What do donor-conceived people owe half-siblings and others in their new families?
Donor-conceived people did not choose their origin, but they are burdened with its complexities. Where do they draw the lines when it comes to loyalty?
6 minute read
Jason Tarshis realized at age 49, six months after doing genetic testing, that he was donor conceived. He learned of a paternal family he had had no inkling about. He found photos of the donor's grandkids, who resembled his own kids, and of the donor himself, whose ears, he discovered, looked exactly like his.
Knowing all about these people and looking at those photos made him feel strange. "It was like being in a soundproof glass room, where you only have one-way glass — I can see out, but they can't see in," says Tarshis. "I know everything about these people, and they know nothing about me. I don't even exist to them. It was the most lonely feeling you can imagine."
A month later, he picked up the phone, dialled the only number he could find for the man, and found himself talking with his biological father. They spoke about the man's donation history, the clinic he'd used, who the doctors had been, and about his life. The donor and his wife were compassionate and kind, says Tarshis. "Everyone in my situation should be so lucky." They made plans to meet.
It was after making contact with his biological father but before actually meeting him in person that Tarshis was contacted by someone who matched as a genetic first cousin. The cousin knew she had been donor conceived, and had spent more than a decade searching for her biological father, with no luck.
The woman wondered if they might be half-siblings, but Tarshis privately suspected that she was the offspring of his biological father's brother, who had also donated. Tarshis wasn't sure if the brother had ever told anyone, however. So he revealed nothing about having located his own biological father — even as the cousins ate dinner together, even as she showed him years of paperwork from her search.
"I couldn't tell her, because I thought if I tell her, and then I tell these people, then maybe they'll just slam the door shut," he says. "They'll never meet me. They'll think there's this barrage of people coming." He decided to wait until after he met the family a few months later. "They'll meet me. They'll see I'm not a total nut job. And then I'll tell them."
But COVID arrived, and his meeting with his biological father was postponed.
The donor had sent him three books containing the family history — biographies, photos, family trees, baptismal certificates, educational histories, travel stories and mentions of ailments. The books had been compiled by the brother. Still Tarshis stayed quiet. "I felt horrible about it," he says.
In August 2021, he finally met his biological father and his wife in person. On their second day together, he told them about the cousin. A year and a half had elapsed since he'd found out about her. The donor and his wife were quiet, he recalls, and suggested that "in time" the brother would come around.
But the stress was getting to Tarshis. Half a year later, he told his biological family he was having trouble keeping the truth from his cousin. They understood, and told him to tell her. "I was in tears," he says.
His cousin was not angry — she understood. "His waiting to tell me really wasn’t an issue," she says. "It would have been terrible if he had rushed things and then the donors hadn’t wanted anything to do with us."
Donor conceived people find themselves in this sort of conundrum all the time, says Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, an online community of people connected through gamete donation. "It's trying to figure out that very fine line between secrecy and privacy," she says.
Her own family knows the strain well. When her son, Ryan, tracked down and met his biological father, the man asked Ryan to keep his identity secret from the other donor offspring. At the time, Ryan was in close contact with several of them.
She and Ryan honoured the request. But as each half-sibling came forward — there are now 25 of them — they told them that, although they could not provide the donor's full name, because he wanted to remain private, they would share everything else that they could, including photos, medical history, and family information. "What gives us the right over anybody else who's a biological child of him?" says Wendy.
Still, Ryan got to meet the donor and even know the man's parents as grandparents, while for the others he remained a construct. It was stressful. Eventually, after many years, the donor had a change of heart. He is now willing to be fully known to all the people he helped create.
Ryan's sibling group has faced other challenges, too. Early on, Wendy and Ryan made contact with the mother of two of Ryan's half-siblings. Although the woman was happy to communicate, she was unwilling to tell her daughters they were conceived using a donor. These two siblings are now adult women in their late twenties, and as far as anyone knows, they still haven't been told.
Should the donor siblings reach out and tell them what they feel they have a right to know? Or is this not their information to share? Will the women feel betrayed if they eventually learn the truth? Why are the donor siblings holding the mother's secret at the expense of the offspring?
When Jan Wren's 10-year-old daughter wanted to know more about her biological father, she and her mother decided to go looking. But others who'd used the same donor didn't want them to. They felt everyone should follow the sperm bank rules and wait till age 18.
"I got an angry email, basically saying, 'How dare you do this?' and 'You could ruin it for the rest of us,'" says Wren (not her real name).
It's a common worry that one donor sibling will break ranks and try to make contact, screwing it up for everybody else, she says. Many think it should be everybody or nobody. "I have some sympathy for that."
But if the donor was not interested in contact, Wren wanted to know sooner rather than later. "Then we're not building up hopes for the next eight years — hopes and expectations that hit just at the time they're leaving home," she says. "I felt I could manage disappointment better with a 10-year-old than I could with a college-aged kid about to disappear."
It didn't take that long, through genetic testing, to identify him. Shortly after, they got in touch. The other parents had implored Wren not to tell the donor anything about their children, not even their ages, so she didn't. But she did let the other parents know that he seemed nice and was willing to communicate.
Soon, a group email arrived. "I got a very terse email, saying, 'We, the mothers of the other donor siblings, now wish to know all the information that you have on the donor. It's our right to have that information since you've got it.' Which was kind of rude, really." But Wren shared it.
Still, a rift remained. One of the other mothers restricted Wren's access on the shared Facebook group. Another cut off communication between their two daughters, who were just one year apart in age. The girls had met in person at age three, and they'd been communicating fairly regularly by email. But now the other mother was worried that Wren's daughter would spill the beans, and she didn't feel she could take that risk.
"Which was a shame," Wren's daughter told me, in a small sad voice.
Search or don't search, tell or don't tell, share or don't share, hold others' secrets or refuse to hold them... donor conception is complicated.
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