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Donor-Conceived Children Seek Missing Identities

Kathleen LaBounty, here with her daughter, Lexi, has been searching for her biological father.
Courtesy of Kathleen LaBounty
Kathleen LaBounty, here with her daughter, Lexi, has been searching for her biological father.

Second in a two-part report.

Sperm donation has long been shrouded in secrecy, and that seemed in the best interest of both the donors and the couples who used their sperm. But now a generation of donor-conceived children has come of age, and many believe they should have the right to know who their biological parents are.

Kathleen LaBounty is among the most outspoken to make this case. Growing up outside Houston, she knew she was different from the rest of her family. She pulls out a photo of herself standing with some cousins.

"The top of my head comes up to maybe their shoulders," she laughs. "I think I look quite ridiculous!"

Then there were her vivid blue eyes, her drawing talent and other traits that seemed to come from nowhere. LaBounty remembers the day her mom told her, at age 8, that "a nice man had given us his sperm." She says it actually made her love her dad all the more, since he was treating her just like she was his own. But she also grew intensely curious about who this donor was.

"Sometimes when I look in the mirror I feel like it's a reflection of a stranger," she says, "because there are just pieces of me I can't identify."

A Longing To Know

For a long time, LaBounty assumed the man wanted nothing to do with her — until she learned he'd had no choice. In the early '80s, some donors signed contracts promising never to search for offspring. The fertility clinic her mom used actually mixed sperm from two or three men, so no one knew which actually fertilized the egg.

The only thing LaBounty did know about her donor?

"He went to Baylor College of Medicine in May of 1981, when I was conceived," she says. "And perhaps he had blue eyes, but that's not even a guarantee."

In her guest room, LaBounty pulls down a big white box full of research. She photocopied six years' worth of Baylor College of Medicine yearbooks, tracked down all 600 men and sent them letters.

LaBounty included photos of herself and said she'd found a place to do non-legally binding DNA tests. She was astounded when 250 men replied. Some clearly freaked out, asking her not to contact them again. But to her surprise, most were incredibly supportive. One said he'd waited 26 years to get a letter like that and felt sure he was the guy. But a flurry of correspondence, then DNA tests, found no match. It was an emotional roller coaster.

"One man actually told me he was heartbroken," she says. "Another man started crying. And these are grown doctors, so I did not anticipate that reaction at all."

As test after test failed, LaBounty says, she felt a mounting sense of loss, as if the pain of her infertile parents had been transferred to her.

She also sees hypocrisy: Couples use donor sperm or egg because they very much want at least some biological connection to their child. And yet, she says, by using anonymous donors they cut off that child's other links.

"And not just with the biological father, but aunts, uncles, grandparents. It's half of the family," she says.

Not all donor kids are this curious — and certainly not all as persistent. But LaBounty is among an outspoken group publicly agitating for change. They speak at conferences. They wage impassioned Internet campaigns. And they're avidly following a landmark lawsuit in Canada.

"It was always just, 'Who was he? And how did it relate to who I was becoming?'" says Olivia Pratten, who's waging that class-action suit, even though she's discovered her own sperm donor records have been destroyed.

If genetics don't matter, she asks, then why don't they just hand out babies at random in the maternity ward? Like LaBounty, Pratten is haunted by her donor's absence, haunted by the fact that he could be anybody.

"My mom and I have said that we could all get on the bus, and him — the biological father/sperm donor — could be sitting there, and none of us would realize that they had a child together. It's a little unsettling, honestly," Pratten says.

Pratten notes that adopted children have slowly won the right to know their biological parents. Her lawsuit contends that donor-conceived kids should have the same right. After all, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, Sweden and a handful of others have all banned anonymous sperm and egg donation.

"If that's the only way someone will do it," Pratten says, "then no, go away. It's unethical as far as I'm concerned."

A Donor's Take

In May, the court sided with Pratten. But the provincial government of British Columbia has appealed, arguing that what's paramount is a donor's right to privacy.

Many American donors, like 28-year-old Thuy, agree.

"Being identified as somebody's biological mom after this process seems a little silly to me," she says by phone from her office on the West Coast.

Thuy has donated her eggs four times. She feels it's nothing at all like adoption, in which a woman actually bears a child and gives it up.

"I feel like it's a little more sterile," she says. "It's a 10-day process at that, and it's just not really something that I'm emotionally attached to."

She finds it gratifying to help other couples, but says she'd never do it if she had to disclose her identity. We're not using her last name because Thuy hasn't even told her mom she's donated eggs and doubts she'd approve. And if Thuy faced a phone call or knock on the door in 20 years?

"I wouldn't know what I would say to that person," she says. "So I don't know that they would get a lot out of it."

This past summer, a watershed law took effect in Washington state. It says egg and sperm donors must release "identifying information" if a donor-conceived child requests it after age 18. But donors can easily opt out, so it's unclear whether the law will have much practical impact. Still, assisted reproduction attorney Mark Demaray says it's a step.

"At least it requires the clinics to have a conversation with any donor," he says. "So they need to think about what that means 18 years from now. And I think that's a good discussion to have for both recipient families and for donors."

'I'll Know Somebody'

In Houston, LaBounty now has two young children of her own and isn't about to give up her search for her biological father. She'd like to know her medical history more than ever, for her children's sake.

She recently had her 18th DNA test. No match. But through Web sites that offer genetic testing, LaBounty has discovered a series of distant cousins and learned her paternal roots are Ashkenazi Jew, from Eastern Europe.

"Honestly, I think that eventually I'll find him or a sibling. It's probably not today, or tomorrow, or a year. But I think 20 or 30 years from now I'll know somebody," she says.

In fact, she's tempted to write again to the Jewish men back in that Baylor class of '81.

This story was produced for broadcast by Marisa Penaloza.

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Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.