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Invisible dads

Birth | Largely unregulated sperm banks and fertility clinics are producing thousands of donor-conceived children who long to know more about their fathers

Issue: "On the rails," Oct. 9, 2010

Alana's first birth certificate said Hutcheson-the last name of a man who shared no biological link to her. Her second birth certificate said Stewart-the last name of the man her mother married after divorcing the first. Neither birth certificate mentions her biological father-the man who donated the sperm to create her. Alana changed her name from Stewart to Sveta, a Polish-sounding name she adopted after she learned her donor dad was Polish, and then changed it back to Stewart to re-identify with the only family she knows. But it still gnaws at her that her birth certificate doesn't acknowledge her biological dad, and she'll never know his name.

Stewart's name changes reflect her search for identity and a way to connect to the father she only knows as "Donor." Her experience is echoed in the title of a recent study-"My Daddy's Name is Donor"-that contains troubling findings about the way some donor offspring view their identity and experience family relationships. An estimated 30,000-60,000 children are born each year through sperm donation-the product of a $3.3 billion fertility industry that does not have to keep strict records of births, reveal donor names, or regulate the number of children one sperm donor creates. For Stewart and other donor­conceived children, never knowing their fathers has created a crisis of identity.

The study, released by the Commission on Parenthood's Future, took a representative sample of 485 donor offspring, comparing it with groups of adopted and biological children. It found that donor-conceived children are more likely to express feelings of sadness about their conception and experience family break-up, depression, delinquency, and substance abuse. Forty-five percent of donor-conceived children say that the circumstances of their conception bother them. Sixty-five percent say that their donor is part of who they are. Nearly half feel sad when they see friends with biological parents and more than half say it hurts when others talk about their genealogical background.

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The study also found that family breakdown is more common in the families of donor offspring. Overall, 44 percent of donor offspring experience "family transitions" (like divorce) before the age of 16, compared to 22 percent of adopted children and 35 percent of those raised by biological parents.

Stewart said her own experience illustrates the family knots that donor conception can create. She thinks the circumstances of her conception-her mother having a child with another man's sperm-made her mother's first husband see Stewart as "a symbol of what one man could do that he couldn't do." He favored Stewart's adopted sister-the daughter who had a biological link to neither parent-over Stewart, the child who had a biological link to his wife but not to him. When he and Stewart's mom divorced, he only asked for custody of Stewart's sister.

"I don't really consider anyone my father," Stewart said-a situation that she says created insecurity and lack of trust. She excelled at school until early adolescence, when questions of her identity began to beset her. Then she plummeted from the top of her class to the bottom and started a string of destructive relationships. She went through a man-hating phase and says her lack of a secure male father figure has made her wrestle with the idea of a paternal God.

She has spent her adult life searching for a way to connect with her donor dad and learn more of who she is in the process. She says of her donor dad, "I view him as kind of like a ghost and a fantastical figure, like how some people speak of children that they want. . . . A person who doesn't really exist but who is so very important to me." The United States leaves sperm donation largely unregulated, so sperm banks and fertility clinics decide what they will ask donors to reveal. Stewart only knows that her donor dad has blue eyes and blond hair. He lived in L.A. He was a doctor and a scuba instructor. He was 5-foot-9 and played the flute. He was Polish.

When she found he was Polish, she traveled to Poland to connect to that part of her heritage but was disappointed to find that it seemed so foreign: "Nothing echoed to me except for my physical appearance with the people." The little girls had eyes and hair like hers, and the same crook in their noses, she remembered: "Everything else was distant."

Wendy Kramer, co-founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, notes that "My Daddy's Name is Donor" is not peer-reviewed and said some of the findings are not consistent with what she knows from interacting with donor-conceived people each day. She founded the Donor Sibling Registry, a site that connects donor siblings, with her donor-conceived son Ryan when he became curious about his identity. It's true, she says, that donor-conceived offspring wonder where they came from and are curious about their unknown siblings. Ryan would say, "I look in the mirror and I can see where half of me comes from. . . . There's this invisible one-half of me."

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