Families on the Cusp of an Uncharted Realm

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marcus has two moms. And once the 15-year-old reaches his 18th birthday, Marcus expects to meet his ... well, what's the right term for the mystery man who provided the sperm that made his life possible?

"The donor" is how Marcus Liefert thinks of him now. Certainly not "dad," even though Marcus imagines they might go out to a ballgame someday. How about "genetic father"?

"No. I know that's biologically true, but that's not the term I would use," Marcus says.

The word "father" connotes parenthood, and Marcus knows who his parents are: Francey Liefert, who conceived him and carried him in her womb, and Laurel Liefert, Francey's longtime partner and the biological mother of Marcus' 12-year-old sibling, David. The Lieferts insisted on sperm from the same donor to assure that Marcus and David are genetic half-brothers, thus tightening the familial bonds.

The Lieferts are among a group of families on the cusp of an uncharted realm in human relations. The children born to women who have patronized the Sperm Bank of California since feminists founded it in Oakland in 1982 have been offered an unprecedented option: disclosure of the donor's identity when the child crosses the legal threshold of adulthood.

The nonprofit sperm bank, founded primarily to help lesbians and single straight women fulfill maternal goals, has helped in the conception of more than 1,100 children. Roughly four out of five clients have chosen the donor ID release option, officials say.

So far, three children who were conceived under the agreement have turned 18, one of whom has requested and received her donor father's identity. Claire, the daughter of a single Palo Alto woman, has seen the donor's photograph and received other factual information. (Sperm Bank of California officials urge participants to use only their first names in the media to help preserve confidentiality. The Lieferts prefer to use their full names.) A high school senior, Claire intends to meet her donor someday, program officials say, but she has not decided when. When she is ready, it will be up to Claire and the donor to handle the specifics of their meeting, but the task force hopes to stay in touch with all parties to see what issues arise down the line so they can prepare for the next generation.

Before the year is out, 15 other children of the bank's donors will turn 18. Within three years, the total will approach 100, says Sue Rubin, one of the sperm bank's directors. Rubin led a task force to find out the expectations among sperm bank participants and found that most children and mothers hope to meet the donors. Those donors are curious as well, Rubin says, and intend to honor the contracts they all had to sign more than 18 years ago.

The concept is a radical change in a reproductive field that dates to the 1880s and for generations has functioned as a clandestine service. Infertile couples assisted by sperm donors--who, before the advent of cryogenically freezing sperm, were often medical students--seldom revealed the nature of the conception to children.

The earliest published accounts of sperm donation--such as a doctor's memoir in the early 20th century and a British medical journal article in the 1950s--so scandalized the public that the practice remained secretive until the sexual revolution of the 1960s. "Society was truly offended," says Dr. Cappy Rothman, founder of California Cryobank in Los Angeles, one of the world's largest sperm banks.

Although the practice has become less closeted, the identification of donors is extremely rare. Only a few banks across the nation have followed the Sperm Bank of California's lead in promising disclosure at a later date. Some banks have weaker policies, including the "willing to be asked" option, in which a donor agrees to consider coming forward if the child, after turning 18, requests his identity.

California Cryobank promises parents that, if an adult offspring requests contact with the donor, the sperm bank will attempt to relay the request to the donor. Rothman suggests the varying and evolving policies reflect the clientele. Married couples, he says, have little interest in the disclosure compared with single women who "eventually have to tell the child something." The Sperm Bank of California developed its disclosure policy through discussions with clients, says founder Barbara Raboy. The children's right to know their genetic forebear, it was decided, outweighs the donor's desire for privacy--even if disclosure might create a Pandora's box of unsettling psychological effects for every child, mother and donor.

Despite that risk, "this is how it should be," says Bill Cordray, an advocate for donor offspring. "Ethically, everybody should have the right to know where they came from." Cordray speaks from experience. The 56-year-old Salt Lake City man was in his 30s when, after his father's death, his mother revealed they had relied on donor insemination. Anger at his parents' secrecy, Cordray says, gave way to a sense of liberation. He had been so different from his father that as a teenager he formed the belief that he had been conceived in an extramarital affair, a notion that fomented anger toward his mother and guilt for his suspicions.

Estimates put the number of children born each year via donor insemination in the tens of thousands, but only a fraction will ever learn the identity of their genetic forebears, Cordray says. Apart from psychological issues, there are documented cases of unknowingly incestuous relations that would be prevented by disclosure, he says. The secrecy will persist, Cordray argues, unless new laws are adopted. The medical community opposes such changes. "It's not a one-size-fits-all situation," says Sean Tipton, a spokesman for the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. "And if the option of anonymous donation is removed, you'll have fewer donors."

