Family Matters

Donor-Conceived Children: As Adults, They Don’t Stop Wondering Who They Are

Donor conception is certainly more popular these days, but its origins can be traced to the 1400s.

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In this week’s edition of TIME Magazine, Jay Newton-Small explores why America has become the largest exporter of sperm. Each year, thousands of vials wing their way across oceans to more than 60 countries.

The reason? Besides U.S. insistence on testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, America — in contrast to other countries — still largely allows anonymous donations. In the U.K., for example, the number of sperm donors dropped sharply after anonymous donation was banned. Last summer, I wrote about Washington state, which became the first in the nation to pass a law that guarantees children conceived using sperm — or eggs — from Washington banks access to their donor’s medical histories and full names. Unless the donor opts out, that is.

(MORE: Where Do (Some) Babies Come From? In Washington, a New Law Bans Anonymous Sperm and Egg Donors)

Mothers I spoke to for that article were excited about the prospect of their young children learning as teens about their biological fathers. Perhaps it would answer questions for them about their own personalities — why they hate chocolate or love reading mystery novels. Jennifer McCarty, a Seattle mom of a donor-conceived 3-year-old daughter and an adopted 4-year-old son, told me at the time: “It’s a good step in the right direction,” she says. “As a parent, I want to be able to provide a way for them to find out who they are and dig into their origins.”

Then, last week, the Seattle Times ran a front-page story that served as a reminder that the concept of donor-conceived kids — which seems so very 21st century — is actually not a new phenomenon at all. The article detailed the quest of Vicki Reilly, 68, who believes she was conceived in 1942 using sperm from her mother’s physician. She’s spent 10 years trying to confirm that. In the process, she’s ended up frustrated that society at large seems to think donor-conceived children are all young. “It ticks me off that people always talk about the kids,” she told the Seattle Times:

In recent years, she’s read countless reports on how the baby-making industry is booming. She’s seen stories of donor-conceived teens and 20-somethings finding half-siblings online.

What no one seems to talk about is people like her. People in their 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond, who were also donor-conceived, but who were born at a time when families didn’t talk about such things. Back then, couples just quietly made appointments with “special doctors,” and never breathed a word of it to anyone — including their children.

“There’s a whole bunch of us out there,” Reilly said, “and a lot of people searching.”

(MORE: Frozen Assets: Why American Sperm Is a Hot Commodity)

The article talks about the history of donor conception, which was spottily documented as far back as the 1400s. In the piece, writer Maureen O’Hagan, notes:

The first known recorded case was in 1884, when a doctor at a Philadelphia medical school inseminated a woman, under anesthesia, using sperm from his “best looking” student.

It took 25 years before the story was reported in a medical journal.

“At that time the procedure was so novel, so peculiar in its human ethics, that the six young men … who witnest [sic] the operation were pledged to absolute secrecy,” the report says.

Then, as is still true in many cases these days, people just aren’t comfortable acknowledging their struggles with infertility.