Anonymous sperm donors are connecting with their donor offspring

Wednesday 12 February 2020

A son and father with backs to the camera.

The research is a collaboration between Swinburne, La Trobe University and the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA).

In summary

  • Anonymous sperm donors in Victoria are unexpectedly requesting information about their offspring
  • Research is based on 42 Statements of Reasons as part of the application process for finding out about donor relatives
  • It helps understand donor linking which is the exchange of information between people connected via donor conception treatment

Previously anonymous sperm donors in Victoria are unexpectedly requesting information about their offspring, according to new research.

A law introduced in Victoria in 2017 allows all donor-conceived adults and their descendants to apply for and receive identifying information about their donor, regardless of when conception took place.

Donors and recipient parents can also continue to apply for and receive identifying information with the consent of the appropriate person, independent of when conception of a donor-conceived person (DCP) occurred.

Since the change in legislation, donor Peter Liston was able to send a request facilitated by the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA) to a daughter from one family and two sons from another.

While Mr Liston had not heard back from these sons, he has had a positive outcome regarding his daughter.

‘Not only did my daughter respond, but she has become a member of the family,’ he says.

‘She came with us on a family holiday last October and is in regular contact with myself and my children. She was as thrilled to find us as we were to find her. Her first comment was “now I have a sister!”.’

When his donor-conceived daughter first met Mr Liston’s younger son, they discovered a shared passion for photography.

“My son is a professional photographer and my ‘donor daughter’ is also part-time professional photographer,” he says.

New research

A new study addressing the question of what information has been sought has found that all categories of people were interested in seeking information about donor relatives.

‘All applicants were curious about the other party and wanted personal information such as their hobbies and interests, occupation, family circumstances and appearance,’ says study investigator, Swinburne Associate Professor Deborah Dempsey.

‘All expressed a desire for some form of contact whether via e-mail, telephone or face to face. Many were particularly interested in exchanging photographs, confirming interest in tracing family resemblances.

‘The findings also revealed that donor-conceived adults tended to be more interested than recipient parents in the donor’s medical history.

The research is based on 42 Statements of Reasons submitted to VARTA as part of the application process for finding out about donor relatives. In these documents, applicants explain why they want to have identifying information or contact.

Searching for connection

An ‘unexpected’ desire on the part of anonymous donors to receive identifying information about their offspring was also revealed, suggesting future research could explore the emotional needs of donors in greater depth.

Study co-investigator La Trobe University Professor Fiona Kelly explains:

‘Previous research indicates that donors applying to voluntary registers are typically curious, concerned for the well-being of their donor offspring and wanting to provide them with information.

‘Our study did not challenge this but additionally found that some donors themselves had emotional needs such as feeling like a part of their family was missing.’

Greater expectations

This research helps understand donor linking, which is the exchange of information between people connected via donor conception treatment, in an environment where it is facilitated and normalised by law.  This has a number of important implications, according to Associate Professor Dempsey. 

‘We found when donor linking is normalised by law and professionally supported, parties may have greater expectations of ongoing contact and relationship building.

‘This may contribute to a new era of openness about donor conception but will also require increased focus on expectation management and the impact of donor linking on all family members. There may also be implications for family law when donors make early contact with children of single mothers.’

University collaboration

The research is a collaboration between Associate Professor Dempsey of Swinburne’s Department of Social Sciences, Professor Fiona Kelly of La Trobe University’s School of Law and the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA). 

Study findings have recently been published in Reproductive Biomedicine and Society Online and The International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family.