Finding the Lost Generation of Sperm Donors

Tens of thousands of donor-conceived children grew up thinking they'd never know their biological fathers. Now, they have a chance to.

A photo illustration of two young women embracing against a background of DNA strands
Alexandra Sanchez, left, and Courtney McKinney were both conceived with the help of a sperm donor—the same one, they recently learned. (Courtney McKinney / Watchara / Shutterstock / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

This past January, at an office park in Phoenix, Arizona, two women with similar chins and similar smiles met for the first time. They recognized each other and hugged immediately. “As soon as we talked, it was like talking to someone that I had known for a really long time,” remembers Courtney McKinney, a 28-year-old who was raised by a single mother in the suburbs of Dallas.*

The series of events that led McKinney to Alexandra Sanchez—who is now 28 as well, and was raised in Colorado and later Arizona by a mother whose live-in partner was ambiguously referred to as an “aunt”—began decades ago, before either woman was born. Both McKinney and Sanchez learned in their teenage years that they had been conceived through sperm donation, but neither knew who their father was. Sanchez’s mother is Hispanic, McKinney’s mother is black, and they’d both always thought they looked like their moms. That day in January, they were meeting to take a DNA test that would later confirm what they intuited upon seeing each other.

For people like McKinney and Sanchez who were conceived through sperm donation, it’s an unusual time to come of age. Born nearly three decades ago, they are members of something of an in-between generation: Donor-conceived children born well before them tended not to know their parents or any existing “donor siblings.” And while donors in the ’80s and ’90s most often planned on staying anonymous, in the time since McKinney and Sanchez were born, the rise of consumer DNA testing has made this much less certain. Meanwhile, industry practice and consensus among psychologists are moving away from anonymous donations, such that the era when anonymity is the expectation appears to be over.

McKinney, Sanchez, and tens of thousands of others are a distinct group: Younger than the many who never knew their donors (or never knew they had one), but older than those whose donors understand they might someday hear from their offspring. The revelations and relationships that result from the new knowledge they’re gaining as adults—of donors, of half-siblings—can change who they believe themselves to be and, in some sense, who they are.

* * *

For McKinney, wondering about her origin story began when she was a teenager, after she learned about her parentage. “I remember crying when I found out,” McKinney says. “I was not happy about it. I remember saying, ‘I feel like a science experiment. I wasn’t even made from love between two people.’” Soon, though, she began to speculate about the other half of her genetic line. What did her donor look like? Was his personality like hers?

There’s a name for that feeling—that curiosity, that sense of a missing piece, that anxiety that some dormant aspect of themselves might one day show up and have no traceable root. In 1964, the psychologists Erich Wellisch and H.J. Sants, who studied and treated troubled adoptees, understood the lack of knowledge of one’s genetic background to induce a state of what they called “genealogical bewilderment.” Wellisch and Sants argued that not knowing one’s ancestry could stand in the way of developing a clear mental image of one’s body, which they argued was necessary to developing a sense of identity. They also believed genealogical bewilderment could stunt the development of feelings of belonging.

Adoptees are, of course, different from donor-conceived children; for starters, adoptees often have to cope with feelings of unwantedness by both biological parents, while donor-conceived kids know their very existence comes from at least one parent’s deep desire for a child. But the thinking then was (and, to an extent, still is now) that both arrangements leave kids wondering about their parentage in a similar way.

Sperm donation—a man donating his sperm to conceive a child who for all intents and purposes belongs to parents other than him—has been happening for centuries. One of the earliest recorded cases of sperm donation in the Western world was in 1884, when a doctor in Philadelphia inseminated a woman with sperm donated by his “most attractive” medical student. The practice became more popular during the Baby Boom years after World War II, though it often remained a secret parents kept from their children and from the world—“both to protect the man from the stigma of infertility and to protect the child from the stigma of illegitimacy,” according to a 2008 article in the quarterly The New Atlantis. For the most part, secrecy was the norm until around the turn of the millennium.

When Wellisch and Sants were doing their research, sperm donations overwhelmingly went to heterosexual couples, and the practice became more common in the 1970s; it was estimated in 1979 that between 6,000 and 10,000 children were born annually in the United States via sperm donation. Back then, “many physicians wouldn't even have considered inseminating anybody other than a married woman,” says Scott Brown, the director of client services and communications at the L.A.-based California Cryobank, which facilitated the conception of Courtney McKinney. “Most people weren't going to tell their children they were donor-conceived.”

The guidelines for sperm donation and other assisted reproduction for most of the 20th century reflected this attitude, prioritizing parents’ and donors’ confidentiality over children’s desire to know. A widely cited 1979 survey of “physicians likely to perform artificial insemination by donor” found that only 30 percent of 471 of them kept any permanent records on their donors, and more than four out of five respondents were opposed to any legislation that would mandate such record-keeping—their concerns being about protecting donors’ privacy and the risk of any confusion over their rights or responsibilities. That same study also found that, unlike today, sperm-donation recipients only rarely had any say in choosing their donor. Almost all physicians surveyed at the time arranged their own matches, usually selecting from pools of local medical, undergraduate, or graduate students who had been paid for their semen samples.

