Do We Have a Right to Know Our Biological Parents?
Damian Adams grew up knowing that his parents had used an anonymous sperm donor to conceive him, and as a teen, he was even proud of this identity. He considered donating to help other families have children. Becoming a father himself, however, changed everything. When his daughter was born 18 years ago, he cradled her in his arms, and he instantly saw himself in her and her in himself. He felt a biological connection so powerful that it made him reconsider his entire life up until then. “What I’d had there with my daughter,” he says, “was one thing I had been missing in my life.” He felt the need to know where he came from.
Adams, a biologist in Australia, would spend years searching for his biological father, running into one dead end after another. Meanwhile, he also began campaigning to end donor anonymity for others like him. In 2016, he and fellow activists pushed the state of Victoria to retroactively abolish anonymity for all sperm donors. (A previous law had already banned it from 1998 onward.) Donor-conceived people in the United Kingdom have also successfully campaigned to ban anonymous sperm donation. In the United States, where anonymous donation is still technically offered, some donor-conceived people are asserting a right to know their genetic origins and even to contact their biological parents, who may or may not welcome the surprise.
All of this was unimaginable a few decades ago. Doctors used to routinely advise parents to keep the use of a sperm donor secret—even from their own children—and this silence reinforced a sense of shame about the practice. Today, parents are strongly encouraged to tell the truth; moreover, DNA tests mean they couldn’t hide it even if they wanted to. As more people find out they are donor-conceived, they are in turn finding one another: They are gathering in online communities such as “We Are Donor Conceived” and other Facebook support groups catering to a mix of donors, parents, donor-conceived people, and others who have learned that their parents are not who they thought they were. There are also several podcasts, at least two magazines, and even training courses for therapists who work with people in this situation. The shared identity that connects this online community is small by proportion but large in raw numbers. An estimated 30,000 to 60,000 children conceived with donor sperm are born in the U.S. every year, though that statistic may well be an underestimate. The fertility industry doesn’t have to keep records, so the true number is unknown.
In learning more about their own conception, some donor-conceived people have been shocked by the lack of transparency in the industry that created them. They have been disturbed to find, in some cases, that they have dozens of half siblings from the same donor, that doctors have secretly impregnated patients with their own sperm, or that donors have lied about themselves to sperm banks—all at least partially because donation was anonymous. Now donor-conceived people like Adams are questioning the need for any secrecy at all. In a forthcoming book called Uprooted, Peter Boni, who learned he was donor-conceived at age 49, lays out a “Donor-Conceived Bill of Rights” that demands, first and foremost, the end of anonymous donations and includes access to a donor’s medical records, limits on the number of offspring per donor, and consequences for outright fertility fraud. “Can you point to any federal law,” Boni asked me rhetorically, “that protects the rights of the donor-conceived child?”
Indeed, the agreements around sperm donations were originally forged among donors, parents, and doctors. Fast-forward a few decades and the children—now adults—are trying to change a fertility industry that sees them as neither its customers nor its patients, even though it is directly responsible for their existence. The issues raised might apply to both sperm and egg donation alike, though historically, the focus has been on sperm donation because it’s much more common. As donor-conceived people advocate for new rights today, they are also forcing society to confront a more fundamental question, one left perhaps inadequately answered all those years ago: How much do biological ties really matter?
In a recent newsletter, the journalist Alison Motluk, who covers assisted reproduction, highlighted a discussion comparing three scenarios in which people were cut off from a biological parent:
One had a biological parent die before they were born. A second had a biological parent abscond before they were born. A third was conceived using an anonymous donor. Why do we acknowledge loss and feel empathy in the first two scenarios but not in the third?
I liked the way the question was framed, in terms of empathy rather than the harder-edged language of rights. Because when donor-conceived people ask for regulations on the exchange of sperm, they are also asking for acknowledgment that this biological exchange matters, that biological origins matter. We naturally recognize this in situations where a child has never met a parent owing to tragic life circumstances—so how does the situation then differ when the bond is severed by biotechnology instead? In my conversations with donor-conceived people, they often grappled with comparisons to more familiar scenarios. They are asking for rights, but they are also asking for compassion.
Tiffany Gardner, now 39 and an attorney in Atlanta, told me she had lost her father, Ken, to colon cancer when she was 4. Although Gardner later became close to her stepfather, she continued to treasure the few things she knew about Ken—he had been good at baseball and horseback riding, and she gravitated toward the same sports to maintain some kind of connection. At age 35, Gardner learned that her parents had actually used a sperm donor, and when she eventually found him, via a DNA test, parts of her identity suddenly clicked into place. She saw a photo of the donor’s son and it was, she told me, “my face popping up as a dude.” Her biological father had been an art teacher, and Gardner immediately linked that detail to her own longing to go to art school when she was younger. These connections made it all the more painful when the donor’s family objected to his having a relationship with her, and he abruptly cut her off.
To Gardner, her desire to connect with her biological father—her actual biological father, this time—was not so different from her desire to stay connected with Ken. Her immediate family has been supportive, she said, but she’s faced some pushback from acquaintances and older family members. “I’ve had a couple people that are sort of like, ‘I don’t get it. Those people aren’t really your family. Why do you want anything to do with this?’” she told me. But to Gardner, genetic ties clearly mattered—if not, why did she spend her first 35 years trying to connect with a dead father she never really knew?
Adams began asking these same questions when he became a father. Not long after his daughter’s birth, it occurred to him that if he died right there and then, people would acknowledge the tragedy of his daughter never getting to know him. “They would all recognize I was her father,” he told me. Or, he went on, “let’s say, for example, a one-night stand. People recognize that as a tragedy, when that person is not in that child’s life. Or in adoption, we recognize that as being problematic.” The adoption world has in fact moved toward more and more open adoptions.
