AUDIE CORNISH, Host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. After decades of advances in fertility treatment, a generation of children conceived through sperm donation has now come of age. And some of those kids have questions - questions about who their father is. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has done some reporting on what that search is like for these children as part of her series Making Babies. Hi there, Jennifer.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So, sperm donation is not something that people really talk about in public - certainly not the kids, certainly not the parents involved - but seems like that's changing.
LUDDEN: It is changing. I mean, for a long time, people thought keeping it anonymous was in everyone's interests, right? The donors didn't want to be known; the couples who received the donated sperm - and today, you have many families with donated eggs - that was thought in their interest to keep it all anonymous. But now you have these children who've grown up and they say, well, wait, this is about us as well. What about our interests? And many of them do think they should have the right to know who the donor is.
CORNISH: So, describe the scenario for me. I mean, what is it like trying to find your sperm donor parent?
LUDDEN: I met a young woman. Her name's Kathleen LaBounty. She grew up outside of Houston, and she told me how she always knew she was different from the rest of her family. She has these vivid blue eyes and this drawing talent that come from nowhere. And she's really short. She pulled out this family photo of herself standing with some cousins.
KATHLEEN LABOUNTY: The top of my head comes up to maybe their shoulders. So, I think I look quite ridiculous.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LUDDEN: She told me how when she was eight years old, her mom sat her down and told her about the nice man had given them his sperm. And she says it actually made her love her dad all the more, because, after all, he was treating her just like she was his own. But she also grew really curious about who this donor was.
LABOUNTY: Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I feel like it's a reflection of a stranger because there are just pieces of me that I can't identify.
LUDDEN: For a long time, LaBounty assumed the man wanted nothing to do with her, until she learned he'd had no choice. In the early '80s, some donors signed contracts promising never to search for offspring. The fertility clinic her mom used mixed sperm from two or three men, so no one knew which actually fertilized the egg. The only thing LaBounty did know about her donor?
LABOUNTY: He went to Baylor College of Medicine in May of 1981, when I was conceived, and perhaps he had blue eyes, but that's not even a guarantee.
LUDDEN: In her guest room, LaBounty pulls down a big white box full of research. She xeroxed six years' worth of Baylor College of Medicine yearbooks.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAGES FLIPPING)
LUDDEN: She tracked down all 600 men, and sent them letters.
LABOUNTY: (Reading) Dear Dr. Smith, It is after much thought that I am contacting you. I was conceived May 4th, 1981 by an anonymous sperm donation...
LUDDEN: LaBounty included photos of herself and said she'd found a place to do non-legally binding DNA tests. Two hundred and fifty men replied - some clearly freaked out, asking her not to contact them again. But to her surprise, most were incredibly supportive. One said he'd waited 26 years to get a letter like that, and felt sure he was the guy. But a flurry of correspondence, then DNA tests found no match. She says it was an emotional roller coaster.
LABOUNTY: One man actually told me he was heartbroken. Another man started crying. And these are grown doctors. And so I just, I did not anticipate that reaction at all.
LUDDEN: As test after test failed, LaBounty says she felt a mounting sense of loss, as if the pain of her infertile parents had been transferred to her. She also sees hypocrisy: couples use donor sperm or egg because they very much want at least some biological connection to their child. And yet, she says, by using anonymous donors, they cut off that child's other links.
LABOUNTY: And not just with the biological father, but aunts, uncles, grandparents. It's half of the family.
LUDDEN: Not all donor kids are this curious - certainly not all as persistent. But LaBounty's among an outspoken group publicly agitating for change. They speak at conferences, they wage impassioned internet campaigns - LaBounty's blog is called Child of a Stranger - and they're avidly following a landmark lawsuit in Canada.
OLIVIA PRATTEN: It was always just a, who was he and how did it relate to who I was becoming?
LUDDEN: Olivia Pratten is waging that class action suit with her mom's support, even though she's discovered her own sperm donor records have been destroyed. If genetics don't matter, she asks, then why don't they just hand out babies at random in the maternity ward? Like LaBounty, Pratten is haunted by her donor's absence - haunted by the fact that he could be anybody.
PRATTEN: My mom and I have said, you know, that we could all get on the bus, and him - the biological father/sperm donor - you know, could be sitting there and none of us would realize that they had a child together, and that's, it's a little unsettling, honestly.
LUDDEN: Pratten notes adopted children have slowly won the right to know their biological parents. Her lawsuit contends donor-conceived kids should have the same right. After all, the U.K., Germany, Australia, Sweden and others have all banned anonymous sperm and egg donation.
PRATTEN: If that's the only way that someone will do it, then, no, go away. It's not OK. It's unethical as far as I'm concerned.
LUDDEN: In May, the court sided with Pratten. But the provincial government of British Columbia has appealed, arguing that what's paramount is a donor's right to privacy. Many American donors agree. Donors like Thuy, a 28-year-old who lives on the West Coast.
THUY: Being identified as somebody's biological mom after this process seems a little silly to me.
LUDDEN: Thuy has donated her eggs four times. She feels it's nothing like adoption, in which a woman actually bears a child and gives it up.
THUY: For me I feel like it's a little more sterile. It's a 10-day process at that, and it's just not really something that I'm emotionally attached to.
LUDDEN: She finds it gratifying to help other couples, but says she'd never do it if she had to disclose her identity. We're not using her last name because Thuy hasn't even told her mom she's donated eggs, and doubts she'd approve. And if Thuy faced a phone call or knock on the door in 20 years?
THUY: I wouldn't know what I would say to that person, so I don't know that they would get a lot out of it.
LUDDEN: This past summer, a watershed law took effect in Washington state. It says egg and sperm donors must release identifying information if a donor-conceived child requests it after age 18, although donors can easily opt-out. Still, assisted reproduction attorney Mark Demaray says, it's a step.
MARK DEMARAY: At least it requires the clinics to have a conversation with any donor, so they need to think about what that means 18 years from now. And I think that's a good discussion to have for both recipient families and for donors.
LABOUNTY: There you are. I got you. Got you.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY LAUGHING)
LUDDEN: In Houston, Kathleen LaBounty's search for her biological father continues. She has two young children of her own now and would like to know her family's medical history more than ever. She recently had her 18th DNA test - no match. But through websites that offer genetic testing, she has discovered a series of distant cousins, and learned her paternal roots are Ashkenazi Jew, from Eastern Europe.
LABOUNTY: Honestly, I think that eventually I'll find him, or a sibling. It's probably not today, or tomorrow, or a year. But I think 20 or 30 years from now I'll know somebody.
LUDDEN: And in fact, Audie, Kathleen LaBounty tells me that she's now tempted with this new information to write again to the Jewish men in her donor's college class.
CORNISH: Wow. Is there any movement in the U.S. to ban anonymous donations?
LUDDEN: You know, no one thinks it's going to happen anytime soon. I mean, for one thing, there would be a lot of record keeping. If you wanted to update those records, there's a cost there. The industry's really resistant. They also worry that so many donors would not want to do it if they couldn't be anonymous, that there would be a shortage. The industry says, look, choice is key. More and more clinics are offering so-called open donation, but they say it's important that they also promise anonymity to those who want it.
CORNISH: And at the end of the day, you can't actually promise anonymity, I would think, in the age of Google.
LUDDEN: In the age of Google and DNA testing, that promise just really doesn't mean what it used to.
CORNISH: NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Jennifer, thanks so much.
LUDDEN: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.