The state of sperm donation today is far different. “You’re looking at an industry that’s probably 75 to 80 percent lesbian couples and single mothers by choice utilizing donor sperm,” says Brown. “Children are well aware of how they were conceived. Even many heterosexual couples are sharing with their children that they are donor-conceived, much like adoptive families that let kids know they were adopted early on.” (Though statistics are hard to come by, a 2010 study estimated that some 30,000 to 60,000 children born in the U.S. each year were conceived through sperm donation, out of a total of roughly 4 million births that year. By the late 2000s, by contrast, some 136,000 children—of all ages—were adopted in the U.S.)

There’s now an increased focus, compared to the ’60s and ’70s, on how kids respond to being the product of a donation. In one 2011 study, psychologists found virtually no difference in the psychological wellbeing or mother-child relationship quality of 7-year-olds who were told about their donor-conceived origins and 7-year-olds who were naturally conceived; the researchers found only a slightly less strong mother-child bond among 7-year-olds who were donor-conceived but not aware that was the case.

That said, a 2010 study comparing donor-conceived kids, adopted kids, and naturally conceived kids, however, by a think tank called the Commission on Parenthood’s Future, found some evidence that donor offspring were more likely to struggle with addiction, delinquency, depression, or other mental illnesses than adopted and biological kids, and that donor offspring were twice as likely as kids raised by both of their birth parents to report problems with the law and struggles with substance abuse. (It is, however, worth noting that the study made no distinction between donor-conceived kids who grow up knowing their origins and donor-conceived kids who discover suddenly that their parents have been concealing the truth.)

The point is that the data are inconclusive, and at the very least don't definitively show that anonymity is preferable. And in the absence of a compelling argument against finding out, curiosity is going to win.

Indeed, there is a widespread curiosity among offspring of sperm donors about where exactly they come from. A 2011 study in the journal Human Reproduction found that 82 percent of donor-conceived offspring hoped to one day make contact with their donor, most frequently because they were curious about their donor’s physical appearance. A similar 2010 study found that 92 percent of the donor-conceived offspring surveyed were actively searching for their donor, their donor siblings, or both.

While many experts agree that offspring tend to be better off knowing who their donors are, some parents who’ve made use of sperm donation bristle at the idea of a heretofore anonymous donor suddenly springing into their child’s life, and some donors would also prefer not to be contacted. But as Susan Crockin, a lawyer and an adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, argues, it’s reasonable for a child to say, “If you as my parent thought it was so important to pick the donor to match certain qualities, how can you not understand that it’s important to me to know where I come from?”

This view, shared by Crockin and others, has in recent years animated the policies that govern sperm donation (as well as adoption), moving it toward openness. Today, parents worldwide are strongly advised to inform their kids as early as possible of their donor-conceived origins. In the 1990s and 2000s, largely precipitated by increased uptake among lesbian couples and single mothers (whose donor-conceived kids could be counted on to eventually do the math and wonder which additional party helped make them), several countries, including Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Germany, enacted legislation to outlaw any donation in which the donor’s name would never be released under any circumstances. (Egg donation also falls under the purview of a lot of this legislation, though it is worth noting that the process is much more demanding on the donor—meaning donated eggs are in shorter supply than donated sperm.)

In the U.K., a 2005 law gave all British donor-conceived individuals the right to request and be granted nonidentifying information such as height, weight, eye and hair color, birth country and year, ethnicity, marital and parenthood status at the time of donation, any relevant personal or medical history, and any additional information the donor volunteered, like job, religion, interests, and reasons for donating. Identifying information such as full name and last known address can be requested and granted by the government-run Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority when a child reaches age 18; donors can even write a message of goodwill to their future offspring that can be accessed when they reach age 16, provided it contains no identifying information. Still, some countries, such as Spain, only allow anonymous sperm donations; in these places, known donors are illegal, and medical teams choose anonymous donors based on the blood type and phenotypical features of the prospective parent or parents.

In the United States, sperm donation is more loosely regulated, and the laws that govern it vary by state—in 2011, Washington became the first state to enact legislation making “open” sperm donation the default, thus requiring sperm donors to specifically request anonymity should they want it. (Washington remains the only state with such a law.)

In the absence of a comprehensive legal framework, many sperm banks impose their own rules and regulations. Some, like the Fairfax Cryobank (which has seven locations throughout the United States), offer multiple levels of privacy for donors. This includes an “open ID” option, in which the donor and the recipient agree before insemination that the bank will release the donor’s identifying details to the donor-conceived child if they request them after they’ve turned 18. It also includes an “anonymous” option, which promises to keep the donor’s name and contact information private from his offspring, but still allows recipient families to see some relevant nonidentifying personal and medical information, such as ethnicity, physical characteristics, and updated family medical history.