Isn’t the difference, I asked, that sperm donation never promises, even implicitly, a relationship, and in fact in most cases explicitly disavows one before conception? To Adams, that disavowal made the situation even worse—that society would intentionally create people cut off from their biological parents. The genetic connection was, to him, immutable. If the connection really meant nothing, Adams said, why do many couples who use an egg or sperm donor still choose to have the child be related to one parent? It can’t be that the connection is meaningful in one case but not in the other.
Not every donor-sperm-conceived person—they are, after all, a large group—feels the same about the strength of genetic connection. In a 2020 survey conducted by We Are Donor Conceived in its own Facebook group and another called the “Worldwide Donor Conceived People Network,” 67 percent of respondents wanted the donor’s identity to be known from birth. Only 33 percent, though, felt that donors needed to be available for a relationship with the child from birth.
But it’s also impossible to survey the donor-conceived people who never join these groups, for whom this fact about their birth might feel unremarkable. Anecdotally, at least, this is common. Many of the donor-conceived people I’ve talked with mentioned half siblings who never responded to messages through 23andMe or AncestryDNA, or who responded politely once and stopped there. Some people might feel very little curiosity about their biological origins, says Brianne Kirkpatrick, a genetic counselor who has helped many people through DNA discoveries. Some might feel that any curiosity would be betraying their family, and some are simply more interested in donor siblings than the donor. Age or stage of life may play into how people react differently, Kirkpatrick suggests, but there’s not much research on why. What donor-conceived people want is a question few people asked until recently.
Sperm donation has already changed dramatically in the past three to four decades, and some of the changes that donor-conceived people are pushing have indeed happened, even if they are not necessarily enshrined in law. The secrecy around the use of donor sperm, for example, has dissipated as more single women and lesbian couples have openly used sperm banks. The ethics committee of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) now “strongly” encourages parents to tell their children if they were donor-conceived. Fertility doctors have also gone from procuring live sperm samples themselves—commonly from medical students—to ordering frozen sperm from banks that can more thoroughly, if not always perfectly, screen donors. ASRM guidelines suggest that banks voluntarily limit the number of births per donor to 25 in a given population of 800,000 people. And sperm banks are more likely to offer open-ID donations, in which the donor can be contacted by his biological children. Some banks still have anonymous donations, in which they don’t share any donor information. But these days, “I think someone would have to be intentionally ignorant to not realize anonymity is not possible,” Kirkpatrick says. Even without more formal regulation of sperm donation, widespread DNA testing means there’s no more hiding in the passage of time.
These shifts have left plenty of gaps, though: Sperm banks, for example, do not have to keep track of births or coordinate with one another, so one donor could still be a prolific biological father. (There are donors with more than 100 biological children.) And in practice, anonymous donation still leaves the job of identifying a biological parent to the donor-conceived person. This could be easy enough if they are lucky and get a close DNA match such as a half sibling or first cousin, but it may be impossible or near-impossible if not. Some donor-conceived people have spent years searching.
Even so, the changing landscape of sperm donation is impossible to ignore, and donor-conceived children have grown up into adults who have their own opinions. At the ASRM’s annual meeting in Baltimore next week, a panel is scheduled to discuss “Open Identity Gamete Donation: What Are the Children Saying?” (Gamete is the scientific term for egg or sperm.) But Erin Jackson, the founder of We Are Donor Conceived, pointed out to me that, despite the panel’s name, it features four experts and the mother of a donor-conceived son—but not any “children” who are donor-conceived. To her, this just revealed how the fertility industry continues to ignore the people it helped create.
When I inquired with the ASRM, the organization’s chief advocacy and policy officer, Sean Tipton, underplayed the importance of a single panel. So does ASRM have any plans to engage with the donor-conceived community? I asked. “We very well might,” Tipton said, without specifying what that would entail. He also questioned whether they were in fact the right people to engage: “We’re including patients a lot more in our organizations’ deliberations but, again, these are not patients.” Furthermore, he added, “a 30-year-old, donor-conceived person in 2021—is that the right person to consult about somebody who’s going through the process now?” After all, none of us has a say in the circumstances of our conception, natural or otherwise. If donor-conceived people have the right to know about their genetic parentage, we should also consider how that right extends to other aspects of parent-child relationships and in other situations, says Judith Daar, the dean of Northern Kentucky University’s law school and the former chair of the ASRM ethics committee that drafted guidelines for disclosure about donor conception in 2018. “For example,” she says, “there’s a debate in the infertility community whether a child had a right to know they were conceived through IVF,” which may reveal aspects of the parents’ private reproductive history. And what about naturally conceived children, Daar asks—what do parents owe them about their sex lives?
“Most people don’t want to know how they were conceived, you know?” Jackson said. “It’s not something you want to picture.” For her, it’s medical, though. And, more important when donors and sperm banks are involved, it’s commercial. Money changes hands. Contracts are signed. “The feeling of commodification is very real,” she told me. The fertility industry is responsible for the creation of human beings; it is also a multibillion-dollar industry that is growing every year. Donors, doctors, and parents today, Jackson said, should be thinking more clearly about the future—“beyond holding a baby in their arms” to what that baby will want when they grow up. She sees inspiration in the campaigns to abolish donor anonymity in the U.K. and parts of Australia, and she hopes to turn We Are Donor Conceived into a nonprofit, so that it might more forcefully advocate for changes.
Adams, in Australia, did eventually find his biological father, after multiple DNA tests and investigative work spanning years. (Though he got a donor number from medical records, the number didn’t match anyone.) They look like spitting images of each other. “Anybody who’s seen the photos of the two of us can spot it instantaneously,” he said. They’ve met in person and speak frequently on the phone. He finally found the connection he had been searching for, and now he wants others to find it too.