Monday, July 26, 2010

Searches for biological fathers don't always have Hollywood endings

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Monday, July 26, 2010
By Emily Fuggetta, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Connecting with sperm donors isn't always as easy as it is portrayed in "The Kids Are All Right," a film starring Julianne Moore, Annette Bening and Mark Ruffalo, which opened in Pittsburgh Friday after early success in other cities.

In the movie, the children of lesbian partners (Ms. Moore and Ms. Bening) find the man (Mr. Ruffalo) whose sperm was used in their conception. Mr. Ruffalo's character and the children attempt to forge relationships, but the experience is not entirely what the parties involved had hoped.

The film's director and co-writer Lisa Cholodenko, who is raising a child conceived through artificial reproductive technology with her partner, said she wanted to explore the idea that a donor might not live up to a child's picture of her biological parent.

"There's always that kind of first blush of fantasy about who that person is, and nobody lives up to that," Ms. Cholodenko said. "Everyone is human and ultimately falls from grace in a certain way when they're held up to some kind of perfect ideal."

The topic of artificial insemination also surfaced in the movie "The Back-Up Plan," released in April, and is part of the plot in "The Switch," set to debut in August. The films highlight the growing number of offspring of sperm donations who are trying to find their fathers. Dozens of websites and online groups have formed to help donors and offspring connect.

Although the U.S. does not keep records of births from sperm donation, experts estimate that anywhere from 4,000 to 40,000 births occur annually through this process. Unlike some countries, the United States does not require that donors' names be released to their offspring, and there is no national donor registry. In recent years; however, many U.S. sperm banks have given donors the option of agreeing to have personal information or even their names released when their offspring turn 18.

Whether donors should be required to disclose their identity is becoming a heated issue, and groups have formed on both sides of the debate. So far, no legislation has been introduced. Wendy Kramer is the founder of Donor Sibling Registry, a Nederland, Colo., nonprofit group that matches sperm and egg donors with their offspring.

"It's a free-for-all," she said in an e-mail. "Sperm banks can do whatever they'd like."

Several countries have laws or guidelines that require donor information to be released to offspring. As of 2007, these included Austria, Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa and the United Kingdom, according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.

Betsy Cairo, a University of Northern Colorado professor who founded the CryoGam Colorado sperm bank in Greeley, about an hour north of Denver, fears the implementation of a law or policy that would ban anonymity in the U.S. would create a shortage of donors. She has already seen an increase in overseas sperm sales to countries that have required disclosure.

"If they don't remain anonymous, we will lose our donor pool," she said.

Cryobiology began moving toward more open agreements in the past five to 10 years. About 95 percent of donors are agreeing to release baby photos, audio recordings, silhouettes or all three, she said. Cryobiology pays about $40 per sperm sample, and donors generally agree to provide six samples per month for about a year. Donors who agree to release extra information receive slightly more -- up to $55 per sample.

One sperm bank in Los Angeles is now comparing its donors with celebrities through its "Donor Look-Alikes" service, which allows interested people to select celebrities they would like their donors to resemble and then produces a list of donors with similar features. So far, options include hundreds of actors, sports stars and other stars from Zac Efron to Taye Diggs.

The Donor Sibling Registry reports that more than 7,400 matches have been made through the service since it was founded in 2000, and nearly 28,000 donors and offspring are registered with the site. Ms. Kramer said whether a relationship is formed through a connection depends largely on the age of the donors and offspring and how far apart they live.

"Some jump on planes the next day to go meet each other; some just share medical information," Ms. Kramer said. She added that many banks ship sperm all over the world, so extended families are likely to live in different states, countries or continents.

Ms. Cairo of CryoGam believes the likelihood of a failed attempt at bonding between the donor and offspring is more likely than success -- another reason she supports donor anonymity.

"What we've discovered and heard from other sperm banks is that the donor [identification] is released and the children get doors slammed in their faces," she said. "It doesn't mean they're going to go to lunch and have picnics."

Those who wish to remain anonymous should be able to do so, she said.

"Sometimes these donors are 19 or 20. They don't think that far down the road," she said. "Some might even forget they were a donor in college, and then suddenly there's a person on their doorstep. They're not family. They're genetically linked."

But some are fighting for the U.S. to require disclosure. The Institute for American Values, a nonprofit group in New York "whose mission is to study and strengthen key American values," released a study called "My Daddy's Name Is Donor," which outlines what it deems the negative effects of anonymous donation.

The Web-based study of more than 1,600 people found that 65 percent of donor offspring agree with the statement "My sperm donor is half of who I am" and that "family relationships for donor offspring are more often characterized by confusion, tension and loss." The study also found that 53 percent of donor-conceived respondents agreed that "It hurts when I hear other people talk about their genealogical background," compared with 29 percent of those who were adopted.

Kathleen LaBounty, 28, of Houston, hopes the U.S. will require disclosure to prevent others from experiencing the pain she has felt during a so-far-unsuccessful search for her biological father.

She learned when she was 8 that she was born through artificial insemination and over the years began feeling that a side of her family was missing. In her early teenage years, she contacted the clinic where she was conceived but was told her records had been destroyed.

"I didn't know what to do," she said. "I felt like it was a dead end."

She didn't drop the search, and in her 20s she began compiling all the information she could find of the men who attended the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, where she was conceived.

She sent letters and e-mails, along with photographic timelines of herself, to all 600 men who graduated between 1979 and 1984. She received 250 responses, and many of the men offered support, she said. Several, who affectionately refer to her as their "collective pseudo-daughter," attended her baby shower and have met her 3-month-old son.

Still, after half a decade, 16 DNA tests and interviews for "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and other national shows and publications, her father has not come forward.

"I hope with time he decides to know me," she said. Although she is at peace with the idea that she may never find her father, she hasn't given up her search. "I don't like to live with regrets."