Father Figure: The Children of Donor 401
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Father Figure: The Children of Donor 401

Known only as Donor 401, he is father to some 25 children around the country. Now the women who selected him from a sperm back in Virginia are finding each other -- and inventing a whole new kind of family.

Making a Connection

One morning in 2006 Kimberly, then a 38-year-old New York therapist, was getting her three children ready for their day at preschool. She was cooking breakfast for her two daughters and one son when her husband, Ken, called out from another part of the house, telling her there was a morning show segment on that she should watch.

Kimberly (who did not want her last name used) turned on the television in the kitchen. As the camera panned across a group of youngsters and infants visiting the show's studio with their mothers, she moved closer to the screen -- and got chills. Then one of her daughters screeched, "Mommy, that girl looks just like us!"

Kimberly's daughter was right: Every single child did look remarkably like hers. Then she heard the commentary: "Sperm Donor 401...German background..." The seven women onscreen were talking to the show's host about a man neither she nor they had ever met: the biological father of all their children.

The women had connected through a Web site, DonorSiblingRegistry.com, set up in 2000 for families with children born as a result of their parents using donor sperm, eggs, or embryos. At the time there were few ways for such people who wanted more background information about their children to contact one another. The site now has some 11,000 members, who are seeking data about many men, not just Donor 401.

Until that morning Kimberly had rarely thought about 401, a man whose description -- healthy, intellectual, with German ancestry and, best of all, close to his mother -- had appealed to her and her husband when they turned to donor insemination to get pregnant after trying to conceive for eight years. After all, her husband was both the legal father of their three children and their day-to-day parent. He was the man they knew as Daddy.

Looking at a room full of her children's half-siblings was deeply unsettling for Kimberly. Ken, who was comfortable from the start with the idea of donor insemination, was interested in what the women had to say about the experience but not disturbed by it. "The only thing I've ever been concerned about was the one-in-a-million chance they might someday get romantically involved with half-siblings," he says. Even that is not top of mind for him, he says. "What's important is that they're happy, healthy kids."

Learning the Facts

Kimberly, however, was disconcerted. "I turned off the television so I could sort it out," she says -- but not before noting the name of the Web site where the seven mothers had found one another. She eventually learned that her three youngsters were among approximately 25 -- all under seven -- known to have been fathered by one man who had sold his semen to Fairfax Cryobank, a repository based in Virginia. The women had selected him from among more than 100 donors at the facility, all identified only by the numbers with which the clinic had labeled them.

Because the bank had promised Donor 401 anonymity, it has never publicly revealed his name. "That information is strictly controlled," says Suzanne Seitz, a genetic counselor and Fairfax spokeswoman. "He signed an agreement as part of our anonymous donor system, and patients used him knowing he would remain so." Aware that some parties to a donor-assisted pregnancy -- the children, the mother, even the donor -- might eventually wish to find one another, the clinic also offers a consent program for men who agree to be contacted by offspring when they reach 18. However, says Seitz, few have signed up for it.

It's difficult to predict how many vials of semen it will take for a woman to become pregnant, but generally it's about six, says Sherron Mills, founder and CEO of Pacific Reproduction Services, in San Francisco and Pasadena, California. Women routinely buy extra vials in case they have trouble getting pregnant or later decide they want related children. Clients usually keep their excess vials at the bank so it can ensure they're stored properly and the sperm stays viable; women who end up with more vials than they need typically sell them back to the bank.

Donor 401 was popular, and at press time Fairfax had sold out of his sperm. A man often stops donating for what Seitz calls lifestyle reasons: Perhaps he has relocated or he has married or formed a relationship that does not let him meet abstinence standards (the fewer ejaculations a man has, the higher his sperm count, so some abstinence is necessary).

Piecing It Together

When Carla Schouten, a nurse-practitioner in San Jose, California, decided she wouldn't use her last vial, she couldn't sell it back to Fairfax Cryobank because she had stored it at the laboratory where she worked, rather than at the bank. So she signed on to DonorSiblingRegistry.com to see if she could give it away. When she discovered the section devoted to messages by others who'd used Donor 401, her reaction was similar to Kimberly's. Schouten was disoriented by seeing the photographs mothers had posted of their children, who looked so much like her son. "Until then all I had seen in my child was my side of the family," says Schouten. "Now I could imagine the other side."

On the site Schouten also noticed the e-mail address of Leann Mischel, a business professor in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, who had one son using 401's sperm and wanted another, related child. "I left my information, and she soon contacted me," recalls Schouten. (Though Mischel used Schouten's vial, she ended up getting pregnant with another donor's sperm.)

