As a child, Matt Doran would search the mirror for clues. Were those blue eyes those of the man he knew as Dad? Maybe, but that seemed the only resemblance.
Then two years ago, one mystery replaced another. He learned he’d been conceived with sperm from an anonymous donor.
Now, like thousands of others conceived the same way, he searches for his biological father and wonders if any half brothers and sisters are looking for him.
He looks for people roughly his age — he’s 27 — and conceived from the same anonymous donor his mother used from 1984 to 1986 when she turned to the University of Kansas Medical Center for help with infertility.
“I could have hundreds of siblings out there,” said the Springfield, Mo., native.
He is among tens of thousands of people conceived through anonymous sperm donations now entering adulthood with a particular curiosity about their biological heritage. Armed with information technology as powerful as the medical know-how that gave them life, they search in hope of learning their family’s medical history, to avoid accidental incest, to get closer to solving the mystery of who they are.
Hollywood has already had its moments with the possibilities — the Academy Award-nominated “The Kids Are All Right,” where donor-conceived children of a lesbian couple find their biological father. More recently came the Vince Vaughn comedy “Delivery Man” about a guy who learns he fathered more than 500 children through sperm donations. The “Kids Are All Right” scenario is far more common.
Some estimates put the number of children born in the United States with sperm from anonymous donors at 30,000 to 60,000 a year.
In many cases, such children never know how they were conceived.
Searching for a father
Generations ago, that same kind of secrecy cloaked adoptions. Parents kept adopted children in the dark about where they had come from. The truth left many feeling angry, betrayed, lost.
Then the country saw a boom in adopted adult children searching for biological parents. Today, adoption is more open. Legislative mechanisms such as adoption contracts that ensure that biological parents have some level of contact with adoptive parents and the child, or pre-adoption agreements where pregnant mothers select the adoptive parents for their child, allow adopted children to know their biological parents. Today, 95 percent of American adoption agencies offer some form of open adoption.
And now more and more offspring of anonymous donors take advantage of inexpensive DNA testing and social media to track down donors and half siblings.
As recently as 2007, DNA tests for tracking the family tree cost $1,000 or more. Today they generally run between $100 and $300. And present more information.
This July 4, Ancestry.com offered a DNA testing special for $79.
That makes a robust combination that verges on making it easier to find a once anonymous sperm donor than it is for such lab-aided fathers to remain nameless.
It’s a phenomenon sperm banks administrators and fertility doctors could hardly imagine when artificial insemination in humans gained popularity in the 1970s, before the World Wide Web was conceived.
While many donors have stepped up to connect with their progeny online, others never aimed to be identified.
It was much easier for individuals to keep their donor sperm story a secret 20 years ago, said Matthew Goering, laboratory director at the Center for Advanced Reproductive Medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center.
That’s changed, he said. But so have attitudes of today’s donors, Goering said, “partly because the average sperm donor is quite young” and sells sperm knowing that the Internet makes anonymity tough.
In his search, Doran joined leading donor sibling registries where thousands of people spawned by sperm donors have made contact. Then he recently launched his own donor sibling social networking site, DonorChildren.com. So far, 250 members have used its free chat board and other services to help 27 donor children and donors connect with relatives.
On his site, Doran formed a campaign for adult children, like himself, conceived through what is now KUMC’s Center for Advanced Reproductive Medicine.
It was on his site that Doran’s friend David Brown, a KUMC donor-conceived child who grew up in Lawrence, announced he’d found his half brother, John O’Shea, a Kansas City native who now lives in California’s Bay Area.
“At first,” Brown said, “I thought Matt (Doran) and I could be half brothers.”
Brown’s wife had been searching for his paternal family on a donor sibling registry.
“She found Matt and (Brown) had a lot of the same details to our story,” Brown said. “Our parents both used University of Kansas Medical Center for fertility treatment and had used a sperm donor through that office in the same time period. So we thought there was a possibility that the two of us could be donor siblings.”
DNA tests showed no relation. But on another website, 23andme.com, which helps people trace their ancestry using DNA, Brown, 23, found a possible grandson-grandfather match with someone else. He sent that stranger a message.
“I was really careful about what I wrote,” he said. “I didn’t want to spook him. I thought if this is my grandfather, then maybe I had found my donor father. That would be hitting the jackpot.”
In California, O’Shea, 24, had learned from his mother that she used a sperm donor for his conception. She told him when he turned 18 years old and was leaving Kansas City for college in California. She didn’t know the donor’s identity, except that he was a University of Kansas medical student who donated about 1989.
“I was surprised and shocked,” O’Shea said. “But my dad was still my dad to me. I wasn’t missing anything in my life.”
Only now O’Shea, who is a quarter Japanese on his mother’s side, was curious to identify the rest of his ethnic makeup.
“I didn’t know what half of me was,” he said. “I had no desire to find my donor dad, but I wanted to know his genetic information. Anything else was secondary.”
O’Shea joined an ancestry tracing website, paid $100 and spit into a plastic tube to find out what people he’d come from. Two years later, a possible grandson-grandfather match turned up. But the message connected to it was from a man his own age.
That’s when he met Brown, born six months after him.
“It was crazy,” Brown said. “That validated that there might be other half siblings out there. There could be just us two or there could be 100 of us in the area. Who knows how many used the same donor. But the idea that there could be any half siblings out there was pretty cool to me.”
The two met this spring during a trip to New York City.
“We got along right away,” Brown said. “My wife thinks we look alike. I do too. It is kind of crazy. Now when I see people on the street and my wife says they look like me, it’s kind of a joke and she’s like, ‘Oh, that could be your half sibling.’”
A search continues
Brown and O’Shea count themselves lucky to have found each other and as brothers they will stay connected.
Doran, who is eager to find his donor dad and half siblings, is still searching.
All three have strong opinions now about whether donors should be allowed to remain anonymous and whether sperm banks should be better regulated to limit how many children are born from a donor and to ensure that better medical records are kept and shared about donors.
It’s been an ongoing debate for years.
“The (sperm) banks are responsive in regard to helping people get pregnant but then do not offer support to donor-conceived people wishing to gain more information on their genetic and ancestral history,” said Wendy Kramer.
She founded Donor Sibling Registry 14 years ago to help her son find his donor family. Today, that registry has connected 11,400 people involved in donor conception.
Others, like O’Shea, worry that “if donors couldn’t be anonymous, no one would do this. No one wants 20 kids they don’t even know coming to them later asking for money. I’m for anonymity, even though it is frustrating for the kids,” he said.
“I want to know my donor father, but I understand why he might want to be anonymous.”