January 4, 2018 (Them Before Us) – My biological father sold his sperm when he was in medical school. He was told what a wonderful, altruistic act he was doing, and praised for being so generous to a poor, infertile family. He was also promised anonymity. My parents bought that sperm and a doctor used it to inseminate my mother. I’m the child of a stranger, who altruistically sold me, his biological daughter, to a family he would never meet. He signed away his rights to be a father to me, and my parents gladly bought the gift that would give them a child. They were ecstatically happy when my mother became pregnant, but no one considered how I would feel about the transaction that took place, how I would feel about having no right to a relationship with my biological father, no access to my paternal family, not even medical information.
Now it is my turn to speak. I hate my conception.
How can anyone sell a person? Sure, at that point it was just sperm, but it was sperm being sold with the intention of becoming a child. Why is it legal for a doctor to allow a child to be created with the purpose of being cut off from biological family to make the recipient parents happy? The process commodifies real human beings.
I’ve been involved in the state foster care system for about two decades, a system which encourages keeping families together and tries to support keeping children with their blood relatives unless there is a severe safety issue. Children thrive best with their biological families, even when those families need extra help, something our government recognizes within the foster system. Unfortunately, I was born as the result of a profit-driven medical clinic selling parental rights without regard for what is best for the end product, the child produced.
There aren’t any laws or even suggested best practices for my situation. Anonymous arrangements sell best, are least complicated, so here I am, the daughter of my mother and a stranger she hoped never to meet, being raised by a man who had enough money to purchase my existence. My birth certificate is false, listing the father who raised me, a man I’m not related to, not giving any indication that there was another party involved in my conception. It would have been completely legal for the parents who raised me never to tell me the truth, to lie to me about my origins and allow me to believe that I had accurate family medical history.
My father who raised me died when I was a teenager, before I knew the big lie. I loved him to pieces. He was the rock who held our family together. I wish so much that I could know his feelings about my conception. I remember many times as a child when his friends would jokingly say something to the effect of, “She can’t really be yours, you ugly old dog. She’s too pretty.” I was always embarrassed and looking for an escape. I wish I’d watched his face. I wonder if that gutted him? If I’d have known, I would have hugged him and told him that I’ll always be his.
In the confusion and grief that followed his death, my mother decided to tell me the truth about my conception. She had no qualms about having kept such a big secret from me my whole life, as it protected a fact that was extremely embarrassing to her… The father who raised me was sterile. She told me they had used donor sperm and that she thought I already knew how different I was from the rest of the family.
My world fell apart. I spent several days under a blanket in bed, crying hysterically. When I was able to regain my composure, as I was going about my morning routine I caught sight of myself in the mirror and came to the realization that I had no idea who I was anymore. The nose I thought had come from my dad wasn’t his. That round nose that I thought connected me to family was suddenly hideous. The shape of my fingers, so similar to my dad’s, now looked alien and terrifying. There were several years in my mid twenties when I couldn’t look at myself in a mirror without bursting into tears, so I avoided mirrors.
I don’t know how to express with words how distressing it is to have half of your identity ripped away in a moment like that. You know there are some types of grief that everyone feels in life, death of loved ones, betrayed friendships, goals that cannot be achieved, but I had no idea that something could happen that would disrupt the identity I had created for myself like that. There isn’t a handbook on how to rebuild your sense of self when you discover that your non-identifiable father sold you. Of course I had questions for my mom about who he was, but the arrangement had been anonymous and the only information I had was that he might have been a med school student or resident at the time. I called the clinic where I was conceived to try to figure out something about myself, my family health history, my genetic heritage, even just a physical description. The office manager said all the records over 10 years old had been destroyed. Why would there be no system to keep those records? What 10 year old is going to ask for paternal health information? Those records, especially the health related ones, should be kept for much, much longer than 10 years.
My situation grieved me deeply, and so I spent money to go to a counselor to help me sort through my feelings. Alas, the counselors I saw hadn’t dealt much with persons who have been conceived apart from biological family the way I had, and they told me that I got to choose who my “real” father was. I guess they thought it would be comforting to me to have the power to choose, but their comments made me feel like I must not love the dad who raised me enough for his love to be enough to quell the hurt in my heart. I was at a painful dead end with no place to turn for more information, so I gave up. It hurt too much to keep thinking about my new reality, so I buried it as deeply as I could and threw myself into raising a family of my own, one that was biologically related to me. I knew I could do better for my own children. I knew that both of their parents would love them, and that I wouldn’t ever lie to them. I’m so averse to lying that I was never able to play the Santa or Tooth Fairy game with them. The pain, the grief kept coming back in little waves, in places where I least expected it. At family reunions where I wasn’t really one of them. During holiday gatherings where little girls looked just like their daddies. I still didn’t know who I was, who my family was, and it hurt.
Ten years later commercial DNA testing was finally starting to look promising, and was now affordable enough for me to get my hands on. My sweet husband encouraged me to go ahead and purchase an Ancestry DNA test. The results came back confirming that I was not related to the dad who raised me. My closest matches were 4th cousins, too far away to make any quick determinations. But I was determined, and I spent 4-5 hours per evening over the next 6 months comparing the public family trees of those 4th cousins until one night I figured out a single couple from the 1800’s who was repeated in several of those distant trees. I built their family tree, with all 20 of their children and their descendants, down to present day. I looked for someone who was in that tree who had also attended medical school in the city where I was conceived.
