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 doctor’s 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 know.

“When I was younger, I used to fantasize about breaking into the doctor’s office and sorting through the records,” says Shelley. “What if I’ve passed him on the street? What if I know him?”

“It’s like finding the first chapter of a story,” says Barry. “It’s 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 it’s 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, it’s 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 they’re secret. DI kids are not allowed access to their fathers’ biological, medical or social histories.

“We have a sense of genealogical bewilderment,” says Barry.

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 something’s wrong. Some think they’re 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 wasn’t 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 I’d 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 that’s 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. Don’t let donors be anonymous any more. Give DI kids the same rights as adopted kids to find their parents and understand where they came from.

Many fertility doctors object. They argue that, without anonymity, there wouldn’t 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 it’s not. You’re giving your gametes. You’re 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 they’re saying is that the fertility industry’s 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. “I’ve drawn many family trees. I’d like to fill in the other half.”