Can Donors Be Anonymous?

Short answer: no. 

Regardless of the contract or paperwork a donor signs, no sperm bank, egg bank, or donation agency can guarantee lifelong anonymity to egg or sperm donors. While it might be true that the clinic or bank itself will never release a donor’s identity if not required to do so by law, it is simply unrealistic to believe any donor can remain anonymous and unidentifiable.

That’s mainly because eggs and sperm contain DNA, which is like a unique fingerprint that can be used to identify an individual and confirm their genetic relationship to someone else. In recent years at-home commercial DNA tests have exploded in popularity. In 2019, more than 26 million people had used such tests. 

Many people conceived via egg or sperm donors are not aware of their conception story and accidentally discover this information via DNA testing. Others are using the new technology to solve the mystery of their genetic identity and locate family members. Even with a distant family match, it is possible to use DNA test results and publicly available information (including social media) to construct family trees that identify formerly “anonymous” donors and other genetic family members, including half siblings from the same sperm or egg donor. In a 2020 survey by We Are Donor Conceived, 78 percent of respondents reported they had successfully identified—via DNA testing—the donor used in their conception, and 70 percent had located at least one donor sibling.

The assisted reproduction industry began to recognize this new reality more than a decade ago. As reported in The New York Times Magazine, “[b]y 2010, experts in reproductive technology were starting to note that internet searchability, facial-recognition software and the future of DNA testing would soon render anonymity a promise that the sperm banks could no longer keep.”

Given this development, many major sperm banks such as Xytex, Fairfax Cryobank, Seattle Sperm Bank, and The Sperm Bank of California no longer accept gametes from fully “anonymous” donors, though some of these banks may still have gametes from “anonymous” donors in storage.

What this means for sperm and egg donors

It is no longer possible to provide biological material containing DNA and expect to remain anonymous. In fact, gamete donors should expect to be identified and contacted at some point in their lives.

This contact might come from a representative of a gamete bank when a donor conceived person reaches adulthood, or much earlier, either from the donor conceived person or their legal parent(s). The motivations for attempting contact include seeking updated medical information to help diagnose a genetic condition, or personal information about the donor to gain a complete understanding of one’s identity. Research by We Are Donor Conceived shows that the vast majority of donor conceived people want to know the identity of their genetic parent and would ideally like to form a relationship with the person who provided half of their DNA. The desired nature of this relationship varies from person to person, with the largest cohort seeking a close friendship. 

It is time for all donors–even those of the past—to realize anonymity is no longer possible. 

They Found Me. Now What?

If you are found and identified by an individual created from your donation, take a moment to reflect on what they might be feeling. Many donor conceived people were never told the truth about their origins, so their lives could have been upended by the discovery. Feelings of betrayal, confusion, and a lost sense of identity are common responses for adults who find out they were donor conceived. Many report looking in the mirror and no longer recognizing themselves because they do not know anything about the other half of their DNA. This response can be similar to those who find out later in life that they were adopted.

Many donor conceived people do not know the truth about their origins.

Prior to the growth of third-party reproduction in the LGBTQIA+ community, most donor conceived people were born to infertile heterosexual couples who were advised to never tell their child(ren) the truth of their origins. And even today, there are heterosexual couples who choose not to tell despite the research showing that telling the truth from an early age is important. Because an unknown number of people exist who do not know that they are donor conceived, past and future donors should keep this in mind if they match with offspring on a commercial DNA testing site.

Do not blame the donor conceived person for finding you or for the perceived impacts on your life. Remember that the people who resulted from your donation(s) were never parties to any contracts promising anonymity or privacy.

Knowing the identity of the donor matters to many donor conceived people.

Many donor conceived people believe that knowing the identity of their genetic father/mother is important to better understand themselves and their place in the world. Perhaps they have physical features, personality traits, and interests that were not reflected in the family that raised them. Some donor conceived people report feeling like outsiders within their family, and meeting their other genetic parent and extended genetic family can help them understand why.

Additionally, for donor conceived people whose parents used a donor of a different race or ethnoreligious background, there can be deep curiosity and need for connection to this other portion of their identity, which may not be reflected by the parents who raised them. 

Donor conceived people might also need the information for their mental and physical wellbeing. Medical history changes, and access to this information can be vital. Plus for some donor conceived people, the inability to identify the donor can lead to mental health struggles. 

This does not mean you are responsible for “fixing” the possible mental health struggles of your donor conceived offspring. It means that you can help alleviate the unknowns your donor conceived offspring experience by simply making yourself available to be known by them.

Donor conceived people want information, not your money.

When a donor conceived person reaches out to newly identified genetic family, they are sometimes received with an immediate response of skepticism and defensiveness. People wonder what the donor conceived person wants, and often the answer that comes to mind is money. But in reality, in almost all circumstances, a donor conceived person is reaching out to gather information on relevant family medical history, information about their ancestors, or in an attempt to identify their genetic parent.

Donor conceived people are interested in genealogy.

Genealogy is a popular hobby among people who know the names and identities of their extended family members. Due to the nature of their conception, many donor conceived people are missing this information and are motivated to fill in the blanks.

DNA testing and genetic genealogy can provide some answers, but many donor conceived people want to learn more, including hearing family stories and seeing photographs. Donor conceived people are no different than other members of society in that they have genuine, valid curiosity about their ancestry.

Forming a relationship with your donor conceived child could result in a mutually beneficial experience.

A donor conceived person is a part of your DNA. That means they very likely resemble features that you have, whether physically or personality wise. There is a possibility that connecting with your donor conceived offspring could end up being a very fulfilling and wonderful experience.  

Within the donor conceived community, there are many positive stories of wonderful friendships and relationships formed between donor conceived children and their genetic donor family. Don’t allow fear or uncertainty to get in the way of something that could enhance your life in a way you never knew possible.

Top photo by Ian Keefe on Unsplash