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PLOS BLOGS DNA Science

Why a Sperm Donor isn’t a Father

As Father’s Day approaches, ads from the consumer DNA testing companies ramp up. But they don’t warn that in a few weeks, a new wave of unsuspecting people are going to discover half-siblings – perhaps many – and then deduce or discover that they were conceived using donor sperm.

This year, Ancestry.com had the courtesy to contact those of us upset by past DNA results with the offer to opt out of their Father’s day-centered promotional emails. But the newbies are in for quite an experience.

Finding surprise half-siblings from a long-ago sperm donation is, to put it mildly, jarring. After the initial disbelief and shock begin to ebb, some of us question our sense of self, suddenly recall strange feelings during childhood, and even go through stages of grief.

Until the family roster expands enough to include a half-sibling who knows for certain that a donor was involved, disturbing alternate scenarios – rape, infidelity – loom and make the news very hard to accept. Those who find out that the donor was their mothers’ physician have another scenario to process.

And so we try not to think about the findings, or we try to reconstruct narratives. Had doctors duped our parents, even if well-intended? Laws in several states protect against such fertility fraud – the tenth was recently passed in Iowa, the Fraud in Assisted Reproduction Act.

Reflections

For some of the donor-conceived, our fathers are the men who raised us. Not the men who anonymously donated in minutes.

A sperm donor provides cells, albeit special ones. But unless he raises a child resulting from his donation, he is not that child’s father – in my opinion. In my case. (Caveats added because the initial response to this post was extremely harsh.)

My sperm donor didn’t clean me up when I was 2 and barfed all over myself (actually neither did my dad, he put me in the bathtub until my mom came home!)

My sperm donor didn’t insist that a restaurant provide a high chair for my stuffed chimpanzee Peter when I was three.

My sperm donor didn’t teach me how to play ball off the stoops in Crown Heights, ride a bike, sled in Prospect Park, or catch frogs at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

My dad ran a business at the Fulton Fish Market. When I was maybe 8 or 9, he brought home two gigantic lobsters that my sister and I kept as pets in the bathtub over a weekend – until we came home from school on Monday to find our mother unceremoniously flinging them into a vat of boiling water. Seeing someone eat a lobster disgusts me to this day; the dismembered crustacean reminds me of my dad.

Surprise!

I didn’t discover my unexpected origins until 2018, courtesy of an Ancestry.com test I’d taken at a genetics meeting and forgotten. Since then, new genetic relatives have popped up; some of us have become friends and pored over our DNA data. And yes, a few knew they had been donor-conceived – older relatives remembered.

Facebook sleuthing helped us to link people into family trees and then identify those we shared to find the family that included the donor – then contact them. We still don’t know, possibly never can know, how many of us we are – 9 at the moment. Or 10. It’s confusing.

I’ve written a few articles on our story, done a New York Times Modern Love Podcast, and entertained a film crew of 20-somethings from HuffPo for a day, after which they vanished into the ether. They probably found a better story, such as Indiana fertility physician Donald Cline, featured in the recent Netflix film Our Father. His secret donations spawned dozens of half-sibs, some of whom live in the same small town.

Our Father and My Donor were Different

The documentary is mesmerizing. The opening view pans down a hallway lined with photos of blonde, blue-eyed babies, reminiscent of the Boys from Brazil, the film about cloning Nazis.

Objects and imagery from Christianity festoon the shelves and walls. Dr. Cline was a marriage counselor and Sunday school teacher. A placard quotes Jeremiah 1:5, God Knew Me Before I Was Born: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Now someone like Dr. Cline, in some states, can lose his medical license, considered to have committed a sex crime. The Iowa law also deems any sperm donor who lies about his identity and/or medical history to have committed fertility fraud. The wild west of spermatozoa may be ending.

I’m glad that I watched Our Father, because interviews with the doctor’s co-workers bolstered my hope that my parents hadn’t known that donor sperm was used.

Given the time and place of my conception, I suspect that the donor had good intentions: to help an infertile couple. Some people have suggested that the fact that secret sperm donation skyrocketed in the New York City area in the 1950s was an attempt to replenish the Jewish population decimated during the Holocaust. A registry of sperm donors in NYC from that time consists mostly of Jewish-sounding surnames, most from Brooklyn.

