10 Things Not to Say to a Donor Conceived Person

People on the outside, looking in, may be well-meaning when they make statements that don't reflect the reality of being donor conceived. This is common in those who cannot relate to the experience of not knowing a biological parent or other family members; it's easy to take for granted one's sense of connectedness to others and a solid sense of identity when they've always been there. If they carry jealousy or envy toward you, then judgmental sentiments may come out even more strongly because such people feel that, if you've had good parents and a comfortable life, then you have no right to complain about anything else. But those who understand life in broader terms know that happiness and emotional adjustedness is more multi-faceted than that and that we can simultaneously be grateful for the lives we have while still living in an imbalanced state for less well understood reasons that are also related to basic human needs and instincts.

1. Why would you hurt your parents by looking for "your donor"? Don't you appreciate them?

The interest in learning the identity of one's biological parent and even knowing them has nothing to do with how the person feels about the parents who raised them. Social parents and donors are like apples and oranges; they serve different purposes and roles for the person and are important for different reasons. Social parent: nurturance, relationship, encouragement and teaching, physical support, and moral support. Donor (biological parent): genetic material, sense of identity via origins/genealogy, and knowledge of potential health risk predisposition (in some cases, there may be a parental, friend-like, or uncle/aunt-like relationship). Note that I'm placing the phrase "my donor" in quotation marks every time because it's technically inaccurate. Up until the point of conception, that person was the parents' donor, per Merriam Webster's second definition of "donor": "one used as a source of biological material (such as blood or an organ)." After conception, that person becomes the biological parent.

2. You should stop complaining and just be grateful you're alive.

If a donor conceived person is complaining, it's usually because they were lied to (or withheld the truth) by their parents and suffered psychological consequences due to the dishonesty or deception and/or difficulty with normal identity formation growing up, which tends to cause low self-confidence. That low self-confidence may impact their relationships and career. Those who were told from the beginning that they were donor conceived and know the identity of their donor tend not to suffer in these ways. Some who have always known may not even care to know their donor's identity or meet their donor, especially if they can relate enough with their parents (though this can change with age and life events). Some may also be suffering from medical problems that could be better understood from a full family medical history. 

3. Your identity is only about whom you choose to become.

Identity is more complex than that. According to Erik Erikson, who formulated the Psychosocial Stages of Development, there are eight specific psychological stages that must be completed in order and cannot be skipped. When somebody is in an identity crisis, that means they didn't complete the stage of Identity vs. Role Confusion during their adolescent and teen years. They're stuck in Role Confusion, meaning they don't have a strong sense of who they are or where they fit into the world. Exploration is a large part of this stage and eventually leads to a renewed, more adult sense of self. Before this exploration can be effective, the adolescent has to experience the safety of identification with their parents during earlier stages. I've observed a pattern in donor conceived people: Those who have significant traits that neither parent possesses seem to have more difficulty with identity formation when they don't know about their donor (myself included). They will be stuck in some degree of identity crisis until closure can be found through learning about their donor's traits and characteristics. Only after that, can they present a unified, confident version of themselves to the world, which may improve chances of relationship and career success. 

4. The only parents that matter are the ones who raised you.

Because of the identity-related reasons described above, ancestral/genealogical curiosity, and the importance of an accurate family medical history, this statement is simply untrue. Non-biological or "social" parents are highly important (generally more so than the donor when it comes to survival and upbringing), but they cannot provide all the necessary biology- and genealogy-related knowledge. Some donor conceived individuals have unfortunately died due to the inability to prevent fatal disease with the knowledge of their medical predispositions, so in these cases, information about the donor does relate to survival. Read about  "Narelle's Law,"  which was based on the 2013 death of a 30-year-old who had hereditary bowel cancer and whose death could have been prevented with the use of full genetic knowledge.

5. Stop thinking and talking about your donor conception.

It affects us a lot more to be going through this than it does for you to hear about it. If you're not interested in the subject, please politely say so and we'll talk to someone who is. But don't tell us not to process a complicated personal situation with far-reaching implications for our lives.

6. Doesn't knowing "your donor" mean having a less strong relationship with your non-biological parent?

Absolutely not. Any issues with the non-biological parent were probably there well before the topic of the person's donor conception came up, if it came up later in life. The role and relationship provided by the social father or mother is irreplaceable by someone who provided genetic material and didn't offer parental support. There's no need for parents to feel insecure about this possibility. Donor conceived children even understand the difference when their origins have been explained to them and they know their donor. It's all about the nature of our relationships with each other and how well we treat each other.

