25 Apr 2023 Long-term Effects of Anonymous Sperm Donation
Since its inception, sperm donation has long been associated with the word “anonymous,” but as family dynamics and demographics have changed, technology has evolved, and donor-conceived people have discovered their past, a growing realization of the long-term and harmful effects of anonymous sperm donation has emerged.
Psychological Effects of Anonymity for Donor-Conceived People
The long-term effects of mandated anonymous sperm donation have on a very fundamental level created people who don’t know who they are, psychologically affecting their basic sense of identity. There is a basic human want, need, and curiosity about one’s origins that can create an all-consuming desire to discover more about oneself. In a study published in the Harvard Medical School Journal of Bioethics, 84 percent of participants reported a shift in their “sense of self” upon learning they were donor-conceived. Of these participants, 91 percent were from anonymous sperm donations. Almost half of the respondents reported seeking psychological help afterward, either with psychotherapy alone or with psychiatric medicines.
In another survey, Psychology Today states that 2103 donor-conceived people were asked if they wished that their parents would have used a known donor. Over 73 percent of offspring with heterosexual parents said yes and over 58 percent of offspring with LGBTQ+ parents said yes. Many donor-conceived people report a need to know why they have certain personality and physicality traits and share a desire to learn more about their ancestry, and genetic makeup. They are not looking for a parental figure, they just want to know who helped to biologically create them.
Erin Jackson, 37, conceived with donor sperm and founder of We Are Donor Conceived tells CBC News, “I think anyone that donates sperm should understand that they’re making people and that those people have a right to know where they come from.” This lack of basic information creates a void in some donor-conceived people that is difficult to overcome and affects all aspects of their lives.
Medical Consequences of Sperm Donor Anonymity
There can also be medical consequences with donor anonymity. Although many sperm banks give a donor profile that includes self-reported medical information, there is often no updated information after the initial donation. As donors get older, medical conditions may appear. Heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and even mental illness may not emerge until later in life. Psychology Today also reports that 84 percent of sperm donors in studies state that they have never been contacted by their sperm bank to update their medical information. Donor-conceived people who are not informed of any new medical updates do not know if they are predisposed to certain conditions and therefore may not seek earlier screenings, lifestyle changes, or preventive medicines.
Social Impacts on Donor Anonymity
Social consequences of anonymous sperm donations have also come to light. In the past, biological half-siblings may have encountered each other unknowingly. There are of course the stories of half-siblings growing up as neighbors, playing sports or attending school together never knowing they were genetically related, but as technology has evolved and a new generation of donor-conceived people has grown up on the internet, biological half-siblings are finding each other online and finding out there are many more half-siblings than what their parents had been told would be possible.
Wendy Kramer and her son Ryan, who was conceived using anonymous sperm donation, created the Donor Sibling Registry in September of 2000, certain that other donor offspring would have the same curiosity as her son about his origin and other possible family members, but also knowing there was no other outlet for it. To date, the website has connected over 23,000 half-siblings who have come to the site looking for their origin story with many finding out that they have more than a few half-siblings. Kramer tells STAT, “My donor was promised no more than 10 children, and we just hit 20 last week.”
Half-siblings are not the only ones being found via the internet. Joanna Scheib, a professor of psychology at UC Davis, who researches psychosocial issues related to reproductive technologies, tells STAT, “There’s been a slow realization among sperm banks that this generation of children is very tech-savvy. If they want to know who their donor is, they’ll find out.”
Donors are realizing they have been lied to about the maximum number of offspring that would be allowed, and donor-conceived people are struggling with suddenly learning they have multiple half-siblings. Kramer goes on to say about long-term harms, “It’s not like they’re creating widgets in a factory . . . this is an industry creating human beings, so you’d think there would be more accountability and ethics. The lack of regulation and the lack of oversight has had real ramifications.”
Impacts on Anonymous Sperm Donors
As we reported in March of 2022, the easy run to the sperm bank for some quick cash is of yesteryear. In the past, sperm donors were typically young college students who were paid a small fee for their donation, but many were not properly educated or counseled about what it means to donate, and how their feelings may change in the future. Now with DNA testing kits, even those who wish to remain anonymous may have no choice. “Nobody could have anticipated 15 years ago that somebody could find out – because one of their cousins took a 23and Me test – that they’re the offspring of some sperm donor in, say, Seattle,” says Dr. Peter McGovern, a professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, in STAT.
There are sperm donors who wish to remain anonymous, but others also feel a need to connect with their offspring. One donor tells STAT, “I know that people can be very curious about their ancestry, especially when a link is unknown, so I don’t want to deny the children the option to find out. I am also just plain curious to see what has come of this little endeavor.”
With the popularity of DNA testing kits, and sperm banks adjusting their policies for more transparency, the demographic has changed slightly. “Instead of 18-year-old medical students, donors now tend to be slightly older men who are happy to be contacted,” says Nina Barnsley, director of the Donor Conception Network.
New Era for Donors and Donor-Conceived Children
As of April 1st, 2023, a new law has taken effect in the UK. The law was technically passed on April 1st, 2005, but now that this law is 18 years old, this will be the first year that donor-conceived children will be 18 and be able to request information regarding their donor. They will be able to request the donor’s name, last known address, year and country of birth, medical history, and any half-siblings they may have, according to Semafor.
Going forward there will be no more anonymous sperm donors in the UK, and the country hopes that other countries will follow suit. Zeynep Gurtin, a professor at University College London on women’s health and an authority member of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, writes in The Guardian, “It is only right that donor-conceived people will now, for the first time, have a choice about how much they want to know about their genetic origins and the people who helped create them.
In the U.S., a patchwork of laws governing the rights of donors, and donor-conceived people vary from state to state, however, in June of 2022, Colorado became the first state to pass a law giving protections to donor-conceived people. The new law not only states that they have a right to learn the identity of their sperm donor when they turn 18, but they are also able to learn about their paternal medical history before that.
As with everything related to assisted reproduction, donors, donor-conceived people, and society writ large have begun to change the way they view sperm donation, a transformation accelerated by advances in technology. Sperm banks are adjusting their policies, and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) now strongly encourages disclosure to donor-conceived people and recommends that donors and recipient parents be advised that future changes in the law may affect any agreements they sign today. Transparency and greater access to information are essential in helping all people in this process make better-informed decisions, and we applaud the positive changes.