Resolution Soon

Our search led, by mid 2019, to three brothers who were at the right place and time to have been the donor – none was a physician. Then things stalled. But just a few months ago, 23andMe came through with a new half-niece, which led to a new half-cousin, which led to (I hope) a new half-sibling or two. We will have our answer any day now.

They are a wonderful group that I’m excited to be a part of, the sort of people I would befriend even if we didn’t look alike, share interests and politics, and, oh right, at least a quarter of our DNA.

I’m at peace, after a few years to digest the information about my odd origin. Having been donor-conceived takes nothing away from the man who was my father. And now that I’m at an age when we are starting to lose people, finding new relatives is a great gift – and it’s certainly been a long, strange trip for this geneticist.

Discussion
  1. Your feelings on being donor conceived are valid, but so are those who the many donor conceived people who disagree with you. No, a donor is not a “father” or “parent” as those words are used in terms of action, but a donor is undeniably a genetic parent, and that is what most of us mean when we refer to a donor as our biological/genetic parent.

    It is somewhat disturbing that you are a member of online support groups and yet felt the need to downplay or ridicule the thoughts and feelings of other members. This is a very one-sided take that fails to truly explore or try to understand the nuances of what you reduce to “bemoaning the tragedy of [our] very existence.”

    1. I have quit the support groups. The responses were extremely nasty. This blog is informal, my opinion, not meant to be critical of anyone else’s feelings or choices. Downplaying and ridiculing was never my intent. I apologized to the group yelling at me – I did not post this blog there nor did I “out” them in any way. Of course it is a one-sided take, that is what an opinion piece is.

  2. As a geneticist you should know that in fact the donor is your biological father. Most of us are not trying to replace who we grew up with raising us. We are trying to just expand our family. There’s also those of us who had awful social parents that want nothing to do with us and make us question why they even bothered to have children. I’m glad you could find peace. The rest of us are fighting so that the next generation of DCP can also have peace instead of what we had.

    1. People took much of my figurative language literally. Yes, I write biology textbooks, I understand reproduction. But I was too naive to realize that while people on the Facebook who are yelling at me – I see some of those responses here – are ok with voicing their opinions and stories, a minority viewpoint is unacceptable. I’ve left the group.

  3. Can you explain what you mean by “I cringed at the Our Father offspring bemoaning the tragedy of their very existence?” What made you cringe?

    1. I meant that the man was clearly a monster, yet the offspring are alive because of his donation. I have very mixed feelings about the entire matter, because someone very close to me has infertility. Sperm donation was important. Sometimes in this post people took things literally that I meant figuratively. I won’t be writing about this again. A Facebook group that is comforting to many others turned out to be toxic to me when participants hurled insults without being aware that I was receiving them. Turned me off to ever commenting on my situation again – I’ll just stick to the science.

  4. While I understand where this article is coming from (I’m Donor Conceived and a PhD student myself), I think it might be useful to introduce a second term to aid distinguishing between the social vs biological aspects of fatherhood. Just like the scientific community distinguishes between sex as biological and gender as social performance/expression, it might be helpful to think about this as “My sperm donor may be my father (biologically), but he is not my dad (socially)”. As it stands, denying a sperm donor’s fatherhood without finding a way to recognize the genetic aspect sounds off.

    1. We do have terms to clarify the difference. Many donor conceived people when needing to differentiate our dad vs the donor will use “social dad.” We do not need a replacement term for biological father, as that is exactly who he is to us. I personally believe calling him my “sperm donor” is a lot more confusing, because I was not inseminated with donor sperm. My mom was. My parents had a sperm donor, I have a biological father. Some also use “genetic father” because it helps to add a degree of seperation. I fully appreciate that “biological father” can feel too familiar for some.

    1. No thank you. After so many people yelling at me I’m no longer comfortable talking about it – frustrating, because my family will have the answer any day now! But thanks for your interest.

