When the Children of Sperm Donors Want Answers

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Erin, raises a really interesting concern among the estimated 30,000-60,000 Americans born every year from artificial insemination:

I’ve seen several of the posts in this infertility series pop up in my social media feed and was wondering if you’ve considered sharing the perspectives of adults who were created using 3rd party reproduction methods, such as donated eggs or sperm. If you are attempting to engage in a conversation about ethics, I believe that is a vital piece of the puzzle. Please don’t forget that infertility “treatments” like egg and sperm donation affect the people they help to create. It’s worth noting that the majority of people conceived through anonymous sperm donation do not support the practice.

Indeed, according to a 2010 study written up in Slate by two of its authors, Karen Clark and Elizabeth Marquardt, “About half of [people conceived via sperm donors] have concerns about or serious objections to donor conception itself, even if parents tell their children the truth.” More of their findings:

Two-thirds of adult donor offspring agree with the statement “My sperm donor is half of who I am.” Nearly half are disturbed that money was involved in their conception. More than half say that when they see someone who resembles them, they wonder if they are related. About two-thirds affirm the right of donor offspring to know the truth about their origins.

Regardless of socioeconomic status, donor offspring are […] more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems. As a group, the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families.

Read the rest here. Clark and Marquardt conclude that the U.S. “should follow the lead of Britain, Norway, Sweden, and other nations and end the anonymous trade of sperm.”

Circling back to our reader, I asked Erin if she has personal ties to the issue of sperm donation, and she replied:

Yes, I do. At the age of 36, I learned I was conceived via an anonymous sperm donor. It was absolutely the most mind-blowing experience of my life. In an attempt to make sense of my new reality, I joined Facebook groups for donor conceived people, read every available resource and eventually launched a website, We Are Donor Conceived.

The craziest part of the experience wasn’t how the disclosure affected me personally, it was learning how the modern-day sperm donation industry functions. There are tons of resources out there, but this post is a great place to start.

That post is titled “10 Things Your Doctor, Clinic, or Sperm Bank Won’t Tell You.” A few passages:

Many parents use donor conception instead of adoption because a genetic connection is important to them, but then negate the importance of that very same genetic connection when it involves their child’s relationship to the “donor”, the other half of their child’s genetic family, ancestry and medical history. [...]

Parents: This shouldn’t be about your unresolved grief, your hesitations, or your fears. This should be about what’s in the best interests of your child, and their right to the truth about themselves, their medical background, their ancestry, and their genetic relatives. After telling (or after your children find out via DNA testing), please do not ask your children to keep the “secret”. This may have been your secret, but it shouldn’t be theirs. This type of response could cause unnecessary resentment, anger, and upset. Secrecy implies shame, and donor offspring have nothing to be ashamed of, most certainly not the methodology of their conception.

Are you a parent of a donor-conceived son or daughter and would like to share your perspective on this issue? Or, were you conceived from an anonymous donor and would like to tell your story? Please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.