7. If you contact "your donor," you're disturbing his/her life.

According to survey research by the Donor Sibling Registry, 94% of surveyed sperm donors were open to contact with their offspring. Of those, 88% were willing to keep in touch via email and 85% were willing to meet. And of those 72% who were married, 85% of their spouses were open to contact. Of course, these types of studies have limitations due to the use of a convenience sample of participants which may not be representative of ALL sperm donors. (They were gathered through the DSR web site, which is catered to those interested in making contact.) However, it's possible that the majority would not find contact disturbing but, rather would welcome it (and most wives too). It's worth a try, since so many have come forward with this desire, especially if the donor listed him/herself on the DSR for the purpose of being found, or took a genetic ancestry test that would reveal his/her parentage to any offspring who took the same test. Those donors who haven't put themselves out there may simply be afraid of interfering with the families yet still may be interested. In many cases, clinics don't tell donors that their offspring are trying to make contact. One might as well gift them with the opportunity, which they can always turn down. As an example, my friend Chase Kimball immediately wanted a relationship with his donor offspring and was excited upon finding some of them. But the sperm bank he used didn't even tell him how many he had (and stopped reporting births to him when they noticed he was keeping track), for fear of him becoming too interested, in their eyes. Now, he has healthy relationships with several offspring and even attended the wedding of one daughter.

8. Anonymous donors chose to be anonymous, so you should leave them alone.

See the previous item. Also, the donors typically did NOT choose anonymity, but rather, the clinics required it. Many clinics do this to protect their own interests, regardless of the realities about donors' interest in contact. (They fear a reduction in the number of donors signing up with them when anonymity isn't promised, for example. Or they fear that intended parents won't be comfortable with the idea of open donors. That's wouldn't be good for business in the US, and gamete donation is big business here.) Anonymity cannot realistically be promised anyway, due to the rise of direct-to-consumer genetic ancestry tests. Even without a direct match, many donor offspring make the necessary connections to figure out their donor's identity  - as did Ryan Kramer, co-founder of the DSR with his mother Wendy Kramer,  and my friend Bill Cordray. In the case of my egg donation, I was only willing to go through with it with the promise that my offspring would know me and I would know them, since that's the ethical, healthy way. Not everyone has that option when working through programs, but I handled my donation privately with my recipient, allowing us to do it on our own terms.

9. It's better for you to never find out about your donor conception or the existence of unknown family members. 

For the identity-related and medical reasons described earlier, this is an inaccurate statement. Why would you keep someone from their relatives (unless they were dangerous, which is unusual)? Even knowing donor siblings can be a satisfying experience. Seeing one's own looks, traits, and tendencies reflected in others can create a sense of belonging, closeness, completion, and identity confidence. These events and this reaction may not happen for everyone, but why take away the possibility by choosing secrecy and donor anonymity? (The parents' comfort should not trump the children's needs.) There's no certain way to predict which donor conceived person will or will not be interested in knowing their donor or half-siblings, so the option should be made available. Parents, please choose completely open donors, and, donors/bio parents, please put yourselves out there to be found and welcome any contact.

10. The fertility industry shouldn't be regulated, and there shouldn't be a central donor registry or laws requiring identity release. 

Without some laws on these matters, we end up with profit interests taking precedence, which may not necessarily line up with healthy practices for the non-consenting parties in the process - the donor conceived children. Ideally, intended parents would be educated on the effects of secrecy and anonymity so that they could make an educated decision to best benefit their child, but there's no guarantee they will. Many countries have already banned donor anonymity and installed a central registry. There also need to be legal requirements for comprehensive pre-donation medical testing to prevent infection of recipients or serious genetic diseases in offspring. These issues are more fully explained in an article I co-authored with Wendy Kramer titled "The Ethical Sperm Bank." (I used the pseudonym Laura Strong at the time due to my delicate family situation.)


Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) (2015). 15th Year Information Booklet. Retrieved online July 24, 2017 at https://www.facebook.com/download/395409610650666/Law%20School% 20Powerpoint%20FINAL.pdf

Kramer, W. and Strong, L. (2015). The Ethical Sperm Bank: An All-Open Sperm Bank. An Idea Whose Time Has Come. Retrieved online July 24, 2017 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendy-kramer/the-ethical-sperm-bank-an_b_7841180.html

McLeod, S.A. (2013). Erik Erikson. Retrieved July 24, 2017 at https://www.simplypsychology.org/Erik-Erikson.html

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