The pandemic ignited public interest in science, introducing the phrase “doing my research.” But the persistence of the idea that science aims…
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.
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.
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.
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.