The pain of anonymous parentage

Michael Cook
26 January 2011
Reproduced with Permission

It had to happen sooner or later: a forum for people born from reproductive technologies, especially donor eggs and sperm. There are many forums where IVF mums can swap stories about their pregnancies, but none about the mums' children. Until now.

Alana S., a 24-year-old writer and musician from San Francisco, has launched a website called She is the child of an anonymous sperm donor and she is inviting parents and children to contribute their stories, positive and negative.

In the US, she estimates that every year between 30,000 and 60,000 children are born with donated sperm. While the fertility industry makes US$3.3 billion annually from its services, little is known about the experiences of these children and what kind of adults they grow up to be. The pain and resentment unveiled in some of these stories are very unsettling.

The IVF industry in the US has resisted pressure to remove donor anonymity because it knows that its supply of donors would evaporate overnight. It would be a rare college student who would look forward to receiving a phone call 20 years later from a young man or woman who claims to be his offspring.

In the UK, donor anonymity was removed in 2005, making it possible for children to contact their genetic parent when they are 18. As a result, many IVF clinics now complain that they cannot get enough sperm for their clients. They are lobbying for the return of anonymous donation and the possibility of paying market rates for eggs and sperm. They argue that most parents of donor-conceived children never tell them the truth about their origins.

More and more films are dealing with the topic. There's "The Switch", with Jennifer Aniston and "The Back-Up Plan" with Jennifer Lopez, both of which treat sperm donation as a goofy joke. "The Kids Are All Right", an unlikely hit last (northern) summer about a lesbian couple, was a bit more serious. But all of them glided over the pain of discovering that your parents are not really your parents.

"Not all the kids are doing all right," says Alana S. "Many of us want to speak about our pain, but we don't want our faces on camera or to hurt our parents."

She recognizes that many donor-conceived adults may wish to improve practices and policies, but they fear publicity or conflicts of loyalty with their families. Hopefully AnonymousUs will be a "tool for better decision-making so that parents and policy-makers aren't relying solely on biased endorsements from clinics and vendors."

The site only surfaced recently, but already a number of thought-provoking stories have appeared. Here are excerpts from several recent posts:

One young woman points out that knowing your genetic origins is an inescapable part of life:

I got asked on a date to see Jennifer Aniston's movie. Even this past weekend, a friend of mine, totally unknowing of my situation, started talking about sperm and egg donation. It's a hot topic and people have opinions on it. People also LOVE to ask the question 'What are you?' in reference to heritage. Coming up with an answer, a lie, on the spot, is never fun. Even worse is when you get caught in the lies. It's impossible to escape. The reminders are everywhere.

Another young woman resents the fact that she was not conceived in an act of love, but like a manufactured product:

I am a human being, yet I was conceived with a technique that had its origins in animal husbandry. Worst of all, farmers kept better records of their cattle's genealogy than assisted reproductive clinics had kept for the donor conceived people of my era. It also made me feel strange to think that my genes were spliced together from two people who were never in love, never danced together, had never even met one another.

One woman discovered that she was donor-conceived at 13. Much to her mother's surprise, she found it distressing:

My desire to know who my biological father is has not really diminished in the years since I learned of his existence. I don't particularly like him since I feel he gave me the ultimate blow-off when he agreed to sire me in exchange for money and a promise never to find out who I am or even how many of us exist, and he accepted this arrangement as a good deal… I don't want his love or to call him "Dad" -- I already have a dad. I don't want to be on his family's Christmas cards or to take up an inordinate amount of his time. I just want to know who he is.

Even parents can't imagine how much it can hurt, says another woman.

I'm 19 now, still in the process of registering with Donorlink UK. It still hurts to this day, not quite as much, but it still hurts. It makes me want to shout and scream at parents who are considering using donor conception - tell your children from a young age, answer all their questions, relate to them!!!! If my parents could see this website then maybe they'd get an insight on how it feels to be me. But I have to be so careful not to upset anyone about it, when really, it's me that's upset!

Another woman is convinced that her mother tried to kill her when she was an infant:

Donor conception is not a cure for clinical infertility. It doesn't give parents the exact baby they had hoped for and consequently the replacement child may never live up to the happy-ever-after fantasy to which the parents had aspired. In the circumstances it is inevitable that some parents will direct their bitterness and resentment at the child who is a constant reminder of their reproductive disappointment, particularly if the balance of their minds has been disturbed either by their infertility, their choice of circumvention, or a combination of the two.

Not all of the stories are negative. The parents of donor-conceived children seem delighted that they have a chance to raise a child who loves them. But is making Mum and Dad happy enough to justify manufacturing a child?