  5. I am DC and blissfully happy with my life.
    I love your article and agree whole heartedly with it.
    I am lucky to have a wonderful birth mother and birth certificate father, dad, who raised me and love me and am also blessed with a wonder genetic father, dad, who loves me too.
    My family is my perfection!
    I’m saddened you feel silenced now. Don’t stop writing about what is an important topic and your life.
    I understand being in the minority of how you feel about being DC it can be tough but your voice is important to some of us, even if we are a minority view point.

    1. Thank you SO MUCH. I had no idea how minority my viewpoint actually was, unless those who disagree with me are just louder. I’m excited to soon find out who our donor was, but after the experience with this blog post, I’ve been effectively silenced on the subject. It’s almost as bad as politics. Thanks again.

  6. Hi, We aren’t bemoaning at our existence. It’s about consent. Also, that some of my siblings dad’s sperm was to be used, yet thrown out. Again, consent and many other things. I do have to ask though that you place an edit. Fertility Fraud has been known. Iowa is the 10th state and latest to pass. I can send you all the states if you need them along with the bills. I ask this so this information isn’t distributed incorrectly. That is also not the number of half-siblings. I ask next time to please just ask anyone involved so you get proper information as well as their personal feelings not what you perceive. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for responding. We are actually at 89. I also want to make sure everyone knows that we do not hate we ever existed. It’s the circumstances.

  7. As a moderator of one of the support groups where your opinion piece was shared, I want to speak to some of the issues posed in your piece as well as some of the comments in reply here. The group is one of the few and likely the largest exclusively donor conceived spaces on Facebook. It is sometimes the first place a donor conceived person finds when they receive their DNA surprise. Additionally, if it is not
    the first place they turn, it can be the only safe space where they can share thoughts and feelings that are in conflict or opposition to what their parents and the assisted reproduction industry have told them their opinions should be lest they be not “well-adjusted”. The sharing of details from the group may do greater harm, where the potential for harm already exists at baseline and members have expressed that they felt that it violated the spirit of the group.

    Your opinions related to your conception and how you view assisted reproduction are no less valid or significant, but one must admit it is easier to share those feelings in the world at large in safety and receive validation.

    This piece serves to validate recipient parents in their beliefs that it just takes love and good parenting and everything will be fine.

    It serves to validate the industry in telling those parents to take their babies home and raise them without a second thought, all the while perpetuating an incredibly lucrative and until very recently, a nearly unregulated industry.

    Those stakeholders will use your opinion piece to invalidate
    and dismiss DCP past, present, and future. Specific to your replies here, I also take exception with your statement that “the responses were “extremely nasty” “yelling at me,” or “extremely harsh” and that a minority viewpoint is unacceptable. There were 3-4 moderators monitoring the post in real-time and it was left up to allow you to speak to the concerns posed by the other members. The discussion there was firm, but it was polite and spoke to the real harm that can occur when authors presenting opinion as fact for a wide internet audience. Additionally, because the membership is composed of a myriad of professionals there was again firm yet polite criticism related to dnascience.plos.org not requiring peer review prior to publishing.

    Finally, a great many of the late discovery DCP have real trauma from the loss of their familial connections to heritage, ancestry, ethnicity and often their own identities. These are private, intense, and often
    heartbreaking stories shared among people who understand in what we hope is a safe space.
    Critiques were not meant to attack you personally, but the questions related to anomalies in academic integrity are fair. Equally fair was the pain expressed by some, and the horror that you decided to use the Our Father documentary as merely a literary tool. (A reference that would likely increase clicks to this blog.) You should always keep in mind there are 89 REAL PEOPLE affected by Cline’s fraud and to consider their feelings “bemoaning” their existence is unfair and incredibly callous.

    It is important to note that you did provide an apology right before you left. The apology was accepted by many, but was also thought to be lacking sincerity and self-reflection. Your comments here do little to turn the tide on those impressions.

    I hope that you find what you are looking for. Not only in
    continuing relationships with your siblings but also as you move forward related to your biological father.

