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Reassuring findings from first study on sperm donor identification


A study published in Europe’s leading reproductive medicine journal Human Reproduction[1] today (Thursday 11 November), should help allay fears that removing anonymity from sperm donors might lead to problems for the children or for their biological fathers.

In the world’s first study to examine the feelings and experiences of adolescents who had been conceived through ’open-identity’ sperm donors, US researchers found that all but one of the 29 young people involved in the study had a neutral or positive response to their origins. More than 4 out of 5 said they were likely to ask for the donor’s identity and try to contact him, but few saw him as being an important person in their lives and not one reported wanting any money from him.

The top question the young people wanted answered was ’what’s he like?’ Of the 83% who wanted to know their donor’s identity and to contact him, the motive for the majority was curiosity about him and, for many, the chance to see if it would help them to learn more about themselves.

Lead researcher Dr Joanna Scheib of the University of California, Davis and The Sperm Bank of California, said: "While it appeared that the children were very curious and eager to learn more about their donor, they were also concerned about respecting his privacy and not intruding on his life. This finding indicates that the stereotypical concern of offspring showing up on the donor’s doorstep is inaccurate and does not reflect the intentions of the actual youths going through the identity-release process."

Dr Scheib said that the practice of open-identity sperm donation was still in its infancy and it would be appropriate to replicate the study with a bigger sample. The research team now plans a study focused on the experiences of young adults and donors who actually meet each other. "What this study has done is to indicate that when youth are told of their conception origins early and have the option to learn more about their donor when they reach adulthood, they express a normal, healthy curiosity about the donor that reflects an interest in learning more about themselves. They are not looking for a father in their donor. If anything, they want something like an ’older friend’ relationship."

The 29 young people taking part were aged 12 to 17 with an average age of 14.7 years, and two-thirds were boys. Just over 40% were the children of lesbian couples, 38% had single mothers and 21% had heterosexual-couple parents. They were conceived though open-identity donors in a programme run by The Sperm Bank of California (TSBC). Most had grown up knowing their history and the average age of learning about it was well under seven. By the age of 10, all had been told.

The study is important because little research is available about the experiences of donor insemination families who have open-identity donors and no research up to now has involved adolescents who are nearing the age when their biological father’s identity can be released to them.

The research was done through questionnaires and the adolescents answered the questionnaires independently of their parents, who were surveyed separately. In general, the young people’s reports concurred with the responses of the parents (i.e. the children’s reports of feeling comfortable with their origins and their feelings towards their parents matched what the parents reported).

Other findings included:

  • Almost all were comfortable sharing their origins with those close to them – extended family members, some friends and a few teachers;
  • In addition to interest in their donor, they expressed interest in contacting other children with the same donor;
  • Those from single mother households were most positive about their DI origins;
  • The presence of two parents, whether heterosexual or lesbian, seemed to dampen interest in the donors;
  • In response to questions about their vision of an ideal donor, the message that came through was that they hoped he was a good, open-minded person who would be open to contact and not necessarily be heavily involved in their life.
  • Although almost all planned to obtain their donor’s identity, they would not necessarily do so at 18 – the age that they would be entitled to have the information.

Said Dr Scheib: "A growing number of DI programmes offer the option, as in the US, of open-identity donors – that is donors who allow their identities to be given to adult offspring. In Sweden, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, the law actually requires open identity and the UK will also require it from April 2005, so it is important that research is undertaken to see what the effects are on the young people, their parents and the donors. Although this is a small study, its findings are reassuring in relation to the youths’ well-being and also reassuring for the donors."

[1] Adolescents with open-identity sperm donors: reports from 12–17 year olds. Human Reproduction. Doi:10.1093/humrep/deh581.

Margaret Willson | alfa
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