NEW YORK — Eighteen-year-old Ryan and 14-year-old Anna found each other on the Internet.
Both were conceived by artificial insemination technology. After they registered with the Donor Sibling Registry online, they discovered that they shared the same in vitro fertilization clinic and “donor number.” The same anonymous sperm donor was their genetic father. They are half brother and sister.
On a long weekend in May, Ryan and his mother flew from Colorado to New York to meet Anna and her mother and non-genetic father. Coincidentally, Ryan and Anna were celebrating the same birthday.
Perfect strangers, they bonded instantly, according to Ryan’s mother, Wendy Kramer, co-founder of the Colorado-based Donor Sibling Registry. “Ryan calls Anna his sister, and he thinks of her that way,” she said. “It’s a new kind of family. It’s hard to define.”
Hard to define — and often permanently painful to accept for children who have been conceived through artificial techniques.
As the test-tube children of baby boomers — the largest generation of children conceived by donor insemination technology — come of age, a whole new field of genealogy is emerging as these “genetic orphans” seek out their biological relations.
Cambridge University researchers told those attending a conference on human reproduction in Barcelona this past July that children conceived using sperm donors are emotionally more stable if they are told of the circumstances of their conception from an early age: 3 or 4 years old. But they also found that knowing their origins often sparks a quest for genetic “donor relations.”
The study from the Center for Family Research at the University of Cambridge is based on a survey of 165 mostly American donor-conceived children registered on the Donor Sibling Registry. It reported that two-thirds of those who found out the method of their conception after age 18 were “confused” and “shocked,” compared to only a third of those who found out before 18.
More than three times as many (38%) who discovered their origins later in life were angry.
“Finding out at age 23 was earth-shattering,” one respondent said. “I have so many questions and realize now that I may never learn more about the man who helped to create me.”
“It appears that donor-conceived offspring respond more positively when told [about their conception] at an early age,” said Cambridge’s Dr. Vasanti Jadva. “This finding is in line with research on adoption which also shows that children benefit from early disclosure.”
So the Donor Sibling Registry and similar groups are advising parents of test-tube babies to tell children their origins early. They offer booklets to help break the news. A 3-year-old, for example, could be told, “Babies are usually made from a little bit of mummy and a little bit of daddy, but because Daddy wasn’t very well, you were made from a little bit of mummy and a little bit of another man.”
According to the Donor Sibling Registry survey, however, less than a third of heterosexual couples who used third-party sperm or egg for an artificial conception tell their children. Single parents and lesbians are more likely to divulge, presumably because they have an absent opposite-sex parent to explain.
It’s not just IVF parents bucking the trend towards openness. Gamete donors are still free to choose anonymity — and most do.
For example, sperm donors — commonly recruited from college campuses with offers of free movie tickets, beer and $1,000 a month for their services — are invited to enter “open” arrangements where they might be contacted by “future offspring” once they turn 18. But they have no obligation to respond.
And when they don’t, to their genetic children they are merely no more than an anonymous number at a sperm bank with a fact file resembling a dating service ad.
Gamete donation is completely unregulated in America. There is no limit to how many children one donor might produce.
Wendy Kramer informed one fertility clinic that one of its donor numbers showed up on the Donor Sibling Registry for more than 100 children.
“They told me, ‘We don’t see a problem so long as they’re not in the same geographic area,’” she said.
But there is no guarantee of geographic separation for unaware half siblings, either. Kramer knows parents of related children who met by chance at a playground.
“Why can’t we ask the question in this country, where there is a $3 billion infertility industry, if this kind of anonymity is in the best interest of a child?” asked Kramer.
Margaret Somerville, founding director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at Montreal’s McGill University, believes the rights of the children have been completely ignored when considering whether any new reproductive technologies should be used to bring them into the world.
Instead, the “right” of infertile couples — and now homosexuals — to “have their own children” has been accepted without question. And technological advancements, from harvesting sperm from cadavers to seeking to manufacture children for homosexuals from two eggs and two sperm, continue towards fulfilling that “right.”
“A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. “The ‘supreme gift of marriage’ is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which alleged ‘right to a child’ would lead. In this area, only the child possesses genuine rights: the right ‘to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his [her] parents,’ and ‘the right to be respected as a person from the moment of conception’” (No. 2378).
“A child’s most fundamental human right is to be conceived with a natural biological heritage,” said Somerville. “Children have the right to be conceived with the untampered, natural sperm of one identified, adult living man and the natural ovum of one adult living woman.”
Added Somerville, “With IVF and donor insemination, society is intentionally funding and supporting the manufacture of children as commodities and is complicit in the violation of that fundamental right.”
Anger and Grief
And while many donor-conceived children seem unaffected, others, as they reach adulthood, are calling themselves “genetic orphans” — and voicing grief and identity crises.
“It makes me physically sick that I have a father, grandparents, half siblings out there that I can never, ever meet!” one adult respondent told the Cambridge researchers.
Given such anguish, it’s not a surprise the Donor Sibling Registry website had 94,000 visitors in the first half of 2008. More than 21,000 people have registered, and it has “matched” more than 5,000 siblings, as well as donors and children.
In the Cambridge research, respondents had gone on to find an average of four donor siblings each, with a maximum of 13.
But “it’s critical that you adjust your expectations so you aren’t setting yourself up for failure,” the registry warns its members.
Ryan Kramer was crushed twice in his teens when he located genetic half siblings whose parents would not tell them and wanted no further contact. But his new relationship with his donor sister seems to be meeting a deep need.
Having struggled through his teens without an image for the paternal half of his genetic identity, he said, “Anna lets me see that invisible side of myself in someone else.”
Celeste McGovern writes from Innerleithen, Scotland.