    1. Deb thanks for taking the time to explain all of these points. I meant no harm in my post, but I was insensitive. I do not care about number of clicks, my income is from my textbooks. I’ve been writing this blog for more than 10 years. It is a blog. Not a peer-reviewed science journal. Peer review is for research findings. Perhaps some readers are not familiar with this distinction. My apology was sincere and I have done quite a lot of self-reflecting. It is sad, as a few others have pointed out, that some readers are impinging their feelings onto my intent. I will not write about this topic again.

  8. Ricki I agree with you. It’s an editorial. In fact, you state in the editorial that it’s your opinion.

    In the test you say “A sperm donor provides cells, albeit special ones. But unless he raises a child resulting from his donation, he is not that child’s father – IN MY OPINION. In my case. (Caveats added because the initial response to this post was extremely harsh.)”

    I think you were unfairly pounced upon. And it’s my opinion that people get offended so easily that it impedes civil discussion. This editorial was your opinion. That you have to defend your right to voice an opinion is very sad to me.

    I strongly believe in a vigorous exchange of ideas, and I find it very sad when people try to silence others in giving their opinion.

    No matter what anyone says, this is still America, and I encourage you to please continue you to express how you feel and your opinion about any topic. That is what this county is about.

  9. “I meant that the man was clearly a monster, yet the offspring are alive because of his donation. I have very mixed feelings about the entire matter, because someone very close to me has infertility. Sperm donation was important. Sometimes in this post people took things literally that I meant figuratively. I won’t be writing about this again. A Facebook group that is comforting to many others turned out to be toxic to me when participants hurled insults without being aware that I was receiving them. Turned me off to ever commenting on my situation again – I’ll just stick to the science.”

    I think that would be very unfortunate. You have a right to feel the way you feel. I also agree with you. My father is the one who raised me.

  10. Thank you for allowing comments. I wrote some articles on the DSR that are referenced in some books on assisted reproduction and I’ve been reuniting for free for almost 20 years sons and daughters of parents who donated gametes with their families. People get so sentimental about kinship titles and that tends to get in the way of articulating the rights that are violated when parents are exempted from responsibility as they are when legally classified as donors. If a parent is classified as a donor they can abandon their sons and daughters without criminal penalties…they don’t have to be recorded as parents on their offsprings birth certificates even for health and record keeping which is incredibly shortsighted of our government it’s a reckless disregard for public health and safety and a complete departure from the protocol followed for the rest of the population who are equally human. Failure to record some parents as parents sue to donor status results in denial of kinship rights for their abandoned offspring. Their offspring might even be made to serve in the roll of offspring to a step parent or to some other unrelated person willing to play the roll of parent but not to someone else’s son or daughter…documents have to be falsified for them to be willing to play that roll. It’s great that you have positive feelings about the man who raised you! That’s separate from the linguistic gymnastics required by this industry to conceal what’s really going on…Donor is just a man or a woman who gave up some gametes at some point. They also could have given up some old clothing or worked at a McDonald’s. None of that has any bearing on their kinship to their own offspring when born people are always the parents of their own offspring it’s a physical fact and one that should be stated clearly. People are not donor conceived that’s just code for abandoned by a parent without punishment. Nobody would want their gametes if they did not sign and agree to abandon parental responsibility when their kids are born. Of course you feel like the person who raised you deserves more credit than the father who abandoned you for charity or profit. Society has to start realizing that exempting people from parental responsibility for their offspring is unfair to their offspring even if there is a super step parent waiting in the wings to write himself down as parent. Why? It’s fake and an entire family can’t access truthful vital records for themselves or their relatives because someone abandoned a kid and because someone else lied about being a parent. People who want kids need to grow up a bit and find a way that allows everyone full legal kinship in their own biological family and allows everyone the right to care and support of their biological parents. Nobody should be creating kids to give or trade or sell. They are people humans created equal they deserve equal rights. Lots of people can contribute to raising children and parents don’t need to be married to one another and they can be singe or married or partnered with great people who play a significant roll but should not be present only at the expense or loss of someone else’s legal kinship in their maternal family paternal family or both. People must be willing to be present in a child’s life even if that child has an accurate birth certificate or frankly they don’t have pure intentions toward the child. I’m chiefly concerned about the unequal treatment people are subjected to when their parents were donors. It’s not fair and it’s not wise for public health.

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