Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Who's Your Daddy?" - Article by Lori Andrews

(May 2009, published in a leading men's magazine)

In 1981 a sperm donor entered a small room with erotic magazines at the back of a staff lunchroom at Baylor Medical Center. He ejaculated into a plastic cup, opened a small door in the wall and pushed a buzzer. The cup spun out of sight, with $50 in an envelope returning to its place. Like other men in his position, the donor probably spent the money taking his girlfriend to dinner, getting high or - if he was a frequent enough donor - paying tuition. He was promised anonymity and told not to give a moment's thought to what would happen to the sperm once it left that hole in the wall.

Now the result of that sperm donation, a 27-year-old graduate student named Kathleen LaBounty, is looking for her father. And depending on his own beliefs and life circumstances, the possibility that she will find him is either a modern Hallmark moment or something that will scare the bejesus out of him.

Since its inception more than a century ago, sperm donation has been shrouded in secrecy. In 1884 Dr. William Pancoast, a professor at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, treated an infertile woman by putting her under anesthesia and inseminating her with sperm from his best-looking student. Only when he realized that the child looked just like the donor did he inform the woman's husband. The man said, "Fine, but don't tell my wife."

Even today donor insemination is conducted clandestinely. Couples who create children using donated sperm generally do not tell the child of his or her unique conception. Instead, they let the child, relatives and friends assume the baby is the infertile husband's biological offspring. But changing social norms - including the use of donors by single women, cheap genetic testing and the sleuthing power of the Internet - have created a fissure in the wall of secrecy. About 10 percent of the million children who have issued from donor insemination know a sperm donor seeded their life.

Single women usually tell their child at an early age that his or her biological dad was a donor. College professor Leann Mischel created a quasi-family by getting in touch with 18 other women across the country who, like her, used donor 401 from the Fairfax Crybank in Virginia. With 26 children under the age of seven among them, they are now a support group that shares family photos and child-rearing tips. Once a year many of them gather at a theme park for a unique family reunion where the children, who are half-siblings, can get to know one another. It's only a matter of time, though, before one of the women or children decides to find donor 401.

Technologies that were not anticipated when Kathleen LaBounty was coneived have helped children sneak up on donors. An enterprising 15-year-old tracked down his anonymous sperm donor dad by matching his DNA to that of the donor's family on a genealogical website. The boy paid $289 to for a genetic test that compared his Y chromosome with other Y chromosomes in a genealogical registry. He found several males with whom he had a biological link. By using the last names of those men, the known birth date of his biological father and country birth records, he was able to identify his donor.

An internet registry that allows recipients to share information about donors also makes it easier to identify them. Wendy Kramer, whose son Ryan was conceived through donor insemination, started, where donor-conceived children can find their half siblings. Moms and kids write to ask questions like, "Who else has used donor 2064?" So far, more than 23,100 people have registered on the site, and 6,162 siblings have been matched.

LaBounty's mother was not given a sperm-donor number or any facts about the donor, other than that he had been a student at Baylor Medical School. Undeterred, Kathleen recently wrote to all 600 men who attended the school at the time of her conception. Amazingly, 250 wrote back, and 40 of them had been donors. Some of the men were as eager as she was to make contact. One wrote, "I've been waiting 26 years to get your letter in the mail."

That donor was not alone in his longing for information about the child he'd created. Kramer was shocked when the donors themselves started joining online conversations. More than 750 sperm donors have registered on her website to contact their "children." Other donors have hired private detectives or stolen a peek at private medical records to find out about their biological offspring.

Why would a man who was paid to masturbate now want a relationship with the child? Perhaps the experience of being a sperm donor is not always the lark the infertility industry assumed. Men usually donate sperm when they are young and haven't had children themselves. Later when they marry and become fathers, some begin to wonder what happened to their other children.

And who wouldn't want a beautiful, talented daughter like Kathleen LaBounty without having to go through the stages of colic, potty training, second-grade recitals, and driver's ed? But would donor 401 of Virginia be equally welcoming if 26 young offspring showed up at his doorstep?

The tens of thousands of men who serve as sperm donors each year may soon have to come to grips with those questions. Consumer's demand for more information as they choose donors may make tracking them easier. While LaBounty knows only the date and place of the sperm donation, women seeking sperm donors today receive anywhere from five to 20 pages of information about each potential donor. Although donor 1049's name is not included in his profile, a clinic's entry on him includes a photo showing a clean-cut, cute Californian. He says he's a member of the Clean Oceans Campaign and the Surfrider Foundation. He describes himself as secure, sensitive, innovative, intelligent, creative, thoughtful, ambitious, competitive, respectful, comedic, and optimistic. His SAT score is 1355. His 54-year-old mother is a healthy, intelligent and adventurous painter who wears reading glasses. His brother is a developer. How hard would it be to track down this man?

Searching is not without risk. Jeffrey Harrison, a hot catch as donor 150 in the late 1980s, was described on his donor form as a blue-eyed, six foot-tall lover of philosophy and music. Three years ago two of his sperm-donor children, daughters born into different families, found each other and began their search for him. Instead of encountering a superstar philosophy professor or symphony conductor, they found a man who lives in a trailer and supports himself doing odd jobs.

And what about the donor's current family? Not all donors' wives are pleased when they find out about other children. Some understandably feel threatened.

So far, none of the Baylor donors who have undergone paternity tests have provided to be LaBounty's biological father. But even when connections are made, not everyone proceeds with the same speed, desire or level of interest. One donor wrote on the donor-sibling website, "I flooded my biological daughter with photos of me and her cousins and grandparents. But just as a example, last night, as I was sending off a quick e-mail to her, my wife reminded me that my son was upstairs vegging out on the Discovery Channel instead of brushing his teeth and reading. The clear implication is that time taken to interact with donor-insemination children kids is time taken away from the regular kids, and I parent them less because of it. It's a rearrangement of the social order to have relationships established this late in life."

Kirk Maxey, president of a chemical company, served as a donor for more than a decade at the behest of his then wife, a nurse. Happily married with children of his own, he reached out to two daughters he created through sperm donation. And now he's helping other donors. He created a nonprofit genetic-testing center where donors and children of donors can have their blood tested for genetic markers to see if they match. He is also pushing for laws that would allow children to learn the identity of their donor, even if he had been promised anonymity. Such laws already exist in Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the UK. In early 2009 a Missouri lawmaker introduced a bill that would allow children of sperm donors to learn the donor's identity when they reach the age of 18.

As a result of this social movement, American donors are preparing to deal with paternity tests that finger them as fathers and potential laws that may identify them to their donor children. A California doctor who created 33 donor children while in medical school has rewritten his will. If his donor children sue his estate after he dies, they will each get $1. While it's a lot less than he received for the contents of that little plastic cup, it's still a lot more than he ever bargained for.