A little more than a year ago I spit into a tube to find out what my genes might reveal about my future health woes and ancestral origins and discovered something I had never imagined: I was conceived with a sperm donor, and I had new-to-me half siblings to prove it. The news arrived in 21st century fashion: An email told me to click through to my results, and I found myself biologically connected to thousands of people, displayed in a social media network where you don’t get to choose your friends. They’re genetically predetermined. Most of the people connected to me are distant cousins, but a surprising number are half siblings.
In the late 1970s, when my parents turned to a fertility clinic in Los Angeles for help, obstetricians regularly told patients who used a sperm donor that this was a secret to be taken to the grave. Find a different doctor to deliver your baby, these heterosexual couples were told, one who doesn’t need to know you used a sperm donor to conceive. Donors were guaranteed anonymity and couples were told that no one would ever need to know that their babies were conceived in an unconventional way.
Over-the-counter consumer DNA tests upended all these promises. The anonymity of my parent’s sperm donor was compromised the day his nephew took a DNA test to learn more about his ancestry. Because his nephew popped up as a close family member for my half siblings, they were able to quickly identify the donor through some internet sleuthing.
The American Society for Reproductive Medicine understands that anonymous egg or sperm donation is no longer guaranteed. And yet, it’s still often impossible for donor-conceived children to find out how their life began if donors or their family members haven’t taken a DNA test.
In the chromosomal secrets department, I got lucky. By the time I learned about my conception story my half siblings had done all the hard work. They were able to hand me a medical history, photographs of our donor as a child, and even an email address for the donor who was, at the time, reluctantly willing to answer questions. I learned where my curly hair and dark brown eyes came from, but more significantly, I began to wonder whether my lifelong love of books and my compulsive desire to be on time were also inherited. I always felt different from my parents, like I never quite fit into my family of extroverts who view punctuality as relative. For the first time, I wondered whether this difference might have a biological explanation.
For an adult, discovering you’re donor-conceived is painful. The news upended my life because it changed the narrative I had constructed to explain why I was different from my family, and my immediate impulse was to learn as much as I possibly could. As someone who had always been told that I looked like my father, I now wondered: If my face didn’t come from him, then where did it come from? I wanted to see as many pictures of my donor and his family as he was willing to share.
Fortunately for me, my donor agreed to email pictures and share stories about himself and his family. I learned that his mother loved reading and that even in the late stages of dementia, when she lost the ability to read, she could always be found with a stack of library books in the basket of her walker. I learned that my donor is never late if he can help it, and it’s a trait he shares with most of his siblings. And I learned what it feels like to look at family photos and see exactly where I inherited certain features, like the shape of my eyes and cheekbones.
My donor was open about acknowledging that he donated sperm for money, and he admitted that before we contacted him he had never planned to find out more about the children he helped conceive. And things might have gone that way if circumstances had been different. Some donor-conceived children spend years hoping that some clue might pop up that leads them to the person who supplied half their DNA, with absolutely no luck.
Today psychologists counsel parents to tell their children when they’re young enough to understand language that they were donor-conceived. They start off with simple explanations using language that a 2-year-old can understand and introduce terms — like egg or sperm — when the child seems ready to comprehend them. The goal is for children to never remember a time when they didn’t know they were donor-conceived. For children with two moms or two dads, or one mom or one dad, this news might have never felt surprising.
But for those with a parent like mine, who easily passed as my biological father, that advice is critical. It recognizes that the story of a child’s conception doesn’t only belong to her parents. It’s also the child’s story, and children deserve to know who helped create them.
Australia outlawed anonymous sperm and egg donation in 2017. In the U.K., donor-conceived children are by law allowed to access information about their donor. In 2011, the state of Washington banned anonymous sperm and egg donation. More American states should follow suit. These laws recognize that donor-conceived children have to reckon with their conception. They acknowledge the importance of knowing your genetic heritage.
In the U.S., almost all efforts to connect donor-conceived children with their sperm donors have been by necessity on the grassroots level. Wendy Kramer founded the Donor Sibling Registry in 2000, which connects half siblings conceived with the same donor, including Kramer’s son, who was conceived with a sperm donor. Donors who are more open to finding their genetic offspring can go on the site to find the children they helped conceive. The registry also advocates for more honesty and openness when it comes to telling children about their conception.
Seven years ago, when my partner and I were expecting our first child, a genetic counselor asked whether there was a chance we could be related. At the time, we laughed at the absurdity. Impossible, we said. I feel almost embarrassed thinking back to that moment now. There was so much I didn’t know.
K. Weingarten is a writer in New York.