Sperm donation and privacy in a growing world

-- By JessieChao SECOND DRAFT - 09 Oct 2020

Sperm donation early years

Sperm banks were run mostly by men to help heterosexual couples who could not conceive. Sperm donation was secretive as the infertile man was inadequate. Donors were often chosen by doctors based on printed catalogues of the donor’s physical characteristics. Banks promised anonymity to the donors and protected this confidentiality at all costs meaning donors could lie on their profiles and people would be none the wiser.


Sperm donation with the rise of technology

With internet expansion, prospective parents had donors’ details marketed directly to them instead of merely physical characteristics marketed to the doctors. Since parents chose directly, banks advertised if donors wanted contact with the offspring and academic information. Before the internet, parents received the donor based largely on the doctor’s choice. In short, with increased parent agency through the internet, banks were pushed to provide more donor information.

Donor offspring matured and many contacted the banks to communicate with the donor. The banks reached out to the donor requesting updated medical information; however, if the donor did not respond, he was never told that the offspring wanted to make contact, leaving offspring unaware and confused. Donor confidentiality dissipated as the rise of the internet and DNA testing websites expanded, creating an easy and often unintentional way for donors to be discovered. This technology caused a crisis as many men, often married with kids, who kept their donation secret, became faced with offspring, due to themselves or family members, taking DNA tests such as 23andMe. As a donor-conceived child, I have never reached out to the donor and will never reach out as I sympathize with donors. Donors could not have predicted how technology could unearth these anonymous donations.

Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) allows people to input their donor number and connect with people who also input that number. Some offspring found over 100 half siblings as there was no donation cap. Many DSR families choose to attend family reunions with donor siblings and share photos of donor siblings which can provide the sense of connection that many offspring report is missing. I feel this connection is important as offspring have a shared experience and sense of belonging especially as a child gets older.

Sperm banks as an act of politics

As reproductive technology improved, banks were not as needed because doctors could help couples conceive in other ways. Consequently, banks started heavily advertising to lesbian couples and single women which helped normalize those family structures as there was and still is stigma surrounding parenting in same sex or single mother households. Women were able to take control and there was a huge push for greater donor transparency. Parents soon got the option of purchasing ‘contact’ sperm at a premium as the donor had to reach out to the offspring in some fashion be it anonymous or not. I feel that this was a huge win in order to progress as a society.

The law and sperm donation

In the US there are no laws that limit the amount of inseminations using the same donor, although, some banks have taken it into their own hands. The California Cryobank limits each donor to inseminate 20-25 families. However, problematic still, as many families do not report their live births and one family could have multiple children. Donor offspring could have upwards of 50 siblings. With technology growing and privacy dissipating I wonder what future offspring families will look like. If the market does not change, large offspring relationships will not be surprising and we will have clan like sprawling families. Since parents now know what they are signing up for, I believe that parents should push to limit the number of families which receive a donor’s sperm and these large half-sibling troops should be a thing of the past. I distinctively remember being terrified when I started dating and would somewhat clumsily work in the not-so-typical question asking if my date was donor conceived to make sure we were not related. Ultimately, I think it is essential to be transparent about donations and limit the number of families who receive the sperm to two for the health of offspring and society.

A lawsuit concerning donor 9623, started when his name was leaked to parents who had used his sperm. He claimed an IQ of 160, spoke four languages, and was pursuing a doctorate. As a result, the bank advertised him heavily procuring at least 36 children. In reality, he had never finished college, had a record, was hospitalized as bi-polar with schizo-effective disorder and was suicidal relying on disability. Many of his offspring have similar issues and due to privacy holding supreme parents did not know of these conditions to provide early intervention support for their children and would have likely never known without the rise in technology. It is irresponsible to take what donors tell the banks at face value, if you need a background check and a reference to be a teacher why should you not need one to father 100 children? Offspring deserve a sense of security knowing the true medical history so that they can receive proper treatment.

Anonymity no longer attainable for donors due to technology

Since 2017, California Cryobank compels donors to disclose their names and have contact with offspring at 18 years old due to DNA testing, internet searchability, and facial recognition software. Anonymity is not a promise that banks can keep which is beneficial as offspring will be able to feel a sense of connection, security in knowing their medical background, lower likelihood that donors will lie, decreased chance of accidental incest, and increased mobilization in laws. Banks used to focus only on the parents and donors without considering the feelings of the offspring as it ultimately did not impact the company's bottom line. However, good or bad, this technology has obliterated donor’s privacy, as privacy is hard to protect and, in many cases, purely ambitious.