Wendy Kramer is the founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, a website and non-profit US organization. Since 2000 she and her son Ryan have been helping donor-conceived people — about 17,000 of them so far — connect with their half-siblings and their biological parents.
She recently published an on-line booklet, “DNA: Donor Not Anonymous”, about the how genetic testing has made donor anonymity almost impossible. MercatorNet recently interviewed Wendy by email.
Why did you start the Donor Sibling Registry?
The short answer: because I had a curious kid. My son Ryan knew that he was donor-conceived from the age of two and as he grew up began having many questions about where he came from and his unknown genetic relatives. The sperm bank offered no assistance, insight or answers.
So in 2000, when social media first consisted of only Yahoo groups, we started a Yahoo group thinking that Ryan might not be the only curious donor-conceived person out there.
The spectacular take-up of DNA testing and ancestry sites has made finding “donor dads” easy nowadays, hasn’t it?
My son Ryan was the first donor kid to locate his donor via DNA testing, back in 2005 — so this is nothing new. We've been advising our members on DNA testing since then and have helped many others find their genetic relatives through DNA websites, and of course via the Donor Sibling Registry.
If donor anonymity effectively ends, what happens to the business model of IVF clinics? Won’t there be a shortage of sperm donors?
Just to clarify the issue: most people who use donor sperm don't use IVF (fertilization outside the body). IVF is mainly used with egg donation.
But sperm banks have used this argument for years. If we look at the number of sperm donors in the UK, as documented by the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, after that country “abolished” anonymous donation in 2005 (they now have mandatory anonymity for only 18 years), we can see that the number of sperm donors has risen almost every year since then.
But let's just say, for argument's sake, that acknowledging the end of anonymity would lead to fewer sperm donors … maybe that would be the price of running a more responsible and ethical industry.
We don't have enough organ donors but we don't resort to unethical practice to procure those organs.
For so many decades it's been about the rights and needs of all the stakeholders except for the donor-conceived people. It has been the right of sperm banks and fertility clinics to make money. It has been a parent's right to have a child. And it has been a donor's right to remain anonymous.
But nowhere in these conversations or policies are included the needs and rights of the very people who are being created: the donor-conceived people.
By now you have been in touch with thousands of people who were looking for their biological fathers. What drives them?
We have 64,000 members on the DSR — parents, donors, and offspring. We have connected 17,000 of them. We've conducted and published more than two dozen research studies and papers in peer-reviewed academic journals.
It's an innate human desire to want to know where we come from. Like adopted people, donor offspring want to know about their ancestry, their medical backgrounds, and their first and second-degree genetic relatives.
How do you respond to the argument that parents have a right to a child, even if they have to resort to anonymous donor sperm?
Again, sperm banks, clinics, parents and donor's rights have all moved this industry forward for decades. It's now time to include the voices of the donor-conceived people in that conversation.
Why should a parent's right to have a child and a donor's right to anonymity continue to trump a child's right to their own ancestry, medical history, and close genetic relatives?
What are the psychological consequences of donor anonymity for kids?
Just like adoption, there is a wide range of responses from donor offspring about being cut off from their close genetic relatives and information.
Some are mildly curious and some have a burning desire. Some are very angry at having this crucial information withheld from them. Some only become curious after a medical issue. Many are shocked, confused and overwhelmed to know that they have 50 to 200 half-siblings. Some feel angry that they were not told the truth and that information about their identity is purposely being withheld from them.
Some struggle because they don't have proper parental support after the telling. Offspring need to know that they have a right to be curious, a right to search for, and a right to connect with their genetic relatives and define those relationships for themselves.
And for the parents? It must be hard for them to keep this secret…
It's not their secret to keep. When we become parents we understand that we will expect honesty from our children. But don't we owe our children this same honesty? Especially about something so integral to understanding who we are as human beings. Fifty percent of a person's DNA contributes to their intelligence, physical characteristics, emotional attributes, temperament, medical predispositions, etc.
We know that to create a healthy and happy family, trust and honesty must be at the core.
For parents who haven't yet told their kids, we can only advise doing that ASAP. As with DNA testing, this is not a secret that can (or should) be kept from your child. Donor offspring fare much better when told by their own parents and when given full support afterward.
Is the danger of inadvertent incest just a tabloid scare story?
We hear about random meetings of siblings all the time. Two people met in a park in Australia whose mothers had used the same imported sperm from California Cryobank. Many siblings or their mothers meet at school functions.
We have come across the case of two boys on the same little league team who found out later that they were half-brothers. Two kids met in college and they're half siblings. Kids meet on a Disney Cruise. Two girls I know realised that they were sisters after being in the same bunk in a sleepaway camp.
In another case, a donor's daughter was a camp counselor for her biological half-brother, a kid born from her dad's sperm donation.
Often we hear of half siblings connecting and realizing that they live a couple of blocks from each other. Etc, etc, etc.
No, it’s not just a tabloid scare story.
Wendy Kramer is co-founder, chair and executive director of the Donor Sibling Registry.