Read: Finding the lost generation of anonymous sperm donors
Up until the 2010s, these networks—known colloquially as “donor-sibling networks,” and now often facilitated by social media—generally used to spring up when donor-conceived individuals discovered one another in their school-age, teenage, or adult years. Now, however, as Hertz and Nelson found in their study of recently developed donor-sibling networks, some parents are making contact with donor siblings or the parents of donor siblings as soon as their children are born or even conceived. These parents in particular have a unique vision for what the donor-sibling network could offer their kids later in life—they see it as something like a cross between an extended family and an alumni network.
In Random Families, Hertz and Nelson profile five donor-sibling networks. In the oldest network of the five, the participating donor siblings were in their mid-to-late 20s, conceived at a time when sperm donation was a quieter affair and most donors stayed anonymous forever. (This particular donor, an anomaly for his time, did not.) Three of the other groups are formed from donor siblings born in the 1990s and 2000s, and in the most recently formed network the book profiles, the 17 donor siblings were all born between 2011 and 2014. One feature that sets the last group apart is that the donor siblings’ participation isn’t voluntary, but rather is facilitated by their parents. (The authors refer to this group as the “social capitalists” for their emphasis on the social benefits the parents believe their kids stand to gain through participation.)
In some ways, this particular set of parents’ reasons for getting involved in a donor-sibling network look a lot like other people’s reasons: Many parents and donor-conceived kids want to identify and bond with genetic relatives out of a desire for emotional and practical support, and out of pure curiosity. The authors make clear that in every donor-sibling network they profiled, one primary reason for participation is a certain reasonable degree of fascination with the fact that kids raised by different families can have striking physical and even cognitive similarities. And that fact can help parents of genetically related kids support each other: When one child from the “social capitalists” network was diagnosed with childhood diabetes, for example, his parents notified the rest of the network via Facebook and received both messages of support and messages thanking them for giving the group a heads-up. Plus, Hertz and Nelson find, parents often feel a certain degree of affection for kids who are genetically related to their own, so a donor-sibling network can provide an additional source of goodwill and encouragement. As another parent from the group put it, “The more people out in the world who have a fondness for my kids and are fundamentally rooting for them in some ways, cheering them on, hoping the best for them—that’s not a bad thing.”