The false hope of open donors

What does open really mean?

"Open-identity," "non-anonymous," "ID release," "willing-to-be-known." The names vary, but the idea is much the same: when a child conceived through sperm or egg donation reaches a certain age, they get to find out about the donor and maybe make contact. Or do they? 

Twelve years ago, when Jan Wren picked out the sperm and egg donors who would eventually create her child, she made a decision: she would only opt for "open" donors. These were people who had agreed that at some point they'd be known to her child. "I felt my child would want to know who the donors were," says Wren (not her real name), "and that it was important that she would be able to contact them should she wish to in the future." 

The sperm bank said it would facilitate one contact between the child and the donor sometime after the child turned 18. For this, Wren paid a premium of about a hundred dollars. "I'm not sure it was explicitly written," says Wren, "but I assumed my child would learn who the donor was." Recently, however, she noticed that a new category —"ID disclosure" — had been added to the sperm bank website. It promises the donor's identity but no contact; "open" now specifically excludes finding out who the donor is. "Most people want to know who it is," she says. In her opinion, the name, date of birth and last contact details are what you need.

As for the egg donor, who was classified as willing-to-be-known, Wren got the chance to meet her in person on the day of egg retrieval. "I assumed we could talk freely. I didn't realize the egg agency would control the meeting," says Wren. "As I went into it, they said, 'You are not allowed to exchange any contact details.'"

At first, she was comforted by what was written in the contract: that the egg donor would be made available to the child sometime in the future. A few years ago, however, Wren realized that the agency hadn't specified how that would happen. Early on, the agency had refused to clarify a specific detail about the donor when Wren had asked, and later they'd denied Wren's request for a piece of medical information. But it was only after she insisted on knowing what the process of becoming "known" would look like that the agency went completely silent. Wren tried phoning, emailing and sending actual physical letters. "They just didn't reply to any of it," she says. And she has heard not a peep from them since. 

Wendy Kramer, founder of the  Donor Sibling Registry (DSR), an organization that connects offspring through donor numbers, says she started hearing stories a few years ago about kids who had reached age 18 and requested contact with their donor, but hadn't heard back. "It's heartbreaking," she says. 

Kramer discovered that, instead of telling donors outright that there was an 18-year-old who wished to have contact, some banks had decided to send generic letters in the mail, asking donors to update their contact information. Men who didn't have anything to update just threw the letters away, she says, unaware that there was an actual person hoping to get in touch.

California Cryobank, which started its open donor program in 2004, says it intends to send out certified letters to donors when the first offspring reach age 18 and start making requests in a few years. "The idea of offspring contact can be jarring to a donor who hasn't thought about it in many years," says Marlo Jacob, marketing coordinator for the bank. "In our experience, the update is a good way to begin the process."

Kramer says the open donor concept leads to false hope. "All of these people go into it thinking — and telling their children — 'When you're 18, you'll get to meet your donor,'" says Kramer. "These kids are growing up waiting for the day they turn 18, so they can meet their biological father." But that doesn't always happen. 

Caught in the act

Tim Gullicksen was a sperm donor in the 1990s. He can't recall what type of donor he was — his sperm bank tells him he was "anonymous" — but he does remember that he always let them know whenever his contact details changed. Twice after he was retired as a donor, the bank was able to reach him without any trouble, to ask him to donate again, which he did. "They sent me letters in the mail and called me on the phone — many times," he says. 

But after Gullicksen started hearing stories about donor offspring not being able to reach their donors, he was curious: if an offspring came looking for him, would the sperm bank let him know? About three years ago, he decided to find out. 

As it happens, by that time Gullicksen was already in touch with ten offspring through the Donor Sibling Registry. He had met some of them in person. The oldest, then 20, agreed to request contact through the sperm bank. 

The offspring called the bank, verified his identity and made his request. The bank told the young man that the donor was anonymous, so probably wouldn't agree to contact, but that they would reach out to him. Gullicksen knew they had his current cell phone number, email address and home mailing address. Those had not changed for over a decade, and the bank had been in contact during that time. 

Gullicksen did not hear from the bank. 

"They got back in touch with my son and said, 'I'm so sorry. None of the info that we have is working. We've emailed him, we've called him, we've tried everything,'" says Gullicksen.

He was so furious that he called the bank up and confronted them. They lectured him about wasting their time on his experiment. 

Kramer says she hears about problems at all the major sperm banks. Sometimes they sell a donor as open, but the donor subsequently changes his mind. Sometimes a donor signs on as open, but the bank insists he's anonymous. Sometimes anonymous donors ask to switch to open, but are told they can't. Sometimes banks just don't bother to reply to requests for contact. (For actual postings to the DSR on these issues, see links below.) 

Because there is no oversight or regulation, says Kramer, sperm banks are not held accountable. They can say what they want, she says: "What they claim on their website, what they claim on the phone, what they claim through their marketing materials is very different from the reality that families are facing."

It doesn't help, she says, that the concept of an open donor is so inconsistent, and means different things at different banks.

For Kramer, however, that issue is almost beside the point. She believes that there should be access from birth. "Why are they forcing 18 years of anonymity?" she asks. They try to make it seem like they have the interests of the children in mind, she says, but 18 years is a very long time. And there's nothing magic about 18. "There's no research to back that up."

People who want to be sure they know their donor are increasingly making their selection after checking the DSR, says Kramer. "They see if the donor has posted there," she says. That way people are connected right from pregnancy and birth, she says. "Because — why not?"

Postings on the DSR

Postings about Pacific Reproductive Services (PRS) [pdf]

Postings about Fairfax [pdf]

Postings about California Cryobank [pdf]

Postings about New England Cryogenic Center (NECC) [pdf]

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