A New Openness For Donor Kids About Their Biology In the past, sperm and egg donation has been shrouded in secrecy, and many children conceived this way were not told about their biological origins. But research suggests this can be toxic for families, and more couples plan to tell their children a modern-day version of the facts of life.

A New Openness For Donor Kids About Their Biology

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The number of children conceived in this country through in-vitro fertilization - using donated sperm or eggs - is growing, and attitudes are changing. Women inseminated with a donor's sperm used to be advised, tell no one. Doctors said go home, make love to your husband; pretend that worked. Many parents now want to know when and how to tell their children about the way they were conceived. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has the latest in her series, "Making Babies."

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Tina Gulbrandson understands the stigma and pain that comes from infertility. She needed to use another woman's eggs to get pregnant.

TINA GULBRANDSON: You feel incompetent. You feel, you know, like you failed as a woman.

LUDDEN: Tina and her husband, Patrick, knew no one in their Maryland suburb who'd used donor eggs. Still, they decided to be open about it.

GULBRANDSON: It's sort of a grieving process, and talking about it makes it easier. And it lets other people know that there are other couples going through this, and that it is OK and that, you know, this is the outcome.


LUDDEN: This is baby Waverly, a 7-month-old, blue-eyed beauty, happy on a blanket full of toys.


LUDDEN: Of course, not everyone's secretive about using donors. Gay and lesbian couples are pioneering open relationships with them. After all, same-sex parenthood raises the obvious question. But today, when one in every 100 babies in the U.S. is created through some form of in-vitro fertilization - or IVF - even many heterosexual couples, like the Gulbrandsons, plan to tell their children this modern-day version of the facts of life.

PATRICK GULBRANDSON: Honestly, in 10 years from now, it's not going to matter.


GULBRANDSON: More than likely, some of her classmates are going to be IVF babies or...

GULBRANDSON: Well, already, you know, having these friends that we know now, who have done sperm donation - they're going to grow up together, you know. So they're going to have that in common with each other.

LUDDEN: Exactly when they'll sit their daughter down and explain half her genes are from a stranger? They say they'll play that by ear. But a growing body of research suggests earlier is better.

ELAINE GORDON: You'd never want to sit a pre-adolescent down and say, we have something to tell you. That's probably about the worst time to tell a child.

LUDDEN: Psychologist Elaine Gordon counsels donor-recipient couples in California. She says keeping this secret from a child can be toxic.

GORDON: They don't understand why they were not told, why the information was kept from them. So it's the secret that they're upset about - not the information, necessarily.

LUDDEN: And if you don't tell them? Don't be so sure they won't find out anyway.

WENDY KRAMER: Oh, it happens all the time. And those are the people that I hear from very frequently.

LUDDEN: Wendy Kramer runs Donor Sibling Registry, a website set up to help the children of anonymous sperm donors find each other.

KRAMER: They found a file in a drawer. They had a blood test. Drunk Aunt Sally told them.

LUDDEN: This happens, says psychologist Gordon, because parents struggle with disclosure, afraid it will erode the bond with their child, afraid they'll be rejected. She says this is not borne out by research, and advises telling even toddlers about the many ways families are created today. There's a growing market of books on different animals living together. Gordon has her own, called "Mommy, Did I Grow In Your Tummy?"

GORDON: And by the time they're old enough to understand biology, egg and sperm - which is around 7 years old - they'll say, oh, Mommy got an egg. So what you want to do is not make it a big deal.

LUDDEN: But Wendy Kramer cautions people on her donor website not to downplay a donor's connection, either.

KRAMER: I've heard parents say - and this is what they tell their children - oh, it was just a piece of genetic material; it was just a donated cell.

LUDDEN: The message is well-intentioned, she says. We love you; that's all that matters. But Kramer has surveyed hundreds of donor families, and says that approach can backfire. It can make children feel they're betraying parents if they later want to explore their biological heritage.

GULBRANDSON: Patty cake - come on. Patty cake, patty cake, baker's man...

LUDDEN: So if baby Waverly grows up to be curious about her donor mother? The Gulbrandsons say they'll be prepared.

GULBRANDSON: She will have access to the Internet, and she will be able to do whatever research she wants.

GULBRANDSON: I think we would also probably say that, you know, that our donor, you know, did this to help other people, you know; that she didn't do it to be found or to know - you know - later on, down the road that she has children out there.

LUDDEN: And that will no doubt be explanation enough for many children conceived this way. But not all of them. Tomorrow, we'll hear from some who believe they have the right to know who their donor is. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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