Mommy, where did I come from?
Margaret Wente, The Globe & Mail
August 10, 2000
Shelley Kreutz is a slight, blue-eyed 19-year-old college student.
She was conceived in the Fairmont Medical Building in Vancouver.
Barry Stevens is a 47-year-old Toronto filmmaker who was conceived
in a doctors office in England. Their fathers were sperm donors,
nameless men whose identities have been carefully concealed from
them. But now, both Shelley and Barry say they have the right to
When I was younger, I used to fantasize about breaking into
the doctors office and sorting through the records,
says Shelley. What if Ive passed him on the street?
What if I know him?
Its like finding the first chapter of a story,
says Barry. Its like finding a mirror.
Barry was conceived nearly three decades before infertility treatment
became common. Shelley is among the first of a big generation of
donor insemination offspring. No one knows how many there are, but
its estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 DI babies are born in
North America every year. In Britain, where they keep track of these
things, its around 11,000.
The identities of sperm donors have always been shrouded in secrecy.
For many older DI babies, there are no written records at all, only
the imperfect memories of doctors and nurses. For younger offspring,
the records exist, but theyre secret. DI kids are not allowed
access to their fathers biological, medical or social histories.
We have a sense of genealogical bewilderment, says
Until now, no one handling those little vials of sperm and DNA
gave much thought to the views of the resultant product. No one
considered that primal human urge to understand where you come from.
And now, the kids say those doctors had no right to sign away their
right to know their genetic inheritance.
Like most DI children, Barry always sensed a secret in the family.
Most DI parents try to conceal the circumstances of conception,
partly because of the shame that still surrounds male infertility.
But kids usually know somethings wrong. Some think theyre
adopted; others think their mother must have had an affair.
Barry learned the truth at 18, after his father died. He learned
that his older sister Janice was a DI baby, too. But it wasnt
till recently that they discovered they have the same biological
father. Who is he? Barry may find out soon. He knows there was a
very small group of donors in Britain at that time, and a very small
group of offspring. He's hoping DNA testing will yield the answer.
And if it does? I would regard it as my right, in a non-intrusive
way, to say Id like to meet you, he says. That
person would have the option of saying yea or nay.
Shelley was conceived when her mother decided to have a baby but
not a husband. I was convinced I was adopted, she recalls.
Her mom told her the truth when she was 10, and has encouraged her
to find out about her biological father. She has mounted a frontal
assault on the fertility doctor who inseminated her mother, and
has wrenched a few details from him. She now knows that her father
was a medical school student; that he was 5 foot 6 and slim; and
that somewhere out there she has three half-siblings. Maybe thats
all she'll ever know.
There are no laws that they have to keep records, she
says. There are no laws that they have to do anything.
This weekend, both Barry and Shelley will speak at the first international
conference of donor offspring, which is being sponsored by the Infertility
Network in Toronto. Their message: Open up the files. Dont
let donors be anonymous any more. Give DI kids the same rights as
adopted kids to find their parents and understand where they came
Many fertility doctors object. They argue that, without anonymity,
there wouldnt be any sperm donors. And disclosure is hardly
what those med students and starving artists and college kids bargained
for when they sold their body fluids (sometimes over and over again)
for 40 bucks a shot.
People say it's just like giving blood, says Barry.
"But its not. Youre giving your gametes. Youre
creating a human being who has half your genes.
Sweden, Australia and New Zealand have now given DI children legal
access to medical and genetic information about their donors. Britain
is considering the same plan. Not everyone thinks donors will be
scared off; in California, one sperm bank has found that more than
half of all new donors will consent to make their identities known
to their offspring.
The kids deserve to be heard. What theyre saying is that
the fertility industrys miraculous new reproductive technologies
raise profound questions of family and origin, of kinship and identity,
that reach far beyond the laboratory and the doctor's clinic.
Family is important to me, says Shelley. Ive
drawn many family trees. Id like to fill in the other half.