By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
On the morning of May 4, 1981, Nancy LaBounty was ready to conceive a child.
She went to the Baylor College of Medicine infertility clinic, located in what is now St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, and rode the elevator to the 22nd floor. As she waited in the clinic lobby, a receptionist picked up the phone and called the father-to-be. The details of the conversation are not known, but the purpose of the call was simple: The patient is here. Bring your semen sample.
He would've entered through the clinic's back door, handed off the cup and disappeared. He was probably a Baylor medical student, as the clinic collected most of the samples from students in need of pocket money.
Nancy had requested a guy with blond hair, but this was pretty much on an as-is basis. Fifty bucks a month, and you got a crack at motherhood. Her husband was infertile, and instead of adopting, she wanted a child who was biologically hers. Nancy had actually had one baby — a boy — this way, just over a year previous. He was born with Down syndrome. She put him up for adoption.
Nine months later, Nancy gave birth to Kathleen Ruby LaBounty, a healthy girl. Twenty-five years later, Kathleen would start her search for the young medical student who walked out of the clinic's door that day. The way she describes it today, it's just as much a search for herself. She feels like she was robbed of half her family, half her medical history, half her identity. It's a feeling shared by many other donor-conceived children who are now in their late teens and twenties. They say that no one anticipated — or even considered — how these children might feel when they reached adulthood. They're calling for the United States to follow in the footsteps of the UK, Australia, Sweden and others and abolish anonymous donation.
"I just think it's a transferring of loss," Kathleen says today. "The parents are pursuing this, and by going through anonymous donation, they get their dream of parenthood. But then that loss is just transferred to us. And it's so preventable — it doesn't need to happen."
Or maybe this is more to the point: "I look in the mirror," she says, "and I don't know whose face is reflected back."
The faces stare out of the yearbooks with stone stares and goofy grins; most are victims of horrible late-'70s, early-'80s hair and couture.
Big glasses, shaggy or feathered hair, wide ties, collars that look like they could flap away into the sky. One of these guys might be Kathleen's biological dad.
In 2006, she went to Baylor's med school library and pored over yearbooks from 1979 to 1984. In the beginning, she was naive enough to think he'd jump right out. She paid close attention to eyes and smiles. She photocopied the pages and asked friends to flip through them and star the best candidates.
But before she knew it, she had come up with a list of 600 candidates whom she alphabetized and stuck into binders. She Googled them and checked them out on Docfinder.com, and when she had their addresses or e-mails, she sent them an inquiry saying, hey, this is going to sound strange, but I'm trying to find out if you're my biological father. If you ever donated sperm to Baylor, would you be willing to take a DNA test? She included pictures of herself: just under one year old; eight years old with a mustache from leftover Halloween makeup; in a black gown before a college formal; present day.
The 250 replies were overwhelmingly good-natured — from donors and non-donors alike.
"Wow. Your letter was unexpected, but very exciting and very welcome...I am completely open to exploring the possibility of me being your birth father."
"Sorry to say that I am not the lucky person who is your genetic dad, as I did not donate sperm...I hope your search is successful, and that your genetic father has the same kind face and warm smile as you do."
"Judging from your pictures, your father would, I'm sure, be proud....However, that man would not be me. Actually, I would be excited if it was..."
Kathleen narrowed the pool of 40 candidates willing to be tested down to 14, many of whom insisted on covering the cost. (New to the process, she started off with legally binding DNA testing, which cost $600-$900. She then discovered nonbinding tests were only $99.)
This tenacity, and this need to connect with other people, was nothing new to Kathleen. At age seven, in the midst of a career rescuing wounded baby birds, she became a vegetarian. She says she hasn't slipped once. In high school, she did volunteer work with kids with Down syndrome — a way for her to connect with her unknown half-brother. At Houston Baptist University, she majored in psychology and sociology, and is now finishing a master's degree in psychology.
As interesting as this experience has been for her so far, Kathleen hates the fact that she has to look through old yearbooks to find her biological father.