The Ambiguity of "Open" Sperm Donation

11/06/2016 07:16 pm ET
Jan van Eyck: Virgin and Child with Saints and Donor - early 1440s

Yet again, the highly unregulated medical field of sperm donation is failing parents, donors, and the donor conceived. This time we’re calling attention to their inability to manage or to offer any consistency with non-anonymous sperm donation practice and policy. The concept is simple: a “donor” (no one is donating anything, a man is paid for his sperm) makes non-anonymous sperm donations (he agrees to have contact with the children he helps to create when they turn 18), parents wanting a child purchase that donor’s sperm (most vials of non-anonymous sperm are a lot more expensive than anonymous sperm), a child is conceived, and the sperm bank makes money.

We are now hearing from families who purchased non-anonymous sperm, only to find out later on that this is not the case. Sperm banks are failing to provide that which both the donor and the parents agreed to.

This issue highlights the need to legally ban donor "anonymity" so as not to leave the interpretation of a non- anonymous (often called an "open" or a "willing-to-be-known") donor, to each different sperm bank (or egg clinic), or to the whim of young donors, many who donate while in college and who are never properly educated or counseled about the needs of the resulting children they are helping to create.

We recently heard from two parents (different donors) who used Pacific Reproductive Services (PRS):

"My son is 19 and last year contacted PRS to begin the process of contacting his "willing to be known" donor. PRS told my son his donor was anonymous and he couldn't contact him. I had all my paperwork that clearly stated otherwise. Upon further investigation, PRS told us the donor had changed his status from "willing to be known" to "anonymous" one month after I conceived.”
"Through your website, we have made contact with many families who used our donor. Our daughter will be 18 next year and was looking forward to getting more information about the donor at that time. We understand from one of the other families that the donor wishes to change his status to anonymous and has refused contact. We were also told that the sperm bank's attorneys are preparing a letter to send to us. Needless to say, we're terribly disappointed and haven't figured out how to break it to our child."

A PRS parent received this explanation from PRS:

“About "Willing to be Known" Donors: Most of our donors are willing to be known to the children conceived as a result of artificial insemination with their donated semen when the child has reached the legal age of consent (18 years old in the state of California). The child must contact PRS to initiate the disclosure of the donor's identity. PRS will attempt to arrange a meeting between the donor and the child. If PRS is unable to arrange such a meeting, the donor's identifying information will be released to the child to enable the child to pursue this process on his/her own. The child will sign a contract specifically requesting that s/he respect the donor's privacy in pursuing a meeting (i.e., not discussing the purpose of the meeting with anyone except the donor himself). Once a meeting has occurred, the donor's obligation has been fulfilled. Pacific Reproductive Services cannot guarantee that the meeting between the donor and the child will occur. PRS must rely solely upon the donor's representation and signed contract that he is willing to be known.”

Some donors who either chose anonymity, or who were never given a choice, become interested in connecting with the children they helped to create.

From two Fairfax Cryobank donors:

“I too, donated more than 20 yrs ago at Fairfax. I've tried all methods of which I could think to get Fairfax to open my record to anyone seeking it. They denied me every time, and have continued to deny me. They wouldn't even tell me my own donor number. Fortunately, one biological son found me on the DSR.”
"Fairfax listed me as anonymous even though I had signed several documents that allowed for my information to be given out."

From three New England Cryogenic (NECC) parents:

“I chose a "yes" donor/donor release option, have paperwork saying the info will be released to my daughter once she's of age, yet the owner of the bank is not honoring the agreement, and wouldn't even return a phone call for months, then after one okay/civil conversation, in which she agreed to call me back with no information...completely disappeared and never called back.”
"We have been trying to work with NECC to contact our identity release donor for months now and are not having any luck hearing back from them as to the status of our request except that they have the paperwork needed to move forward. Phone calls and emails are not returned."
“I am going through this with NECC now! It is dragging out to months and I can't get any info from them as to what is taking so long. They acted like this was the first request for donor contact they had gotten.....”

Families who used California Cryobank should know about their “open” donor policy: A couple of years ago I asked CCB about the policy, and was told that when a child of 18 requested contact, the donors were sent a letter only asking them to "update" their information, not mentioning anything about a child desiring contact. So, if a donor read the letter and thought "I have nothing to update" he'd likely just toss the letter. He would never know a child desired to meet him, and the child would think that the donor refused contact. So I asked CCB: "Your rep said that when there is a request, donors are sent a letter to ‘update’ their file. They are not actually notified that a child actually wants to meet them. Is this true? This could explain the low response rate, as the donors are not made aware that a child is actually wanting to meet them."

The reply I received back from CCB:

"Our system is set up to protect the interests of all parties. We contact the donors via mail and/or email. If he chooses to respond, we explain the situation and ask if he is interested in moving forward with the contact. To send a letter with information about an offspring out of the blue could be very jarring, irresponsible, and could ultimately illicit an even lower response rate from the donors who do not understand the specifics of the interaction. We don't phone them until they give us the ok, because if they have a wife or children who could answer the phone, it could put them in an awkward position.”

From a California Cryobank donor:

"As an ID Release Donor my adult offspring should be able to contact California Cryobank, say "Hey, # XYZW was my donor. Please give me his contact information." Every time I have moved or changed phone numbers or email addresses I have dutifully updated California Cryobank. So I asked one of my 20 year old kids (who I met through the DSR 7 years ago) to test the sperm bank. He called them, and was transferred to voicemail. I figured nobody would call him back, but lo and behold they did call him today. They asked him a bunch of questions to prove his and his mother's identity, then told him I was an anonymous donor (Lie) and they didn't have my contact information (Lie) but they would try to get in touch with me."

The sperm banks handle "open" donations differently. Some, like California Cryobank, send the generic letter to donors asking them to "update their information", and if they don't hear back, that's considered a "no". Many sperm banks say that they will “try” to contact donors to see if they are still open to contact with offspring. Sometimes they can’t find the donors, and sometimes they never reply to an 18-year-old’s request for contact.

I don't think the sperm bank's website or contract verbiage matters much at all. We know of donors who tried to change from anonymous to open, but couldn't. And we know about donors who are "open" but never respond to contact requests. We also know about "open" donors who outright refuse contact. And we know about donors who chose anonymity and who, when given the opportunity, are very open to establish relationships with their biological children.

From two formerly anonymous donors:

“Read up on the current wisdom and knowledge that’s developed over the years. There’s more to it than making a few bucks.”
“You are involved in the creation of real people, not an abstract concept. They will live and breathe and grow, and they will want to know about you. Be ready to have a big heart.”

When choosing a sperm bank, it’s important for prospective parents to research beyond the marketing materials on a sperm bank’s website. The Donor Sibling Registry has a “Which Sperm Bank” page where user testimonials can be found.

My son Ryan was the first donor conceived person (that we know of) to locate his “anonymous” donor via DNA testing in 2005. Many donors who chose anonymity are indeed open to contact when given the opportunity, and luckily, ours was. Ryan and his biological father (below) have enjoyed more than eleven years of getting to know one another and he has also been able to establish a wonderful relationship with his biological grandparents. None of that would have been possible if not for commercial DNA testing creating an avenue separate from the sperm bank’s anonymity policies.

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