In February 2001, Slate launched “Seed,” a three-month series about the Repository for Germinal Choice, the “Nobel Prize” sperm bank that was started by California industrialist Robert Graham in 1980 and closed in 1999. Slate searched for the 200-odd children conceived through the “genius sperm bank,” their parents, and the men who donated the sperm for them. (At the bottom of the page, you’ll find links to the 13 other articles in the Seed series, including the introduction explaining the project.)
The article that generated by far the most reader response chronicled the hunt for Donor White. The piece, which you can read here, recounted the story of “Beth” and her now 11-year-old daughter, “Joy.” Beth, whose husband had had a vasectomy, conceived Joy using sperm from the repository donor identified as “White # 6.” According to the description in the repository catalog, Donor White was an accomplished scientist born in the 1930s who liked running and gardening. Employees at the repository told Beth that other mothers who used Donor White had “happy babies.” That’s what Beth got: a happy, blond infant, who has grown up into a happy, blond, ballet-dancing, Harry Potter-loving, horseback-riding little girl.
Beth wanted to thank the man who gave her this gift, so when Joy was 7 months old, Beth arranged to leave the baby at the repository’s Escondido, Calif., office for a few hours. Beth, who then lived nearby, dropped Joy off with the office manager, Dora Vaux. Vaux immediately called Donor White, who also lived in Southern California. The donor and his wife rushed over to meet his baby daughter. They brought Joy a Fisher-Price doll. When the visit ended, he told Vaux he “would live on that moment for the rest of his life.”
As Joy grew up, Beth sent photographs of her to the repository, always enclosing an extra copy for Donor White. In 1995, Donor White responded by writing Joy a birthday card, in care of the repository. The repository covered up his signature but forwarded the card to Beth. Soon Beth and Donor White were corresponding regularly through the repository. (Beth, understandably, didn’t tell 5-year-old Joy about it.) Beth sent the donor a Father’s Day card. He mailed back a poem he wrote about Joy, “A Figure of Red on a Field of White.” He said that he hoped Joy would follow him into science since he and his wife had no children of their own. He and his wife signed their letters “your adoptive grandparents.” In one Christmastime note, he told Beth that he hoped he might someday, somehow meet his daughter.
Then, in early 1997, the letters stopped. Dora Vaux had left the sperm bank. A new manager and the board of directors worried that the correspondence violated the repository’s confidentiality rules. The repository wrote a note to Beth: “We simply cannot continue to share Joy with the donor.”
Beth was devastated. She and Joy were alone in the world. She had divorced from Joy’s “social” father, and she had no other children. In 2000, when Joy was 9, Beth finally told her about her genetic father. She read Joy one of Donor White’s letters and gave her the Fisher-Price doll she had kept for all those years. Joy told Beth that she thought of Donor White “as being like Professor Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books.” Joy said she wanted to meet him.
When Beth saw Seed, she called Slate. She knew that Donor White wanted to find her as much as she wanted to find him, and she thought Slate’s articles—and our offer to be a conduit—were her only chance. “A Mother Searches for ‘Donor White’ ” appeared on Feb. 27, 2001, inviting Donor White to contact me confidentially. Beth and I got our hopes up. Scores of readers wrote to sympathize with Beth and Joy. Dozens of offspring from other sperm banks e-mailed me to ask Slate to find their donor fathers. But not a word came from Donor White.
Three TV newsmagazines contacted Slate wanting to interview Beth and Joy. Beth, protective of her family’s privacy and Joy’s innocence, agonized about the offers and eventually refused. Beth and I kept corresponding. “I can’t believe that he knows about us and is choosing not to contact Joy. You will see from the letter how warm and unguarded he was,” she wrote. “I can imagine him, a 70-year-old man, with no children to call his own, looking at these pictures of Joy and just being overcome with all kinds of emotions. I wish he could see them.”
Then, on June 12, 2002, a long e-mail appeared in my inbox. It began, “This is Donor White …”
Donor White, it seems, isn’t much of an Internet user, and he had never heard of Slate. But on June 11, he had used a search engine for the first time. He typed “genius sperm bank” into alltheweb.com. It pulled up “A Mother Searches for ‘Donor White.’ ” He was stunned.
In his initial e-mail, which you can read here, Donor White offered details to verify his identity. He described how he had been recruited into the repository in 1984, when he was working in a California high-tech company. He gave a careful account of the visit he had with Joy in 1991. He mentioned that he’d fathered 11 boys and eight girls through the repository. He described how Dora Vaux inadvertently let him learn the identities of two other children—a brother and sister—and that for years he ran by their house so he could watch them grow up. He ended the note like this:
“I cannot imagine that some of the donors contacted have said that they rarely think about their children, because I think of mine very often. Indeed, I expect that they will be included among my last conscious thoughts on this sweet earth.”
