Who's Your Daddy?
Sperm donors rely on anonymity. Now donor offspring (and their moms) are breaking down the walls of privacy
The California Cryobank, another of the nation's largest, began such an "open donor" program a few months back. "We are trying to encourage donors not to be anonymous," says Cappy Rothman, a urologist who started the California Cryobank in the mid-1970s and estimates it has been behind more than 75,000 births. The cryobank, one of more than 150 sperm banks nationwide, is upping its efforts to recruit ID donors by increasing its marketing on college campuses and paying more for contributions that come with a name attached. Right now, the typical sperm donor gives about a half-dozen times a month and earns from $900 to $1,500; ID donors can earn as much as 20 percent more. Cryobanks also are making more information about anonymous donors available to offspring for a price, such as supplying their childhood and teenage photos, essays, and audiotapes. But the shift isn't designed solely to please cryobank clients, who increasingly are single women and lesbian couples who tend to tell their children early on how they were conceived. (Married couples are considerably more secretive.) "A year ago, I felt sure that I could protect a donor's anonymity," says Rothman. "I'm not so sure anymore."
What has made Rothman and every other sperm bank, as well as many donors, unsure--and uneasy--is an enterprising 15-year-old boy, who shocked the donor world late last year when he tracked down his biological father by using a DNA sample and one of several genetic databases on the Internet. The boy sent a swab of his cheek to Family Tree DNA, a privately owned registry of more than 45,000 DNA samples, to see if his Y chromosome, which is passed down from father to son, matched anyone on file. Several months later, he was contacted by two men whose Y's were a close match for his. The teenager then went to OmniTrace.com and used his donor's birth date and birthplace (which his mother had obtained from the sperm bank but are not available to all mothers) to buy the name of every person born in the donor's birthplace on that day. One man had the same last name as one of the two from the DNA registry. The boy contacted him.
What happened between the two after that hasn't been made public. But no one believes the situation will be unique. The boy is part of an increasingly activist generation of donor offspring who are not content to be kept in the dark about their genetic heritage as a result of restrictions placed on their mothers, most of whom signed forms agreeing to honor a donor's privacy. "This is a generation of kids who want information, and they know how to get it," says Wendy Kramer, whose website, donorsiblingregistry.com, helps donor children, half siblings, and donors find each other. Kramer created the site in the hopes of uniting her son, Ryan, 15, with his half siblings and perhaps even his donor father. That hasn't happened yet. But since the site launched in 2003, more than 1,300 matches have been made between donor siblings and donors and their children. One group of half siblings had grown to more than 20 at last count. There are nearly 300 donors on the site who are willing to be found by their children, says Kramer.