How to respond to someone else's quest to find their sperm donor?
September 16, 2013 8:38 PM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend. In a nutshell: My friend has been contacted by at least two different people seeking to identify their biological father, a sperm donor. My friend has enough information to make an educated guess about the identity of the sperm donor. How should he proceed?

My friend has a hobby researching his family tree. He has posted a lot of information about his family tree online. He has also done genetic testing and joined online communities where people who are genetically related can find each other.

In recent weeks, my friend has been contacted separately by two different adults (hereinafter "the inquirers") who are distantly genetically related to him. Both of these people say they were conceived using donor sperm in the 1960s and are trying to find the donor. They have mentioned the details they know about the donor: that he was a doctor at a specific hospital at the time of their conception. (For the purpose of answering this question, let's assume that the inquirers already know about the Donor Sibling Registry.)

With these biographical details plus some basic genetic information (the "line" of genetic inheritance through which he is related to the inquirers), my friend was able to identify a very likely candidate for the sperm donor. However, he has not told the donor siblings about his conclusion yet, and is wondering what he should do next.

The probable sperm donor is still alive, well into his 70s. My friend has no personal acquaintance with the guy, a very distant cousin of one of his parents. He knows of the guy's biographical details through public records. (As a genealogy buff, he often spends his weekends tracking down details about the far branches of his family tree.) The probable sperm donor's name and birthdate are published on the web along with the rest of my friend's family tree data, but the guy's connection with the hospital where the inquirers were conceived is not part of the published family tree.

On the one hand, the information my friend has is all a matter of public record, so he wouldn't be revealing any secrets if he gave it to the inquirers, just saving them some legwork. He does not know for certain that the guy in question is the sperm donor, but he wouldn't be claiming any certainty, just handing over the information he has; it would be the inquirers' ethical responsibility to decide what to do with that information.

On the other hand, he doesn't know whether the probable sperm donor would be OK with being found by his donor offspring, or whether this would be an unwelcome intrusion in the man's life.

Possible responses we have thought of:
  • Friend does not engage with the situation at all. He does not respond to the inquirers, or sends them a polite non-answer.
  • Friend tells the inquirers that there is a man in his (published) family tree who worked at the hospital in question, but doesn't tell them who. It is then the inquirers' responsibility to do the same public records research he has done in order to narrow down the guy's identity. This seems like a bad option, though, because a) it would have an air of "nyah nyah, I know but I'm not telling"; b) it would require the inquirers to re-do a lot of work he has already done; and c) it might result in the inquirers skipping the research and contacting every male in his family tree of approximately the right age, perhaps causing some consternation.
  • Friend contacts the probable sperm donor and says something to the effect of, "some people who might be your donor children have gotten in touch with me; if you want to contact them, let me know and I'll forward their names and contact info." This option would give the probable donor an opportunity to decline contact with the inquirers, but it would put my friend in the middle of the situation in a mediating role for which he has no particular qualification.
  • Friend hands over the information he has to the inquirers and leaves it up to them whether to contact the probable donor.
What is the best way for my friend to proceed?
posted by Orinda to Human Relations (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Personally, I'd reply, "As a matter of privacy, I cannot in good conscience assist you."

As far as you know, the donor hasn't looked for the children born of his donations. He knew that he was donating sperm for people to have babies with that he would never know about, and he was okay with it. Let him be. If this is all information that other people can find, then let them find it.
posted by Etrigan at 8:45 PM on September 16, 2013 [6 favorites]


First of all... in genealogy, if someone is living, it's customary to publish their name as Living Smith or Living Jones, unless you have their permission to do otherwise. Even if you obtain their information from public records, there were no computers and no internet at the time when it was decided which records should be public and which shouldn't be.

I think, if your friend has already been contacted by two people, there are probably many more who haven't contacted him, and I would be surprised if none of them had Googled each and every male of the right age in his family tree, as you say, along with the name of the hospital. In other words I think the potential donor probably has already gotten calls himself, or will soon. So, if I were your friend, I'd email him and tell him - but I wouldn't assume that he is definitely the donor, because after all, you don't know that for a fact.
posted by cairdeas at 9:08 PM on September 16, 2013


Friend contacts the probable sperm donor... This option would give the probable donor an opportunity to decline contact with the inquirers, but it would put my friend in the middle of the situation in a mediating role for which he has no particular qualification.

Either don't out the guy at all, or give him the option. You don't know what effect outing him would have on his life, what sorts of family disagreements you might set off just giving out this info.

If you decide to ask him, be prepared to spend some tiime explaining your family tree research and maybe even genetic testing. Unless he's already discussed sperm donation among your relatives, I'd give him an out by saying you don't know if he's ever done any sperm donation, but you've been contacted by people researching their own family history who claimed etc, etc.

You might find out a bit more about his general health, if he's dependent on a child or spouse for care, and the caregiver doesn't know about, or knows about and doesn't want to have contact with these people, giving out this information could make a difficult situation (caregiving) much harder for everyone involved, possibly with tragic results.

