September 16, 2019

Sperm donors have been promised anonymity for a century. Then came 23andMe.

Daily Briefing

    Sperm banks have long promised donors that they can donate anonymously—but the rise of consumer genetic testing has "forced a reckoning" for the sperm donation industry, Meghana Keshavan reports for STAT News

    Related: What providers need to know about genetic testing

    Why sperm donation has historically been anonymous

    Donor anonymity has been a longstanding practice ever since sperm donation began in the 1800s, largely because of the historical stigma attached to infertility. "The fear, apparently, was psychological—it was believed [that revealing a donor's identity] might cause 'irreparable harm' to the marriage and to the child," Keshavan writes.

    But as fertility treatments improved, attitudes toward infertility started to change. Further, Robin Baird, chief legal counsel at the sperm bank Cryobio, said that "the demographic that uses donor sperm has changed," as the population has become more accepting of different kinds of families.

    Even so, the majority of sperm donations have remained anonymous, and for many donors "the promise of anonymity has carried great weight," Keshavan writes. Most donors are "in college, or in graduate school, when they donated sperm," with no intentions of raising or connecting with their offspring, according to Keshavan.

    The death of anonymity?

    But lately, clinics have found it difficult to ensure anonymity for donors, including past donors. 

    That's because affordable genetic tests from sites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com are making it easier for consumers to reconnect with blood relatives, "including some who never intended to be found," such as sperm donors, Keshavan writes.

    "Nobody could have anticipated 15 years ago that somebody could find out—because one of their cousins took a 23andMe test—that they're the offspring of some sperm donor in, say, Seattle," said Peter McGovern, a professor of reproductive endocrinology and infertility at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.

    Last year, for instance, Danielle Teuscher, a mother from Portland, signed her family up for 23andMe. She was curious about the genetic background of her six-year-old daughter Zoe, who'd been conceived using gametes purchased from Northwest Cryobank.

    The results identified the mother of the sperm donor she used to conceive Zoe. But when Teuscher reached out to the woman, she received "a curt response," Keshavan writes. Two weeks later, Teuscher received a cease-and-desist letter from the sperm bank that included a potential $20,000 fee.

    The letter said Teuscher was in "flagrant violation" of her contract with the bank, which denied her the ability to directly search for or contact the donor. The bank then revoked Teuscher's access to four additional vials of the donor's sperm, which she'd already purchased.

    What the end of anonymity means for the sperm donation industry

    In the face of consumer genetic testing, many clinics for the first time are revising their policies to inform donors that their "anonymous" donations will never truly be anonymous.

    In fact, some clinics have implemented "open ID" donations that inform donors that their children could connect with them when they turn 18 or sooner if both parties consent. One study found that between 2006 and 2015, the number of sperm donor programs with an open ID program jumped from about 33% to more than 50%.

    Joanna Scheib, a professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, said the number will likely continue to grow. "There's been a slow realization among sperm banks that this generation of children is very tech-savvy: If they want to know who their donor is, they'll find out," she said. "You have to have your head in the sand if you don't think information is becoming more and more available."

    Some experts worry that, when donors can no longer be credibly promised anonymity, donations may decline significantly. "There's no doubt that it's easier to recruit a potential sperm donor if you tell him he can be anonymous," said Fredrik Andreasson, a top executive at Seattle Sperm Bank.

    In fact, research has shown that countries where anonymous donations are no longer illegal often have a shortage supply of willing donors. But some people argue that it's time for the promise of anonymity to end.

    "It's not like they're creating widgets in a factory … this is an industry creating human beings, so you'd think there would be more accountability and ethics," said Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, who conceived her son Ryan using donor sperm. "The lack of regulation and the lack of oversight has had real ramifications" (Keshavan, STAT News, 9/11).

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