In the United States, the first documented case of donor insemination occurred in Philadelphia in the 1880s, when a physician artificially inseminated an unconscious female patient, leaving her to think that her pregnancy was the result of intercourse with her husband.
It seems all too appropriate that the first case was veiled in such steep secrecy -- the truth hidden even from the mother -- because that is how the practice has long been treated. Until recently, persons conceived via artificial insemination have generally not been told the truth about their origins. Their parents were encouraged to keep it a secret, so the child only knew the truth when someone -- their mother or the man they thought was their father, or their grandmother or a family friend -- spilled the beans, often in the midst of a family conflict or divorce. For sperm donor offspring, the divorce of their parents brings a one-two punch, first the loss of their parents' marriage, and then often the revelation that their dad is not their biological father.
Over the years a number of brave persons in the U.S. and around the world have spoken out to tell their stories about how it really feels to be conceived via artificial insemination by an anonymous donor. So often these persons also tell the story of their parents' divorce. My colleagues and I were intrigued by this. In a recent study we conducted of young adults conceived through sperm donation (the 135 page report, called My Daddy's Name is Donor, is available free at FamilyScholars.org), we discovered that the divorce rate for married couples who used donor conception was twice as high as the rate for married couples who had adopted. This was surprising because both of these groups would likely have formed their families later in their marriages, when marriages on average are more stable.
Many sperm donor offspring tell stories of their parents' divorce. Some of their stories are quite complex.
"Andrew" is a high school math teacher in Pennsylvania, born in 1959. His mother told him when he was about 11 or 12 that his biological father was in fact a sperm donor. That summer he was visiting two cousins and decided to "share with them this whopper of a story." He reports, "I had only recently learned of my donor-conceived background, and I thought I'd impress them with this bombshell." To his horror, though, his cousin merely replied, "Oh, I already knew that. Our parents told us about it." Andrew's aunt, uncle, and cousins knew the truth about his origins even when he himself did not. Andrew was shocked and livid.
The fact of his donor conception was not the only unsettling factor in Andrew's life. "My mother was married at the time of my conception [via sperm donation], but he ran off with someone else. My mom divorced him when I was around age one." Then, "she remarried when I was six, and her second husband adopted me. He and I never managed to establish any kind of bond, though. He wound up dying very young -- at age 42 -- when I was 13. Mom didn't remarry after that." Looking back, he reflected, "I'd say I never really had a father my whole life -- even when Dad ("husband #2") was alive."
Vince lives in Melbourne, Australia. Born in 1980, he found out when he was 21 years old that he was donor conceived. Trying to describe his family, he said, "Well my story is a little more complex than most. Mum was married in the late 70's to the man who appears on my birth certificate. Upon trying to start a family they discovered he was infertile, so they saw doctors, specialists, etc., who suggested they try some new revolutionary treatment (IVF), and mum subsequently fell pregnant for the first time." They divorced when he was one or two years old and his mother remarried when he was about three. "I grew up believing that her second husband was my father. She changed my surname to his." He reflects, with some astonishment, "I had no idea of her first husband until I found out everything at 21 years old. I thought it was just a classic case of being married, divorcing and marrying someone new. But then there was the IVF procedure thrown in the mix."
"So in reality," Vince says, "I have three fathers: 1) The donor who remains a mystery, 2) Mum's first husband who was there when I was born and remains on my birth certificate, and 3) the father who raised me from around three years old, who I know as my dad." "Now how," he asks, "does all this shape me as a person?" At age 29, Vince is trying to figure that out.
Our study also showed that sperm donor conceived persons experience a particularly high degree of transitions in their family lives as they are growing up. The transitions we asked about included not only divorce but also parental remarriage or formation of a new live-in relationship, a parental remarriage or new live-in relationship ending in divorce or break up, losing touch with a parent, and a parent dying. Forty-four percent of the sperm donor conceived persons in our study experienced one or more "family transitions" between their birth and age 16. Remarriages have a higher divorce rate than first marriages and live-in relationships are even more unstable. For the donor conceived, not only are their sperm donor biological fathers generally absent and unknown to them, but a lot more people are likely to be coming into -- and too often going out of -- their lives.
When they grow up, a high number -- well over half (57 percent) -- of donor offspring in our study agreed that "I feel that I can depend on my friends more than my family" -- which is about twice as many as those who grew up with their biological parents (29 percent). Amid a maelstrom of people moving in and out of their lives, the donor offspring too often can feel lost and alone.
A history of infertility. Getting pregnant from another man's sperm. Keeping an enormous secret from your child and everyone else. Raising a child in which one parent is biologically related to the child and another is not. These experiences and more might account for the strains one hears about when donor conceived adults talk about the families they grew up in, leaving these young people with manifold losses to grieve.