Others, however, like the California Cryobank (CCB), where Scott Brown works, have policies that do away with the possibility of a donor remaining shadowy and unreachable forever. For as long as the CCB has operated, it has guaranteed that if someone age 18 or over contacts the bank requesting to be put in touch with their donor, the bank will contact the donor. And if both parties consent, the bank itself will facilitate nonidentifying communications between them until either both parties agree to either identify themselves and communicate freely or one party decides to terminate their communication. Last year, however, the CCB instituted a policy in which all new donors must agree to a policy that gives offspring access to the donor’s name, donation location, last known address, and email address, when they turn 18.

“Psychologists will all pretty much agree that that’s the best way to go,” Brown says. “And we are trying to provide that level of contact as best we can.” It’s a major reversal from where things stood in the ’70s, when, Brown says, “there wasn’t a whole lot of thought put into the long-term ramifications of these offspring.”

* * *

For Alexandra Sanchez, discovering Courtney McKinney was a welcome surprise. Sanchez had only become curious about the other half of her biological family fairly recently: Neither she nor her husband had known their fathers, and when the couple began talking about starting a family, she wondered whether their future children would take after people no one in the family knew.

For McKinney, however, meeting Sanchez was a long-awaited breakthrough. When McKinney was 16, her mother showed her a home video, made shortly before McKinney’s birth, that her mother had been saving for her. In it, McKinney’s mother explained—to the camera, to her future daughter—that she had conceived via sperm donation. This is how McKinney learned she was not in fact the result of a short-term romance between her mother and a hazy figure called “Charles” (a fiction, it turned out), but the product of a business transaction between her mother and a man she’d chosen out of a catalog.

McKinney wanted to know the man in the catalog, so when she was 19, she asked the California Cryobank for information. A caseworker phoned her donor, but no luck. “The caseworker told me he was kind of beat up about it, but he has a family now. He never told his wife,” McKinney says, “so he didn’t want any contact.”

She tried again at age 22, after she graduated from Yale. She says, “I was like, ‘Maybe he cares that I’m smart. Maybe that would make him change his mind.’” It didn’t. She tried again when she was 26, “just to see if I could get medical records.” This time, she was able to get four pages containing physical descriptions and some medical history—“what color eyes and hair his grandparents had, and what they died from, and what his parents died from.”

Understandably, McKinney wanted more. So, more than a decade after she first found out where she came from, she turned to a resource that in the late 2000s gained popularity among adoptees and the children of donors: direct-to-consumer online genealogy networks. McKinney joined MyHeritage, 23andMe, and Ancestry (a company that she has since appeared in a commercial for), and in November of last year, she matched with Sanchez on MyHeritage.

Such sites are making meetings like Sanchez’s and McKinney’s more common. As psychologists such as Thomas Jefferson University’s Andrea Braverman have noted, it’s a victory for openness, but the ease and convenience with which humans can now find other humans who share their DNA threaten to overwhelm the fragile barriers that sperm banks and donors agreed upon decades ago to maintain confidentiality.

“I think anonymity is a myth,” Crockin, the family-law attorney, says, “and I’ve been telling my clients that for almost 10 years.” Thanks to the proliferation of direct-to-consumer genetic testing, which notifies users when one of their genetic relatives has popped up in the database, Crockin says, “the chances of a donor-conceived person being able to find their donor, I think are almost guaranteed today.” (Despite that, Sanchez and McKinney have not identified their donor.)

Further adding to the likelihood that donors’ identities eventually will be revealed is that their own DNA need not be a part of databases for offspring to find them. In the mid-2000s, one teenager successfully tracked down his previously anonymous donor by using a genealogy website to determine the last name that was linked to the Y chromosome he himself carried. And, more recently, authorities in California identified an alleged serial killer by plugging crime-scene DNA into an online database, even though the database only had information about the man’s relatives.

The difficulty of preserving anonymity is a reality that sperm banks have had to confront. Scott Brown says that these days, the CCB makes a point of being direct with donors. “We consider donor anonymity a legal agreement between us and the donors. We are not going to disclose their identities or contact information to anybody, be it offspring [while they’re still underage], media, or clients,” he says. “However, that doesn’t mean that the clients or offspring will not discover them on their own.”

Even the promise of a more open model of sperm donation, though, isn’t enough for some. A fertility specialist recently suggested to Alexandra Sanchez and her husband that, after experiencing some difficulties conceiving, they might consider sperm donation.

“That was something I just blatantly refused,” she says, and she and her husband opted to try in-vitro fertilization treatment instead. She says she couldn’t bear to look at her future children knowing that they’d always be curious, as she puts it, “what the other half looks like.”

* This article originally misstated that McKinney was raised in Sacramento, California. In fact, she currently lives in Sacramento. We regret the error.