Eventually I found a possibility. I looked for a photo of him on social media and saw an older version of my son’s face staring back at me. My adorable son whose features no one could ever quite place. I had finally found the other half of me. The tears this time were tears of joy.
How does the daughter of a man who sold his sperm anonymously reach out to her biological father without making him angry or scaring him away? It took an enormous amount of courage on my part. I had been told by several people that I should just leave him alone, as contacting him would “ruin his life.” That did nothing for my self worth, to think that perhaps just hearing from me, his daughter, could possibly ruin his life. But I did have to consider his feelings and try to approach him respectfully. It would be his choice if he wanted to ignore me, or file a restraining order against me, or to tell me that he’d never donated and that I should get lost, or to be kind and share family medical history, or to accept me as his own. He’s my biological father, and because of the way I was conceived any of these situations could be expected. Should I call him, write him at home or work, show up at his door, or make an appointment at his office? Which way would he be most likely to communicate with me?
It took me months to write and rewrite a letter, and then work up the courage to mail it. In the end he was shocked, but kind. He never expected to hear from one of his donated kids. He never expected any of our parents to tell us at all. I empathize with his situation as well. It isn’t something he ever told his own family, and he didn’t want them to find out.
My biological father was able to give me that missing family medical history. There are genetic diseases that are passed along to children who will never be able to piece together exactly why they are sick, or who won’t be screened for the right cancers in time to help. I’ve heard people say that you can simply have your doctor run a genetic screen for diseases, but in my case my biological father had a disease with no symptoms that I never would have been screened for. Only a health history of my paternal family was able to show me where my own health issue was coming from. It turns out a lot can change in 40 years, and even if the clinic had kept the records for me to find, they no longer would have been accurate. A big shock for was that his grandmother died of breast cancer at a very young age, and so now I know that’s something I need to be screened for earlier than is routine. I suppose I assumed that a clinic probably wouldn’t use the sperm of someone with a family history of an aggressive form of cancer.
Receiving information about my biological family has been bittersweet, the joy of getting to know more about them mixed with the sadness that my bio father not willing to let me get to know that family. I’m hopeful that one day, if I continue to be respectful and kind to him, that he’ll change his mind and I’ll get the chance to have a relationship with my siblings and grandparents. It would mean the world to me. I was also shocked to find out what a huge number of donor conceived half siblings I probably have living near me. At least 20, maybe over 50. It is painful to know that I likely won’t ever even know most of their names, let alone get to meet them. They are unlikely to have been told they were donor conceived. I love them and miss them without even knowing them. I’m grateful that I didn’t accidentally marry one of them, and I worry that my own children will accidentally enter into a romantic relationship with one of their many (hundreds, maybe?) of cousins. They won’t know they are related without DNA testing. Can you imagine having to screen dates for potentially being your unknown cousin? What if cousins do end up together, and they figure that out via DNA, and the date’s parent (my sibling) doesn’t know he/she is donor conceived? It makes me nervous to think about the complexity of it all for my children.
We, the donor conceived, are being denied some pretty basic human rights. We are commodified, existing only because our biological parent was willing to sell genetic material in order to make someone else a parent. We aren’t given access to information about who our biological parent is, with clinics protecting the anonymity of their donors over the rights of the children produced. We are at the mercy of the adults who created us as to whether they even tell us that we aren’t biologically related to them. We are denied medical family histories, histories that might one day save our lives, as well as genealogical histories that would help us piece together our identities. We live in a time when it is possible to track down our missing families, if we know they are missing, but when donors have been promised anonymity our contact may not be welcome. It seems incredibly irresponsible on the part of the fertility industry to give any illusions to donors in this day and age that they might be able to maintain anonymity, perhaps even dishonest.
Donor conception has caused this donor conceived person enough grief that I actively speak out against any donor conception to friends considering this route as a way to solve their own infertility grief. It doesn’t resolve the grief, but rather passes that pain on to the next generation by denying them access to their missing biological family. I would encourage people not to use any donor conception, but rather to open homes to parent the hundreds of children waiting in the foster system whose parental rights have been terminated or to find other ways to navigate through infertility grief.
If donor conception must be allowed to continue to give parents the children they desire, then anonymous donation should be more carefully scrutinized and seen for the illusion that it is. There is no more anonymity with commercial DNA testing, and it should not be offered as an option either for donors or recipient parents. I can imagine it is only a matter of time before that matter ends up in a courtroom when someone like me finds a biological parent who was told they would never be found. There should be no states with laws allowing anonymous donors when the donors can be found.
Furthermore, anonymity causes pain and identity confusion for the children produced. Medical records on the donors should be kept current and easily available for the lifetime of the child produced. Finally, birth certificates should be updated to keep up with reproductive technology. There should be space for both legal and biological parents on birth certificates, in order to be accurate and to allow donor conceived people to know their true origins. Australia, a country which is miles ahead of the US when it comes to rights of the donor conceived, provides a birth certificate with an asterisk, and the asterisk indicates that an addendum is on file, containing the full name of any donors involved in a person’s conception.
This article is reprinted with permission from Them Before Us, the only organization solely committed to giving children voice in discussions on family structure. Them Before Us (TBU) exists to advance social policies that encourage adults to actively respect the rights of children rather than expecting children to sacrifice their fundamental rights for the sake of adult desires. TBU focuses the discussion on family structure around those who are hit hardest by non-marital childbearing, who are the casualties of no-fault divorce and the redefinition of marriage, or who are intentionally subjected to motherlessness or fatherlessness through reproductive technologies – the children.