The publicity from the morning show eventually caught the attention of even more parents with 401's progeny. A total of 19 got in touch with one another, including single women and lesbian and heterosexual couples.

The group members admit to having a complicated, unresolved outlook on the biological father of their children. They agree they don't wish him to be an active parent to their kids, and they respect his privacy. At the same time, most think their children may someday be curious about him. "If my child wants to know who his biological father is, I will understand that," says Mischel. Louisa Weix, a lawyer in San Francisco, puts the decision in her twin daughters' hands. "I hope that they won't need to search, though," she says. Ken, in New York, doesn't anticipate identity issues arising for his brood. "They know more about themselves than most adopted children do," he notes.

A New Kind of "Family"

A 2007 study by the University of Cambridge and DonorSiblingRegistry.com surveyed users of the site to discover who was searching for whom. Of the 931 individuals who responded to the survey, 65 were adult offspring, 801 were parents, and 65 were donors. All were over 18. Almost all respondents said they were seeking a sense of identity or were just curious, though a few mentioned wanting medical information. Of the searchers, seven of the offspring found and contacted half-siblings, and four got in touch with their donor parent; 438 parents contacted their children's half-siblings, and 39 communicated with the donor. Forty-seven of the donors who responded to the survey said they were looking for their children, and 22 were successful. For now, however, the women who used Donor 401 are not seeking him. Most tell their young children that their newfound pals are just that: friends. "As they get older and understand better, I can give them more information," says Kimberly.

Finding half-siblings provides parents an opportunity to fill in a child's medical history. When Schouten discovered her son had a tree nut allergy -- a potentially deadly problem that she didn't recall from 401's medical history -- she shared it with the group. As a result, when one of Weix's daughters had an allergic reaction, Weix guessed nuts were the culprit and quickly contacted 911. "She almost died," says Weix. "Calling immediately made the difference." Mischel was inspired by these stories to create a Web site, DonorOffspringHealth.com, which helps parents build medical files for sperm- and egg-donor children.

A core group of about 10 women who used 401's sperm communicate regularly via a private chat room they set up. At first Kimberly wasn't sure she wanted a new, very large family, but she's come to value the relationships. The e-mail communications are practical, says Ken: "The mothers contact each other about diaper rash, as well as serious things." Carolyn George, 36, a single mother from Oklahoma whose son was conceived with 401's sperm, confirms that "it's great to have someone to discuss issues with."

In the summer of 2006 Kimberly and Ken met three East Coast 401 families at a theme park. The kids played while the adults enjoyed looking for features and mannerisms shared by their offspring. On the West Coast, Schouten and Weix get together regularly with their children.

The 401 family may continue to grow. Kimberly notes that vials of the man's sperm still exist. "You never know," she says.

Who Are the Donor Daddies?

Donor insemination is an increasingly common alternative for couples who are having trouble conceiving and for women without a male partner, says Suzanne Seitz, a spokeswoman for Fairfax Cryobank. According to the American Fertility Association, there are no definitive statistics for the number of sperm donors in the United States or the number of times they've contributed. It appears possible to assume, however, that it's a growing field.

The FDA oversees sperm banks, requiring, for example, that they screen donors for certain diseases and clean and disinfect laboratory equipment. However, FDA regulations do not require proof (such as medical records or a background check) for assertions about donors' personal and health history. "Some of this you really have to take at face value," explains Seitz. "We don't go back and confirm everything."

On Fairfax's Web site, a visitor can browse a free catalog of donors, which includes staff assessments of the men and specifics about their appearance, education, and personal and job history. Fairfax clients pay between $185 and $615 for each vial of sperm, with the higher cost for semen from medical and law students and PhD candidates, says Seitz.

The anonymous donor program at Fairfax sells ample additional detail, and most women buy everything they can about a donor they are considering, she reports. Photographs from infancy through adulthood can be had in return for $75 and a notarized promise not to use them to seek out the man, for example; an extensive medical history costs $14.

What is always withheld under the anonymity agreement is the donor's name and other data that would make it possible to track him down. The company adds a premium of $75 for the sperm of men in the consent program (under which their names can be released to offspring at age 18).

The men at Fairfax Cryobank receive $900 to $1,500 a month in return for providing semen twice a week for six months. Higher sperm count and enrollment in doctoral programs generally push a man's earnings higher, says Seitz.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, June 2008.