Donor Babies Search for Their Anonymous Fathers

All grown up, some children of sperm donors are trying to break through the secrecy that keeps them from knowing their family history

"This is intentionally creating children who have no access to half of their family," she says. Which is not to say she blames her mother and the man who, though he may not be genetically related, is her "real" dad. When her mother chose donor sperm, Kathleen says, no one had any idea that the kids might feel this need to track down the donor. She says her parents have been tremendously understanding and supportive of her search — which is saying a lot, because Kathleen has not been shy about putting her family's business out there. She's told her story on Oprah and The Today Show, to People and Parade.

Kathleen found out about her origins when she was eight. Her mother always planned on telling her. As Nancy explained in an e-mail: "I knew that not telling her of her method of conception would be a lie. She had the right to know. She needed to know."

For months, Nancy LaBounty had told her daughter that she was special. She told Kathleen that, whenever she was ready, she'd let her know exactly how she was special.

Kathleen LaBounty believes anonymous sperm donation should be banned.
Daniel Kramer
Kathleen LaBounty believes anonymous sperm donation should be banned.
Wendy Kramer created the Donor Sibling Registry in 2000.
Mark Manger
Wendy Kramer created the Donor Sibling Registry in 2000.

So when Kathleen was ready to know, she says, her mother took her up to Kathleen's room, sat her down and told her how she was conceived.

"I just felt like it made sense," Kathleen recalls. "It felt like a missing piece of the puzzle."

Kathleen says she had always felt different, and now she knew why.

It would be another seven years before Kathleen requested her donor's medical records from Baylor. She says she was told they were destroyed. Not only would she not be able to find out anything about the donor, she couldn't find out how many times his samples had been used. Did she have two half-siblings, or 200?

Later, when she started doing her online searches, she became familiar with the weird history of sperm donation — how it was only relatively recently that it had emerged from the shadows.

Critics of anonymous sperm donation have (perhaps unfairly) emphasized the bizarre tale of the first recorded donor insemination. The 1884 procedure was performed in a Philadelphia medical school, and involved a couple who were having trouble conceiving. The doctor's solution was to secretly chloroform the woman and inseminate her with semen from a medical student voted "best looking" by his peers. When the doctor subsequently told the husband, they decided it was best not to tell the mother.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, couples choosing this method of conception were routinely told by their doctors to keep it a secret. It wasn't until 1973, with the passage of the Uniform Parentage Act, that the practice was openly addressed in law — it gave the non-donor husband legal parental rights.

In the U.S., anonymous donation is the industry's bread and butter. But beginning with Sweden in the 1980s, some other countries abolished anonymous donation and mandated that donor-conceived children have access to their donor's identity after they turn 18. Of course, those countries experienced sharp declines in sperm supply, as the American Society for Reproductive Medicine likes to point out. Critics like to think of the society as a sort of Big Pharma of sperm, an industry umbrella group interested in profits over people.

Wendy Kramer is one of the most vocal critics.

The mother of a donor-conceived son, Kramer established the online Donor Sibling Registry in 2000. She says she separated from her husband when her son Ryan was an infant, and he asked her at age two if his father was dead. Blindsided, she tried to figure out what this meant for Ryan, and what other donor-conceived kids might be experiencing. After chatting with others on various online forums, she believed she saw a need for the registry, which invites donor-conceived kids to post whatever information they have about their respective donors and see if they can't find a sibling match. So far, she says, she's registered 22,600 donors, parents and kids, and connected 5,815 siblings. (Ryan, by the way, discovered he has nine siblings).

"I know what it's like to be part of the couple where the doctor says, 'I'm sorry, you two cannot have children.' So I understand...I'm a mom of a donor kid, I had no other way to have my kid, but at the same time that doesn't negate all that we've learned in the last 18 years. We didn't know back then what we know now."

The Donor Sibling Registry's earliest listing for a Baylor donor was a post-­graduate who donated between 1971 and 1973. He was 6'1" and a Methodist whose interests included music. And there's no telling how many offspring were produced by the 5'11," 220-pound wavy-haired Jewish med-school graduate who donated between 1989 and 1993.

Kramer says, "I think the question we need to ask in this industry is, 'What's the best interest of the child being born?' Now, I think it's a really obvious answer. But I think, publicly, we need to ask that question, like they have in other countries. And when they've asked that in other countries, what they end up doing is banning anonymous sperm donation."

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