Secrets are Like Land Mines

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture

By Jennifer Lahl and Matthew Eppinette

As we approach the Father’s Day holiday, we can’t help but think of those who do not know their fathers. Some don’t know their fathers because they are adopted, because their fathers walked away, or because their fathers have died. But others do not know their fathers because their families have been intentionally structured so that they cannot know him—they were conceived through anonymous sperm donation.

It’s easy to think of sperm donation as nothing more than a way to help infertile couples have a baby. It can be difficult for those of us who were not conceived this way to understand what it’s like, and how Father’s Day is a time of mixed emotions.

Hundreds of thousands of donor-conceived people have been born, all around the world, in the two hundred plus years that sperm donor conception has been going on. Only recently have the ethics and the effects of donor conception begun receiving close scrutiny. Often the questions are being raised by those who know they were donor conceived.

What is it like to grow up not knowing who your biological father is or if you have any half-siblings? What is it like to find out that the man you thought was your dad is not your biological father, that your biological father donated his sperm and is known only by a number? What do donor conceived people think about their conception stories, the money aspect of buying and selling sperm in order to conceive them? And how have the anonymity and secrecy involved in donor conception affected them?

These are the questions that spark the conversation in our film Anonymous Father’s Day.

In the film, we state that it is difficult to know just how prevalent the practice of sperm donation is. In fact, the latest research shows that it is simply impossible to know how many children are born from sperm donation each year. The number most often cited is 30,000 per year, but that number is based on an estimate from 1988. There is do doubt that the practice has increased since 1988, but there is almost no tracking or monitoring of donors or of the children conceived through sperm donation. We cannot not know the true number.

In addition, sperm donation is a global enterprise. Sperm from a man in California is used to fertilize an egg from a woman who lives in Eastern Europe. The resulting embryo is transferred into the womb of a woman in India. A couple travels from their home in London to India for a vacation so that they can be nearby when “their” baby is born.

This convoluted scenario is now commonplace. Sadly.

Many donor-conceived children are never told their conception story and are not able to be a part of the growing conversation about the practice, ethics, and impact of donor conception. Those who do know speak of
“genealogical bewilderment,” attempting to describe the feelings that come from having little or no information about their donor parent. They have a deep longing to know where they come from, who they look like, who they belong to. It is a longing to know the missing other half of them.

Unfortunately, when it comes to infertility, family building, and reproductive technologies, the focus is often on those wanting to have a child rather than on the child they want to have. Reproductive technology has advanced without enough serious reflection on the health and the well being of the children created. These children wonder if anyone considered them, their needs, their desires.

The conversation around donor conception is growing. Many donor-conceived people maintain their own active social network communities through blogs and facebook groups. Studies such as My Daddy’s Name is Donor and work being done with the Donor Sibling Registry, are gathering and examining the experiences of large groups of donor-conceived people.

Donor-conceived people scour the internet and school yearbooks and cold call fertility doctors and clinics looking for any information or details on their beginnings, their family tree, and medical history. Many use DNA testing as part of the search for their unknown parent.

While their stories and family situations may be different, the issues surrounding donor conception in the lives of those created this way are often similar. Many talk about secrets and mystery, about feelings of loss and abandonment, and about wanting to know their biological fathers and that whole side of his—of their—family.

Barry Stevens, one of the donor-conceived people interviewed in Anonymous Father’s Day, captures it well when he says, “Secrets are like land mines, you know. They can go off at any time, but until they go off you’re sort of treading around them.”

Donor conception impacts not only the donor conceived person, but his or her entire family, and ultimately, all of us. This Father’s Day let us consider those who have been intentionally separated from the man who gave them life.

 
Jennifer Lahl is the executive producer, director, and co-writer of Anonymous Father’s Day and two other films, and is the founder and president of The Center for Bioethics and Culture.

Matthew Eppinette is the associate producer and co-writer of Anonymous Father’s Day and new media manager at The Center for Bioethics and Culture.

 

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