Disclosure has its risks. Rubin, a medical ethicist, says the children, mothers and donors interviewed by her task force, share a lurking fear: "What if the person they are meeting is a nut case?" But there are several reasons, Rubin quickly adds, there is optimism that most people will interact with mutual respect and have a positive experience. One reason is that the mothers and donors made conscientious decisions to participate, believed it was morally right and considered the possible pitfalls ahead of time. Another is that these children, unlike many donor offspring, have long understood the atypical nature of their conception and families, and have had years to adjust.

Some of the more intriguing issues revolve on the sperm bank's policy in which donors are "retired" after 10 family units have successfully given birth, although they may be asked to donate again by families who want more children from the same donor. Some donors are linked to 10 or more offspring. One donor is genetically linked to 20 children--not including two with his wife.

The 10-family policy "is actually very conservative," Rubin says. The standard adopted by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine is for donors to help conceive no more than 25 offspring within a regional population of 800,000. For many offspring, the existence of genetic half-siblings is as intriguing, if not more so, as the identity of their genetic father, says San Ramon-based therapist Jean Benward, a sperm bank task-force member. Most of the half-siblings are within the same peer group, she points out, and share common experiences.

But Marcus says he is less curious about genetic half-siblings than his donor. After all, he has a brother in David. (In addition to the genetic link, each boy was legally adopted by their biological mother's partner.)

As it stands, Marcus may already be unknowingly acquainted with some of his half-siblings within the social network of lesbian families in the Bay Area fostered by the sperm bank. It would not be difficult to find out, because mothers select donors from a catalog containing descriptive information. In addition to race, height, color of eyes and hair, donors answered a variety of questions, including one that invites them to convey a message to the offspring. (Donors, in contrast, know nothing of the mothers and offspring, save for their existence.)

Marcus says one of his teachers theorizes that he is related to a classmate who is also a donor offspring, based on their similar appearances and behavior. But Marcus says they've never been curious enough to compare notes. "I'm not sure I want to be related to him," he says, grinning.

For donors, meanwhile, the 10-family policy magnifies the worry that some youths may seek deeper relationships than they are willing to provide. "I would not want to be a father replacement," says a donor named James. "That is a concern of mine--that boundaries be respected. That's just one of the risks you take, and I'm willing to accept that." The donors, the task force found, say their wives and girlfriends are often wary that offspring could prove disruptive.

James says he decided to become a donor because he knew he didn't want to raise a family himself and felt "this was a way of giving back to society." He also said he was impressed with the sperm bank's philosophy, including the ID disclosure option. He laughs at the suggestion that someday he might get a call from an offspring trying to get bailed out of jail. His only obligations, he says, are to answer whatever questions the offspring may have, such as family history. Although he doesn't rule out the possibility of a lasting relationship, James insists that it would be friendship, not kinship. "I don't want to be considered a father, because I'm not. I'm a donor."

Mothers, meanwhile, worry for their children. The Lieferts say they're optimistic. "But I'm afraid the boys will be disappointed, that he won't be as interested in them as they are in him," Francey says. They worry less about Marcus, the Lieferts say, than David. "He's always had more of a longing to have a dad--a feeling that something was missing in our family," Francey says.

Will younger siblings such as David learn the donor's identity when their older siblings turn 18? Rubin calls that "a really tricky issue." The sperm bank urges the young adult to honor the confidentiality protocols, Rubin says, and not reveal the identity of the donor. Many donors, however, "feel comfortable deferring to the families' wishes," she adds.

Marcus is tall, husky and poised beyond his years. He explains that from a young age he has known the nature of his conception--"it was just a fact of life." His curiosity about the donor has grown over the years, especially recently. "I'm really interested in meeting him, just to know who he is, this mysterious figure. Looking at the genetics is really interesting. What are the traits that I have that might come from him?" He isn't seeking a father figure, he says, yet seems hopeful that the genetic link will produce "the chemistry" for a special friendship. No longer would Marcus refer to him as "the donor," but by his first name. Going to an Oakland Athletics game "would be fun," he says. But even if the chemistry wasn't right, that would be OK too--just to meet him would resolve the mystery.

Francey and Laurel say they want to meet him too, if just to say thank you. Over red wine, Marcus' two moms reminisce about their path to motherhood. Laurel tried first but had trouble conceiving, then Francey tried. They rejected a boastful donor who claimed an IQ of 160 because his "packet reeked of ego." They wanted a donor who came across as a good guy. Francey laughs recalling how a sperm bank worker excitedly called her to report that a new donor had passed the screening: "Have I got a donor for you! He's got great motility! Great numbers!" She was referring to his sperm count.

And, based on his questionnaire, he seemed to be the decent fellow they were seeking. This is one reason the moms are optimistic, with fingers crossed, that Marcus and David are in for an enriching experience. Laurel laughs, suggesting an icebreaker: "Hey, you still got that motility?"

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