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Science Notes: Anonymous Sperm Donor Traced on Internet

Last week, New Scientist magazine published a fascinating article: Anonymous Sperm Donor Traced on Internet.

The upshot of the article is that a 15-year-old boy whose mother had conceived using donor sperm was curious to know who his father was. He sent some cheek cells to an online genealogy DNA-testing service, which gave him information on his Y-chromosome. The Y is passed along from father to son without much change, if any, and so the boy was able to find other users of the service who had the same Y-chromosome. Now, neither one was his father, but they had the same surname. Since his mother had been given the anonymous donor's date of birth, place of birth, and college degree, another online search allowed him to find lists of names who fit those criteria. And only one name shared the surname he had found.

This story has major implications for people in the United States, as the article points out. In the US, most sperm donors are anonymous, and some request to remain so throughout their entire lives. There is a population of men out there who donated sperm as college students, twenty to thirty years ago, and who might suddenly find that the promise of anonymity has been shattered. Quoting from the article, "Many have not told their wives or children and have never considered the implications of having a dozen offspring suddenly wanting to meet them." There is also the distinct possibility that this news might lead to a drop in the number of men willing to donate their sperm.

What fascinates me about this story is that it's another case of different technologies developing at the same time, leading to implications that no one (as far as I know) predicted. It's one thing to predict the Internet. It's another thing to predict DNA testing. But I don't think anyone put them together in science fiction the way this boy did in real life.


I suppose some people might find that a scary prospect.

Have you read The Genius Factory?
I read it and enjoyed it a lot. I remember having heard about the Nobel Prize sperm bank long ago, and thinking it was, um, odd.

Another book I enjoyed is Buying Dad: One Woman's Search for the Perfect Sperm Donor by Harlyn Aizley. I worked with her for a year, and the book is a fascinating look into her decision to conceive a child via sperm donation.
It just occurred to me to ask -- are you related to the author?
Why yes, as a matter of fact! ;) We're second cousins (his grandfather was my grandfather's older brother).

You may find (or you may already have found) that there are two David Plotzes in the writing profession these days. The younger is my first-cousin, who is studying at Columbia but has already won an award for his SF writing (in a high-school-level competition a few years ago) and written a geopolitical column in Columbia's newspaper. He kept a blog while studying in St.Petersburg last semester: <a href="http://www.livejournal.com/users/easebadger/>here.</a> The entry about Prague is particularly well written. Who, me, proud? Nah!
What fascinates me - and I suppose I too am seeing it in terms of narrative fiction - is the conflict of perfectly understandable human desires: the men who, as you point out, donated sperm as something very peripheral to their lives, and the kids who want to know their dad. You can sympathise with both, but you know that both can't get what they want.
The kids find themselves missing something in their lives, but the fathers may not feel any paternal connection whatsoever. The ones who do are probably giving the sperm banks permission to reveal their identities should the kids ask.

It's already led to some interesting conflicts. See the recommendation of The Genius Factory above.
Despite the troubling implications, I can't help but be fascinated by this, as you are.

You know, this almost sounds like an episode of Forensic Files, except the "suspect" isn't a criminal. The young man in question might have a promising future as a detective!
The boy in question undoubtedly is very clever, and might easily become a detective.

What the article left out, which I wanted to know, was the father's reaction. It said the boy made contact, but doesn't say what happened afterwards.
Yeah, I'm curious about that too.

I'm also curious about what motivates people who search for parents who don't want to be found. Assuming you have all the medical data you need already, this must come down to the notion that if dad meets you he'll want to get to know you -- but if dad was open to that possibility, he wouldn't have stayed anonymous. Sharing DNA is not a good basis for a relationship. It seems like the search is bound to end in disappointment, either because you didn't find the person or because you did and he doesn't care.
My guess is that the searchers are looking for a few things.

First of all, they might not necessarily have all the medical data they need. Or if they do, they might not believe it, and they want to verify it.

Secondly, these searchers seem to feel they have a hole in their lives. They're looking for some sort of closure, or revelation, and the fact that they have no idea who their father is makes that a useful tag on which to hang their own hopes and dreams for themselves.

I remember an idea in Neil Gaimain's Sandman series, about how a common daydream that young girls have is that they're really princesses. They were left by their real parents with this other family for safekeeping, and one day their real parents will come to bring them home.

For boys, there's the Oliver Twist idea, that once again you really don't belong with your current family, but that your roots are higher than where you are now.

So it seems to me that the searchers have something of that feeling inside them. It's interesting to note that this desire to know one's genetic father isn't solely found inside the children being raised by single mothers. In The Genius Factory, Plotz notes that some of the children from the Nobel Prize sperm bank felt disconnected from the fathers who raised them, and were delighted to learn that their genetic father was someone else. (Plotz's book is fascinating, and as I said above, I recommend it. There is a social difference between being raised by a single mother and being raised by two parents, one of whom shares your genes and the other who believes that your biological father's genes were better than his own.)
Interesting, and a little scary for donors, as you say. Also interesting because I'd imagine there would be less of an emotional connection to an anonymous donor than to "that guy my mom dated whose name she won't tell me."
It's interesting. Some anonymous donors really do want to connect with their offspring, but others just donated for the money. The ones who care to meet their offspring usually have the option to allow their name to be released to any child who asks the sperm bank after he or she turns 18.

But those donors who don't check off that option...that's the problem. Some of their offspring are going to keep searching for them...and now we know that some will find them.
I wonder whether this will lead to a decrease in donations.

December 2016

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