DNA: Donors Not Anonymous

Special Guest Post by Wendy Kramer
[In response to Sperm donor anonymity and compensation: an experiment with American sperm donors, published in the Journal of the Law and Biosciences.]

My son Ryan and I were contacted by Family Tree DNA in 2004, as they thought that their new commercial DNA testing capabilities might be useful to Ryan, and to the others in our community of donor conceived people at the Donor Sibling Registry. At that time we thought it might be possible to find out more about one’s ancestry and countries of origin. Ryan was excited to learn more about his “invisible” paternal ancestry, so quickly agreed to swab his cheek, send in his sample and see what he might learn. He may have been the first donor-conceived person to throw his DNA into a public DNA database, making himself available to connect with previously unknown genetic relatives.

At first, he did learn a bit more about his paternal ancestry, specifically about countries of origin. He learned that he was mostly English, with some Irish and even a bit of Icelandic (which he thought was pretty cool). He also matched with people on his 12 and 25 Y Chromosome DNA markers, which meant that common ancestors related them from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. And for 9 months he was content with that little bit of information.

Nine months after submitting his DNA, he had his first matches on the 37 Y-DNA marker. He matched with two men, same last name, who didn’t know each other, but who had figured out their same common ancestor who lived in the 1600’s. Because Ryan matched with both these men, as they matched with each other, it was determined that Ryan also had the same relative from the 1600’s. The two men, and this common ancestor all had the same last name. It was with this last name, and a birth date from the donor profile (that the donor filled out at the sperm bank when he donated), that within days, with Google and a public records database, we figured out who my son’s biological father was. Contact was made, and our family instantly expanded. When our formerly anonymous donor was given the opportunity to know my son, he gladly accepted. Many donors since then have also connected with offspring on DNA sites, as well as on the Donor Sibling Registry.

With the increased volume in the general public swabbing or spitting for DNA databases, now when donor conceived people spit into a cylinder or swab their cheek and send it in to commercial DNA testing sites like Ancestry, Family Tree DNA or 23andme, there is a high probability that they will connect with distant, or even very close relatives. This includes half siblings and/or genetic mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Donor offspring have every right to search for and to make these connections, of course, respecting the boundaries, wishes, and privacy of those they connect with, like any other person reaching out to their unknown genetic relatives.

For decades, the rights of donors to remain anonymous have been first and foremost. The reproductive medicine industry has worked very hard to keep donor offspring from knowing their genetic parents. Some banks and clinics even refuse to give donors their own donor numbers, making it difficult to make mutual consent contact on the Donor Sibling Registry. Some banks do not even connect donors and offspring who both call in to the clinic to request that they be put in touch with each other. Even banks and clinics with “open” donors only sometimes connect offspring with donors at age 18, as there are no guarantees.

In this day and age of commercial DNA testing, here’s my advice for prospective sperm (and egg) donors on what the clinics and sperm banks are not telling you: if you don’t want to be known to your offspring, don’t become a donor. Because even if donors don’t submit their own DNA, chances are that some known or distant unknown relatives have spit or swabbed, and this makes donors very findable. My son may have been the first to locate his donor with this new methodology, but he certainly isn’t the last.

If you are a former donor and think you’ll never be found, it might be time to start educating yourself about what donor conceived offspring are looking for when reaching out to their genetic mothers and fathers. We have heard from thousands of them, on the DSR and through research projects, and we know that they are not looking to invade or disrupt your life. They are not looking for an active parent. They are not looking for money. They just want to know where they come from – their genetic and medical history, along with their ancestry.

Some offspring do long to meet and to know their genetic parents. And, if relationships evolve after connecting, then that’s icing on the cake for all involved. It’s now time that the rights of donor conceived people to be curious about, search for, and connect with their first degree genetic relatives are acknowledged.

Wendy Kramer is Co-founder and Director of the Donor Sibling RegistryHer recent article “Sperm and Egg Donation: 10 Things Your Doctor, Clinic, or Sperm Bank Won’t Tell You” was featured in the Huffington Post

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