Unwanted Effects of Sperm Donation

Sperm donors, it turns out, are leaving a sad legacy: thousands of children who will probably never know their real fathers.

(photo: Shutterstock image)

Alana S. was just 8 years old when her parents told her they would be getting a divorce. Her father made an effort to gain custody of Alana’s older sister, but not Alana. This would become Alana’s first of many painful lessons in what it is like to be a child of a sperm donor.

Alana’s “social father” — the term used to describe a man who functions as a child’s father but is not the biological parent — was an infertile man, and shortly after marrying Alana’s mother, they adopted a young girl from South Korea. Five years later, they attempted to adopt again, but their application was denied. Rather than starting the process over, they settled on the sperm-donor route, as it was “quick, expedient and cheaper.” The result: Alana S.

“My mom was my parent, and my father was just around,” Alana recalls, while describing her childhood. “There was asymmetry to the biological relationship.” Despite Alana’s sister not being her father’s biological child, Alana remembers a distinct difference in the way he treated the two of them.

“At least he was a part of the entire adoption process for her,” she said. “It was different with me.”

Today, Alana, 25, dedicates herself to Anonymous Us, an organization she launched in January to provide an outlet for donor-conceived children to connect and have an open discussion about the realities of artificial reproductive technologies (ART) and the resulting family fragmentation. Many of the 70-plus contributors to the group’s website (AnonymousUs.org) provide journal entries detailing their personal histories. While some have criticized the unwillingness of the contributors to reveal their identities, the website counters this by stating that “though anonymity in reproduction hides the truth, anonymity in storytelling will help reveal it.”

149 Half-Siblings

In a 2010 report, “My Daddy’s Name Is Donor,” from the Institute for American Values, Elizabeth Marquardt, Norval Glenn and Karen Clark note that “an estimated 30,000-60,000 children are born each year through sperm donation, but this number is only an educated guess. Neither the industry nor any other entity in the U.S. is required to report on these vital statistics.” A Sept. 5 article in The New York Times, “1 Sperm Donor, 150 Offspring,” profiled a family that realized their donor-conceived son had at least 149 half-siblings and this number would likely be growing.

The fertility industry in the United States is a vast enterprise, grossing more than $3.3 billion each year. Despite its size and influence, there is little regulation. Sperm donors are not required to register their donations, and few donor or patient records are kept. As the 2010 report observed, “The fertility industry is increasingly a cross-border phenomenon. No one knows how many children are being conceived in one country and born in another.” In fact, 46% of donor offspring agree with the statement When I’m romantically attracted to someone, I have worried that we could be unknowingly related.

The result of these artificial reproductive technologies is proving devastating for the family. Catholic family scholar and founding president of the Ruth Institute Jennifer Roback Morse notes that “creating a child through such a method is a completely impersonal act. All children are entitled to be loved into existence, and God wants us to participate in that personal love.”

Calls for Regulations

Church teaching is also clear on this matter. According to the Catechism, “Techniques that entail the dissociation of husband and wife, by the intrusion of a person other than the couple (donation of sperm or ovum, surrogate uterus), are gravely immoral. These techniques … infringe the child’s right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage. They betray the spouses’ right to become a father and a mother only through each other” (2376).

“The idea that one can become a parent without an encounter with a person is changing the way women think about marriage and family,” Morse explained. “This is an attempt at entanglement-free familyhood.” Additionally, such a method sets up and supports a system where fathers have no responsibility to care for their children, as in the case of Alana, who regularly asks herself and her readers, “In what world is it okay to abandon your child for $75? In what world is it rewarded?”

Within the past couple of years, scholars and legislators have discussed imposing tighter regulations and initiating investigations into the current practices and ethics of donor conception. Most of the proposals call for a required donor registry and a cap on the amount of times a man can sell his sperm.

Morse, however, is of a different opinion: “No one dies from infertility. While it can be devastating, this is not a life-threatening illness. No one is entitled to these services. Shut them down, and don’t miss the opportunity to call them inhuman and immoral.”

The investigators of “My Daddy’s Name Is Donor” reported that nearly two-thirds of donor-conceived children agree that “my sperm donor is half of who I am.” In the summer of 2010, Alana S. confronted her mother after years of pent-up anger and hurt from growing up without her biological father.

“I need you to understand my loss,” she told her mother.

Initially, her mother’s response was unsympathetic, though things are changing now. In fact, her mother is now in law school completing a double concentration in real estate and family law and ethics. “She’s not as outspoken as I am,” said Alana, “but she’s there to support me. It’s a start.”

Christopher White is the international director of operations for the World Youth Alliance in New York.