should honor the original contract and wait to do so until her son is 18. “However,” she says, “I also feel weird lying to my kid [by omission] about something I know.”

For LGBTQ families who never presented a façade of a traditional biological nuclear family, there may be less trauma and disappointment surrounding its loss. The identity of the anonymous donor is perhaps a more complicated question for parents like me than it is for straight parents who use donor gametes. Thinking of the donor inspires gratitude (we couldn’t have had our child without them), resentment (they were able to procreate with my partner when I couldn’t), fear (will my child one day reject me in favor of their donor?), curiosity (how much of what I see in my child came from their donor?), and a whole spectrum of other emotions.

While straight couples using donor gametes are generally presumed to be their children’s biological ancestors and can choose to elide their use of a donor, queer parents are faced with the necessity of defending our parental roles on a daily basis. One of the first things I was asked after my daughter’s birth, by a nurse who came in to check on my partner, was “do you have any children of your own?” It didn’t occur to her that my daughter was also mine. While our rights as LGBTQ parents and families are still so new and precarious, it feels safer to keep the donor as abstract and distant as possible.

For trans and gender-nonconforming parents, whether in same- or different-sex relationships, the donor represents a related but different obstacle: the fear that the donor will eclipse the parent’s role in the eyes of anyone who sees motherhood or fatherhood as mostly a matter of chromosomes. My partner, for instance, gave birth to our daughter and is her father. So when people ask us well-meaning questions like “Do you have contact with her biological dad?” that erases either his fatherhood or his biological connection to our child. Last year, in Germany, a trans man who had given birth was legally ruled his child’s mother in order to preserve the possibility of the sperm donor being listed as the father. Even the idea that someone we’ve never met could have a parental status that takes precedence over our own is horrifying, and sometimes it’s easier to pretend that person doesn’t exist.

Many of us simply hope that our children never want to know more. There is a tendency in LGBTQ communities—at least in my experience—to value chosen over biological family, particularly since so many of us have been rejected by our own families of origin. We may, therefore, take it for granted that our children will place little importance on biological connections.

But donor-conceived offspring have an enormous range of feelings about their donors, and some even see donor anonymity as a violation of their offspring’s rights. At the very least, queer parents who use donors must be prepared for the likelihood that our children will have questions.

For Kate, a mother of two donor-conceived children, a personal discovery changed her feelings about anonymous donation. She used an anonymous donor for her first child, a daughter. “Knowing your biological parents didn’t seem that necessary,” Kate said. “After all, I wasn’t much like my parents.” But while trying to conceive for a second time, Kate found out she was adopted. Upon connecting with her biological family, she discovered a host of similarities, including the explanations for parts of her medical history. “I was no longer comfortable using an anonymous donor,” Kate says, and she switched to an ID disclosure donor to conceive her son. She has also joined the Donor Sibling Registry and made contact with the families of two of her daughter’s donor siblings.

Curiosity about their genetic predecessors is normal for children in any environment, no matter how much they love the parents who raised them. That’s why the Donor Sibling Registry has become so ubiquitous—because donor-conceived children and their families, even the parents who might have initially thought an anonymous donor was ideal, often find themselves looking for clues to what they thought they never wanted to know.

Today, while we’re growing to understand and accept that donor conception will always be part of the offspring’s life, it’s still hard for current or prospective donee parents to envision what our role in all this will be. Our fear that our child’s relationship with their donor will threaten the one they have with us battles against our curiosity and our desire to help our children learn more. We are navigating without maps here, trying to make sense of this new terrain in law, science, ethics, and relationships. Like all parents, we’re doing the best we can with what we have.