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Adoptees and donor conceived people deserve more information

June 2, 2011 - Andrea Johnson
Has anyone seen the movie "The Kids Are All Right," about two teens raised by a lesbian couple who meet their sperm donor father? The real life scenario sounds a lot messier than the movie.

As children conceived via anonymous sperm donation grow to maturity, the articles that are appearing about them sound more and more like those about adoptees from past generations who fought for the right to learn who their biological parents were. In some cases those battles are still being fought, since adoptees can't access their original birth certificates. Adoptees in New Jersey are currently asking legislators to give them that right.

A few years ago Olivia Pratten, a Canadian woman, sued to learn the identify of the sperm donor who fathered her. Last week a court in Alberta, Canada ruled in her favor and said that anonymity for sperm and egg donors is unconstitutional. Australia and most European countries also now ban anonymous sperm and egg donation on the basis that a child has a right to know his or her biological origins.

In the United States, where anonymous sperm donations are still allowed, it's quite possible for one man to have dozens of offspring, with all the potential complications that entails. For instance, some people conceived in this way are concerned that they might end up inadvertently dating a biological half sibling. Others fret about their lack of a complete medical history.

"Donor Unknown," a recent documentary, tells the story of JoEllen Marsh and her more than a dozen half-siblings, all conceived by sperm donated by Jeffrey Harrison, an animal lover and eccentric who paid his rent in the 1980s and 1990s by donating sperm at a local sperm bank a few times a week. The kids tracked each other down through a "donor sibling registry" online which matched people up according to their anonymous sperm donor's number. Harrison met the kids after he read an article about them in the New York Times and recognized his donor number. Now Marsh and some of the others have a friendly relationship with Harrison.

One of Marsh's half siblings didn't learn how she was conceived until she was a teenager and she was very angry with her parents when she was finally told. Marsh was raised by her biological mother and her mother's lesbian partner, who were always open with her about her origins, and she wasn't as angry as her half-sister. Still, she said she still had a lot of questions. She moved differently and looked different from others in her family and always wondered where those traits came from.

The picture of her with Harrison looks like one of a father and daughter, even though they didn't meet until she was 18. Marsh apparently has found a lot of similarities in looks and personality between herself and her unknown biological half siblings and unknown biological father. When she met Harrison, she found some answers.

Obviously not every adoptee or child conceived via donor insemination is going to have this level of curiosity about biological relatives or want to meet a biological parent or half-sibling, but enough do to make me think the United States should make it easier for people like Marsh and Harrison to meet. Perhaps it is time for the U.S. to follow the lead of several European countries and Canada and ban anonymous sperm and egg donation. The resulting offspring should have a right to the name of their biological father or mother when they turn 18 or, at a minimum, should be given access to information about the medical history of their biological relatives.

For the same reason, I think adoptees ought to have a right to a copy of their original birth certificates and the names of their biological parents if they want that information. It is information that nearly everyone else has. Why should donor conceived people and adoptees be denied it?


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