Like most anonymous sperm donors, Donor 150 of the California Cryobank probably will never meet any offspring he has fathered through the...

Share story

Like most anonymous sperm donors, Donor 150 of the California Cryobank probably will never meet any offspring he has fathered through the sperm bank. There are at least four children, according to the bank’s records, and perhaps many more, because the dozens of women who have bought Donor 150’s sperm are not required to report when they have a baby.

Even they know only the code number the bank uses for identification and the fragments of personal information provided in his donor profile.

But two of his genetic daughters, born to different mothers and living in different states, have been e-mailing and talking on the phone regularly since learning of each other’s existence last summer. They plan to meet over Thanksgiving weekend.

The girls, Danielle Pagano, 16, and JoEllen Marsh, 15, connected through the Donor Sibling Registry, a Web site that is helping open a new chapter in the oldest form of assisted reproductive technology. The 3-year-old site allows parents and offspring to enter their contact information and search for others by sperm bank and donor number. Donors who want to shed anonymity are especially welcome, but the vast majority of the site’s 1,001 matches are between half-siblings.

“The first time we were on the phone, it was awkward,” Danielle said. “I was like, ‘We’ll get over it,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, we’re sisters.’ It was so weird to hear her say that. It was cool.”

A key to identity

For children who often feel severed from half of their biological identity, finding a sibling — or in some cases, a dozen — can feel like coming home. It can also make them more curious about the anonymous father whose genes they carry.

The popularity of the Donor Sibling Registry, many of its registrants say, speaks to the sustained power of biological ties when it is becoming almost routine for women to bear children who do not share a partner’s DNA, or even their own.

“I hate when people that use D.I. say that biology doesn’t matter (cough, my mom, cough),” Danielle wrote in an e-mail message, using the shorthand for “donor insemination.” “Because if it really didn’t matter to them, then why would they use D.I. at all? They could just adopt or something and help out kids in need.”

The half-sibling hunt is driven in part by the growing number of donor-conceived children who know the truth about their origins. As more single women and lesbian couples use sperm donors to conceive, children’s questions about their fathers’ whereabouts often prompt an explanation at an early age.

Some infertile couples — who for decades often chose donors who looked like the husband and avoided telling the child the rest of the story — are also starting to be more revealing, taking their cue from the open-records movement in adoption.

Becoming siblings

Unlike adoptees, whose primary question is often why their birth parents gave them up, donor-conceived children are typically focused on learning their donor’s identity — and whatever it might reveal about their own. Donor-conceived siblings, who sometimes call themselves “lopsided” or “half-adopted,” can provide clues to make each other feel more whole, even if only in the form of physical details.

Liz Herzog, 12, and Callie Frasier-Walker, 10, for instance, carry the same dimple near their right eye.

“She looks up to me,” said Liz, who was an only child before learning of Callie and six other half-siblings but seemed to have had no trouble stepping into her older-sister role.

The two girls, who instant-message each other frequently, will be spending Thanksgiving with their mothers at Callie’s house in Chester Springs, Pa. They had a mini-family reunion with some of their other siblings last April, although as Liz’s mother, Diana Herzog, notes, “It wasn’t really a reunion because no one had ever met before.”

Many mothers seek each other out on the registry, eager to create a patchwork family. Seven mothers who chose Fairfax Cryobank’s Donor 401 say they, too, feel bonded by the half-blood relations of their children.

Carla Schouten sent a leftover vial of sperm to another mother who wanted to have a second child and found there was no 401 sperm left to purchase. In July, Schouten and her son, Matthys, 2, went camping in Northern California with another Donor 401 fan, Louisa Weix and her twins, Eliza and Julia, who turn 2 next week.

While many donor-conceived children prefer to refer to their genetic father as “donor,” to differentiate the biological function of fatherhood from the social one, they often feel no need to distance themselves, linguistically or emotionally, from their siblings.

Deb Bash, the mother of a 7-year-old, exchanges e-mail often with eight other mothers who have a total of 12 children from the same donor, and she has created a baby book for her son with all their pictures. The siblings, Bash said, have given her son a way to feel connected to the otherwise abstract concept of a genetic father.

The children have some uncanny resemblances, she said.

Calls for access

As the Internet makes it easier for donor-conceived children to find one another, some are calling for an end to the system of anonymity under which they were born. Sperm banks, they say, should be required to accept only donors who agree that their children can contact them when they turn 18, as is now mandated in some European countries.

That is partly for accountability. Sperm-bank officials estimate the number of children born to donors at 30,000 a year, but because the industry is largely unregulated, no one really knows. And as half-siblings find one another, it is becoming clear the banks do not know how many children are born to each donor, and where they are.

Popular donors may have several dozen children, or more, and critics say there is a risk of unwitting incest between half-siblings. Moreover, they argue, no one should be able to decide for children before they are born that they can never learn their father’s identity. Typically, women can learn about a donor’s medical history, ethnicity, education, hobbies and physical traits.

More recently — for a premium — sperm banks have begun to provide some donors who agree to be contacted by their offspring when they turn 18. But they say far fewer men would choose to donate if they were required to release their identity. Men are paid about $65 to $100 per sample, and customers pay about $150 to $600 per vial, plus shipping.

Still, Wendy Kramer, who founded the sibling registry with her donor-conceived son, Ryan, 15, said its appeal means a new generation of donor offspring may pose a greater challenge to the banks’ insistence on anonymity.