Child of A Stranger – by Kathleen LaBounty
A Young Woman Conceived through Anonymous Sperm Donation in the 1980’s Discusses Anonymous Donor Issues
As an adult offspring of an anonymous sperm donor, I am telling pieces of my life story to provide the perspective of an offspring, to advocate for the needs of future offspring, and to expose relatively ignored complexities resulting from donor conception. My journey began on May 4, 1981, the day that my mother went to a Houston clinic to receive an insemination of sperm provided by an anonymous Baylor College of Medicine student. Like many other couples, my parents had turned to an anonymous donor due to my dad’s low sperm count. Unlike recipient families in the late 1980s and on, however, they did not receive a donor number, medical history, information on my heritage, or any other facts about my donor.
At the age of 8, I learned about my conception history. My mother and I sat on opposite sides of my bed as she explained that I was so badly wanted that she had visited a sperm bank for help conceiving me. She quickly assured me that my dad was my father on my birth certificate and that my dad’s then 25-year-old biological daughter from a previous marriage was still my sister. I also discovered that my mother gave birth to another donor conceived baby just 11 months before my arrival, but the child was placed up for adoption after being born with Down syndrome.
At the time, I thought the concept of being conceived by an anonymous donation was intriguing and almost magical. In addition to my mom, dad, and my older sister through my dad, I suddenly became aware of a mentally handicapped half-brother nearly my age through my mom, a medical student biological father who perhaps shared my big dark blue eyes, and probably even other unknown half-siblings through my biological father. How more unique could life get? As I grew older, however, the idea of anonymous and non-identity release donations became less fascinating and significantly more distressing, and the reality behind being a donor-conceived offspring began to hit.
From an adult offspring perspective, now the mere concept of non-identity release sperm donation seems to be based on contradictions and flawed reasoning. Well-intentioned women pursue donor insemination rather than adoption due to a deep longing for a biological connection with a child, yet ironically non-identity release donor conception frequently severs that exact same biological connection between the offspring, the donor, and the rest of the paternal biological family. This severed connection may leave offspring feeling incomplete or heart-broken, much the same way that women pursuing sperm donor conception probably feel without a biological child. Not only have I personally experienced what feels like the death of my biological father, but I also continue to grieve for the loss of the opportunity to know my biological half-siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents.
I also see anonymous donors fulfilling the desires of women or couples to become pregnant and to avoid any third party involvement, meeting the needs of sperm donors for anonymity, and possibly providing increased revenue for clinics, yet ignoring, discounting, and rationalizing away the rights of the offspring. Sadly, the group with perhaps the fewest acknowledged rights and needs, or the offspring, are also the only party to lack both involvement in the decision to seek donor conception and a voice to speak for themselves in the first place. Unlike the clinics, donors, and our families, offspring may not view anonymous donor conception as simply a harmless business contract but rather as a painful process that results in many unanswered questions and unmet needs. If recipients would select open rather than non-identity release donors, offspring would at least have an opportunity to decide how much information they want and whether they need to establish connection with their biological relatives to achieve a sense of peace. I truly believe that the United States needs to follow in the footsteps of other countries in the banning of anonymous donations, thereby expressing concern for the rights of offspring rather than the well-being of parents and the pocketbooks of clinics.
Beyond the contradictions and often ignored needs of offspring involved in non-identity release donors, even seemingly basic terminology becomes complicated for non-identity and open donor-conceived offspring. While the professional community uses the term “donor” for the men providing sperm and “father” for the men who raise the children, many donor conceived people choose different words. In my conversations with numerous offspring both in person and through online groups, I found that most of us reserve the word “dad” for the men who raised us but “biological father” for the men who contributed to half of our genetic make-up. Many of us believe that the word “donor” is appropriate for a person who gives blood, but definitely not for a man paid for sperm that helps in the creation of a human being. In my opinion, the word “donor” is a euphemism used to make recipient families feel less threatened and to appeal to potential donors, given that a “donor” certainly sounds much less important and less intimidating than a biological father. Moreover, referring to these men as “donors” leaves many offspring feeling discounted and misunderstood.
Another complication arises if and when offspring decide to search for biological relatives. Like adopted children, offspring vary in the intensity of their needs and desires to contact biological relatives. While some express little or no desire, others feel incomplete and suffer from a loss of identity without this information. Many recipient families seem to believe that showering offspring with love will replace any desire or need to find biological relatives, yet even offspring raised in caring and supportive homes may require more information about where they came from for their own happiness and well-being. For recipient families who find themselves in a position in which donor-conceived people want to search for biological relatives, I believe it is important to realize that offspring have no desire to hurt their parents or replace their families. Our search, which evolves from a longing to find out more about who we are, where we come from, and what our biological relatives are like, should not be seen as a reflection of poor parenting or a lack of love toward our families.
I fall into the group of offspring who feel empty and extremely cheated out of important aspects of life without information about my donor or the opportunity to find out who he is. Because my interests, appearance, life views, and personality are quite different from my parents, I frequently become curious about which traits I inherited from my biological father. Beyond my curiosities, though, I also just want reassurance that he and his family are happy.
My search for my biological father led me to copy hundreds of pages in yearbooks containing black and white photographs, looking for a stranger with similar facial features to my own. The experience of this search through six yearbooks has been extremely painful and overwhelming, yet it became my last option after being told numerous times that my mother’s medical records were destroyed. I find it appalling that any person should ever have to resort to looking through yearbooks for a biological father or have to justify his or her desire to locate a biological parent. Despite several hundred hours invested in my search, letters to 450 male graduates from my biological father’s medical school, responses from 100 men from the yearbooks, and numerous negative DNA tests, for now I will continue to communicate to my biological father only at night in my dreams.
Like members of any other healthy family, offspring need to live in an environment encouraging open communication and honesty. Sadly, many donor conceived people, especially those raised by heterosexual couples, never find out their method of conception or do not discover it until adulthood. I have met several offspring who learned that they were donor conceived as adults, resulting in a shattered sense of self, feelings of deception, and even mistrust toward their parents. Despite my early knowledge that I conceived through sperm donation, my dad and I have never discussed it. In fact, his family, with the exception of my “half”-sister, still assumes that I am biologically related to them. My mother continues to insist that my search for biological relatives remains a secret to avoid hurting my dad, which causes me to question why I must perpetuate a cycle of secrets or feel as though I am doing something wrong. To avoid placing offspring into similar awkward and uncomfortable situations, I think it goes back to the cliche’ that honesty is the best policy.
I hope that sharing these parts of my life story provide insight that will benefit future offspring. Because donor-conceived children have no say in their method of conception or the way that it gets handled within their families, I am trying speak up for them. We are not simply products of a business deal, but a group of people with needs and rights. Now that we are old enough to discuss our views, I plead for you to listen to and learn from us. If you donated sperm, received sperm, or want to learn more about donor insemination, I urge you to visit www.donorsiblingregistry.com.