Anonymous Sperm Donation

6 min read

Aug. 20, 2001 -- When architect Bill Cordray was 37, he found out something about himself: He was conceived using artificial insemination -- a little secret that not only changed his life but also explained his life.

Cordray, who is now 55, says that from the time he was about 5 or 6 he sensed that his father, a man he loved and respected, wasn't his "real" father -- but he did feel a biologic link to his mother. Over the years he worked this out by guessing that his mother had an affair, an idea that was troubling to him for a number of reasons, not the least of which was his reluctance to believe that his mother would betray his "father."

Artificial insemination is not cutting-edge fertility technology -- the first recorded case dates back to 1884. At that time Dr. William Pancoast of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia used a rubber syringe to insert semen donated by a medical student into the uterus of an anonymous Quaker woman who was unable to conceive with her husband. Nine months later the woman gave birth to a son.

The woman was sedated during the process and Pancoast never told her what he did. So Pancoast's work is notable on two accounts: It introduced a technique that has since been used in the conception of hundreds of thousands of people, and he decided to cloak his actions in secrecy.

That secrecy is only recently being questioned. At the time that Cordray was conceived, the procedure was not only secret but also his mother had to sign a statement agreeing that she would never disclose the circumstances of his conception. Cordray was one of three brothers conceived with donor sperm, while a fourth and oldest brother was adopted.

The sperm donor in his case was one of the graduates of the University of Utah School of Medicine, class of 1945. He says that the 35 members of the class are still alive and he plans to write to each of them in an attempt to identify the donor. Although he's known about the circumstances of his birth for almost 20 years, he has put off attempting to contact the donor because of concerns about rejection.

But now Cordray says his oldest child, a 28-year-old daughter, is urging him to write the letter. She's eager to have a full genetic history as well as to "be able to trace our history," he says.

The circumstances surrounding Cordray's conception are fairly typical of artificial insemination for most of the last century. Donors were usually medical students, and the inseminations were handled in the private offices of obstetrician/gynecologists who often swore their patients to secrecy. At that time only fresh sperm could be used for insemination, but that changed when technology advances allowed it to be successfully frozen and stored. That opened the door for sperm banks.

Sperm banks supply sperm directly to women clients or through intermediaries such as fertility clinics or physician private practices. Although there is little regulation of sperm banks, the sperm banks contacted by WebMD were uniformly in favor of informing the child about the circumstances of their birth.

Sharon Mills of San Francisco-based Pacific Reproductive Services says her company counsels clients to tell their offspring "the story of how they were born."

A good way to do this, she says, is to "have a scrapbook that tells the story. The scrapbook can include pictures of the clinic where the insemination took place, pictures of the pregnant woman, and so on. Every year on their child's birthday the parents can take out the scrapbook and add new birthday pictures while once again reviewing the story."

By using this approach, Mills says, the birth story is so often repeated that it becomes "boring and therefore accepted by the child."

Cordray says that Mills' suggestion is a good one because the most important issue is honesty. Knowing about your origin, he says, "is a civil rights issue."

In this respect, Cordray says that children of donor insemination, or DI children, are very much like adoptees, who have similar concerns about biologic origins.

A separate, and equally difficult issue is donor identity. Should donors be anonymous or identified? Who should know this information? The mother? The child?

David Towles, director of public relations at Xytex, a sperm bank headquartered in Augusta, Ga., says his company is exploring a whole range of approaches to donor identity.

"In June 1994 we began providing pictures of the donors if the donors agreed," he says. Currently he says his company has head-and-shoulder pictures of about half of the 100 donors in its catalogue.

More recently, Towles says, the company began producing videos of the donors. The videos are filmed in the Zytex offices and then "wherever the donor feels comfortable, perhaps doing some activity he likes such as fishing."

Donors are asked if they are willing to provide this type of information to the mothers and that preference is noted in the catalogue. "Close to 20 donors have agreed to the release of this information," he says.

Towles says the company is also investigating ways to arrange for contact such as an exchange of letters between mothers and donors or between donors and adult offspring.

While Towles says his company is interested in finding new ways to make donor insemination "open," like open adoptions in which adoptive parents know the identities of biological parents, Nancy Pihera, director of Lavista Reproductive Services in Atlanta, points out that there can be legal pitfalls surrounding donor identity. For example, in some states a donor whose identity becomes known could be liable for financial support, she says.

Nonetheless, Pihera, a health educator who founded the company 10 years ago, says that she counsels clients to tell children as soon as possible about the circumstances of their birth. Additionally, she urges parents to share the information on donor background that she provides. That information, "doesn't answer a whole lot of big, deep questions, but it does include things like favorite food, favorite color, shoe size, and so on."

In California, law protects donors, says Mills. The California law clearly states that "if a man provides sperm to a licensed medical facility then in law that man is not the natural father of the child and has no legal rights or responsibilities in regard to the child."

Mills says her company, like many sperm banks in California, provides copious information to clients. Each client receives a detailed donor biography "including 17 pages of information that covers hobbies, likes, dislikes, medical history, a description of parents and siblings, and a little bit about the personality."

While the mother can get that information, she is not given access to the actual donor identity, but the "adult child has a right to the identity information, and if it is requested by the child it is released," says Mills.

But many adults conceived by artificial insemination don't have that right, says Cordray. That, he says, is plain wrong.

"In Australia, New Zealand, Austria, and Sweden the law requires that donors be strictly identifiable. They won't allow anonymous donors," says Cordray.

The U.S. should enact a similar law, he says.

"One of the prime reasons parents choose not to tell children [about donor insemination] is the belief that telling will cause the child pain. It will present a mystery that can't be solved," he says. "But the pain of not knowing one's identity is far worse."