I don't understand what these particular qualifications are that you would need to have to email someone contact info.

Another thing to keep in mind is that knowledge about his identity might be shared with other donor children.

It's possible that he might welcome contact -- but it's also possible that the inquirers want to find out more about him, but wouldn't be interested in contact. There have also been many cases of people eagerly seeking contact who later wished they had not. If you choose to ask him, avoid getting his hopes up about things you don't know these people are offering.
posted by yohko at 9:25 PM on September 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's not your friends job to speculate on possible donors and share that information with others. Your friend has no way of knowing the intentions of the inquirers or the desire of the donor to meet those children.

Respond to the inquirers by saying that their request is outside of the scope of research. If they want to do the digging, then so be it.

Sometimes staying out of the fray is really the best choice. The man is in his 70's and donated sperm when few people did. Let the man be.
posted by 26.2 at 9:28 PM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


I found it interesting to read up on what a few professional bioethicists, etc., have to say about the origins of anonymity in this domain, who is most harmed by it, and what they think the policy direction should be. Donor-Conceived Individuals’ Right to Know is a practical summary of how some of these issues stand in the US. Third Party Assisted Conception Across Cultures is a book that discusses how policies on this have developed around the world--the chapter on New Zealand and the section on Victoria, Australia, were especially surprising to me.

I'm not suggesting that there's a guide to action there, though. What I'd probably do is just satisfy my own conscience. In my case, that might mean telling the inquirers I don't know who their biological father is, but I'd be willing to share their contact info with select family members if they'd allow it. Then, I might would do just that without drawing any conclusions. So the main thing I'd leave out of the picture is stuff that's just suspicion.

Incidentally, I wouldn't worry about the scenario where a lot of family members get pinged by the inquirers. A woman once called me and asked straight up, "Are you my father?" After confirming her age made my involvement impossible, I wished her the best of luck and meant it. So pointing at the family tree and saying, well, there could be some candidates there probably doesn't hurt the folks who aren't the father, and your friend doesn't really know who is, so why not?
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:43 PM on September 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


C. Contact the sperm donor.

If the sperm donor is okay with it, then it's not an issue.

If you were looking for your biological father, and you knew that someone was withholding information from you, only because they were assuming a desire for privacy on the part of the sperm donor, without actually having asked the sperm donor -- wouldn't that be such a shame?
posted by suedehead at 11:05 PM on September 16, 2013 [4 favorites]


Worries about making the searchers duplicating your research or "doing their own legwork" are immaterial: that is an extremely minor side issue that should have no impact on the REAL question.

If the older gentleman in question is in poor mental or physical health, drop the whole thing --- do not pass information either way, either to the donor siblings OR to the possible-donor: tell the siblings you're sorry but you can't help, then back off.

If the gentleman is in good health AND (as yohko says) you definately know that this won't make problems with any caretakers, then send him the siblings' contact information with the explanation of how they contacted you; don't just send him a message about the how siblings have contacted you: if he is interested, that would require him to re-contact you, keeping you firmly enmeshed in this.

Either send the possible-donor the siblings' info in your first message to him, or drop out of the entire thing. Anything else keeps you involved.
posted by easily confused at 2:58 AM on September 17, 2013


He doesn't even know if the likely candidate- his distant relative- ever donated sperm. So maybe he should first ask the man if he did, and tell him that he's been approached by genetically related people who are the result of a sperm donation and who are interested in learning more about their medical history. He might also ask this guy if he can think of any other male relatives of the proper age and location who might have donated sperm.
posted by mareli at 11:54 AM on September 17, 2013


My view leans toward giving this project a pass. A polite refusal would be appropriate.

Donor knows he donated sperm. Anonymity probably was part of the standard contract between donors and users. I believe a system is already in place whereby folks who need to know something about their genetic heritage can find the relevant information via the institution that handled the fertilization. It seems to me that, if this is the case, the ground is covered already.

On the other hand, let's assume that anonymity wasn't contractual, but Donor's identity was insulated by a few layers of bureaucracy...this seems to be what you described. You have no way of evaluating the consequences of getting involved--Donor's family and financial situation, the inquisitor's motives, the legal ramifications with regard to Donor's estate, or the personal disruption with respect to members of Donor's family. The complexity is formidable.

I can understand the wish to know ones ancestors: but science has given us another thing to deal with. It may be that our genetic profile will be the only thing some of us will be able to get. The only safe presumption I see here is that, if Donor wanted to know about possible progeny, he would have asked where he'd made his, um, deposit. In which case it could be appropriate for him to approach you with this request, not the folks you are dealing with now. Your involvement, then, would stop at notifying the "depository" that Donor wishes to contact any progeny, if they are willing. You wouldn't be made aware of their identity unless they gave a positive response. You can see how this is different in the way it honors each party's privacy, if nothing else.
posted by mule98J at 6:13 PM on September 17, 2013


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