If you are reading this, let’s start by acknowledging that using donor sperm probably wasn’t in your original plans. Babies have been conceived with donor sperm since 1884; until recently, however, most people using donor sperm were encouraged not to talk about it with their children or communities. In fact, we even lack good estimates of how many children are conceived each year using donor sperm. Over the last few decades we have come to understand the use of donor sperm for what it is – one of many options for building a family.
Who needs donor sperm to achieve a pregnancy?
Men who use sperm donors do so for two main reasons. One is that either they or their partners do not have sufficient sperm available with which to fertilize an egg, either because of the number of sperm they produce or because of the quality of their sperm. With advances in assisted reproductive technology (ART), it has become increasingly possible for men to use their own sperm for conception. However, some men are azoospermic, meaning that they do not produce any sperm. In that case, donor sperm is needed. Transgender men also do not produce sperm. If their partners also do not currently produce sperm or have their own sperm available, a sperm donor is needed to achieve a pregnancy. At times, men may also use donor sperm if it is discovered that their sperm carry a hereditary genetic mutation that would interfere with creating a viable pregnancy or a healthy child.
Where to get a sperm donor?
Some individuals or couples use donor sperm that come from a known donor – that is, a person with whom you have a relationship of some kind that began outside the context of donation. However, most donor sperm come from sperm banks. All sperm donors need to be screened medically, but sperm banks around the world vary a good deal in terms of what kind of information they provide to recipients about the donors and what kind of mental health screening the donors undergo. Practice in the US is guided by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine; their guidelines recommend that all sperm donors be screened by a qualified mental health professional with both an interview and a personality assessment measure (a paper and pencil self-report tool that is used to better understand a person’s personality), so that any mental health conditions that might impact children produced with their sperm can be identified before donation.
Open or closed identity
Sperm banks also vary widely on whether they allow their donors to be “closed identity” (that is, not agreeing to have any identifying information about themselves released) or whether their donors must agree to have identifying information about themselves released to any children that may result from their donation when the children turn 18. In many European countries, willingness to be an “open-identity” donor is a requirement for donation. In the US, many sperm banks do not have this requirement, or offer donors the option of either having their information released or remaining deidentified. It is important to note, however, that with advances in direct-to-consumer genetic testing, like Ancestry.com or 23 and Me, people are more able than ever before to learn about their genetic origins on their own. Understanding what kind of information you want both you and your future children to have about the sperm donor you use is important in choosing a sperm bank.
The donor’s characteristics
Many men are interested in choosing a sperm donor who seem to be as much like them as possible. They may look for donors who share not just their hair and eye color, but their hobbies, interests, and personalities. This is understandable; for men who are coming to terms with the idea that their children will not share a genetic connection with them, the idea of choosing a donor who is similar to them can feel like the next best thing. It is important to understand, however, that factors like personality, hobbies, interests, and sense of humor are influenced by a combination of genetics and environment. A child growing up in your family can share your taste in food, sports, or movies without sharing your genes. Another child can share your genes and seem to be very different from you.
Children conceived with donor sperm
For children conceived via sperm donation, the news is good. Research shows no difference in health outcomes, social, educational, behavioral, or emotional adjustment for children conceived with donor sperm compared to their non-donor-conceived peers. There are also no significant differences in the quality of the parent-child relationship; a child raised in a loving home by parents who wanted to be parents tends to do equally as well regardless of who provided their genetic material.
Telling the child about the conception
For children who are told about the use of a donor in their conception, several factors tend to influence how well they react. The first is the age when they find out about the fact that they were conceived with the assistance of a donor.
Children who are first told about their origins at a younger age and whose conception and birth story are made a natural part of family conversation tend to react very matter of factly. In contrast, children who find out when they are adolescents or adults that they were conceived using donor sperm tend to have a much harder time with the news, suggesting that it is the secrecy rather than the way in which they were conceived that is upsetting to them. The other factor that seems to influence children’s reaction to their conception story is the level of distress of the adult talking with them about it. Children who think that their parents are upset about the fact that they were conceived using donor sperm are more likely to be upset themselves.
There are many factors to consider in deciding whether, when, and how to talk with children about sperm donation. Your cultural and religious background, your family’s attitudes towards fertility and assisted reproduction, and your beliefs about a child’s right to know about their origins may all play into your thought process about disclosure. There are mental health professionals who are trained in talking with parents about these issues and helping them decide how to discuss donor conception with their children. If you are interested in thinking through these issues with a person who has specialized training in this area, you can search for a provider in your area at: Here if you live in the United States or here if you live in UK.