Donor White asked me to forward the e-mail to Beth, but before I would, I needed to verify his identity. Every corroborating fact he gave about the repository could have been gathered from press reports. So I quizzed him about details of his family history that he revealed in his earlier letters to Beth, letters that she had passed on to me. (I asked him where his ancestors were from, how old his mother was, how one of his grandfathers died, and what Beth’s and Joy’s real first names were.) He nailed the answers.
So who is Donor White—no, not his name—and why was he involved in the “Nobel Prize” sperm bank? Read about him here.
The night I got Donor White’s answers, I called Beth and forwarded his first e-mail to her. I included Donor White’s e-mail address so she could write him directly. Beth was ecstatic and wrote back instantly. Donor White received her e-mail on Father’s Day. They immediately struck up a giddy, loving correspondence. He traced his family tree for Beth, described his mother and father, told family stories, and sent a poem that his mother had written. Donor White charmed Beth with his straightforward warmth. “I am so emotional I am having a hard time concentrating,” she wrote me in a late June e-mail.
Beth kept the news from Joy for three weeks. “I needed time to settle down, I was on an emotional high. … I just wanted to tell her in the best way possible.” When Beth told Joy that she’d found Donor White, her daughter asked, “When can I meet him!!?”
On July Fourth, Joy wrote her first e-mail to Donor White. Since then, Joy and Donor White have been messaging each other two or three times a week. She writes to him about school, dance, track, her summer vacation. Joy advised him to see the Harry Potter movie before reading the book. Donor White talked about his pets and favorite books and passed on stories about their ancestors. Joy asked what she should call Donor White and his wife, and they decided to use first names. They sent each other photographs. Writes Donor White, “I was most highly pleased with Joy, and my photo was not so bad that it caused her to change her mind about a visit with us.”
At the end of August, Beth and Joy will travel to California to spend a few days with Donor White and his wife. He is going to take them to a favorite garden, for a walk on the beach, and to see a museum that might interest Joy. “Mostly, though, I think that we will visit in our home, as I have a good many things to show Joy that I believe will be of interest to her, including photographs of several of her half-siblings.”
And so there is a happy ending, or, rather, a happy beginning.
It is a beginning that could foreshadow many more. Approximately 30,000 children per year are born from anonymous sperm donations—probably half a million kids in the two decades the practice has flourished. But when Donor White and Joy see each other in a few weeks, it will be one of the first times in history that an anonymous sperm donor has met his child—and the only time a donor and child have met without the help of the sperm bank. (There has been one published case of a bank helping a child meet her donor. But sperm bank experts I contacted have not heard about any other encounters between a child and an anonymous donor. Some American sperm banks are experimenting with “identity-release” programs that will allow kids to meet donors after they turn 18. Read about them here.)
Was it wrong for Slate to break the confidentiality the repository required? Read a discussion about this.
America appears on the cusp of a revolution in the relationship between donors and offspring. In the last few decades, the United States has been astonished by the vigorous campaign of adoptees to break open adoption records. A similar movement among sperm bank children seems inevitable. This is an age of genetic determinism. People increasingly demand to know their genetic heritage. Sperm bank kids are missing half of their genetic history, and they want to know it. A California court recently ordered a sperm bank to reveal the identity of a donor to his offspring when it turned out the donor had failed to mention a rare gene-linked illness in his medical history.
The wall of secrecy around sperm banks is cracking. In the past, families always hid their use of donor sperm in order to protect fathers. But more and more sperm bank customers are single women and lesbians, who don’t need to pretend.
The result of these changes: Sperm bank kids will soon be demanding names. The first large cohort of sperm bank kids is now in its late teens. Unlike donor offspring of the ‘50s and ‘60s, many of them know their parents used a bank. As they enter adulthood and start their own families—which is the time people get curious about their past—they may start insisting that sperm banks open their sealed records. (Seed suggests that the Web could be another mechanism for donors and children to find each other. The Single Mothers by Choice Web site, for example, has a “sibling registry” where sperm bank moms can look for other kids from their donor.) The sperm bank kids may not succeed in opening records: The law isn’t on their side. But Americans changed their minds about the rights of adoptees, and adoption records are easier and easier to open. Will they change their mind again if thousands of donor offspring demand to know their origins?
What will happen if donors and children do start finding each other? In some respects, donor offspring are like adoptees: They have a genetic parental relationship that challenges a social parental relationship. Adoptees and their birth parents don’t necessarily find happiness when they meet, and there’s no reason to assume that donors and their children will have it easy. But unlike adoptees, donor offspring are unlikely to be troubled by feelings of abandonment.
Donor White and Joy seem likely to avoid many of the emotional conflicts that others might face. Donor White is too old to be Joy’s father, so their relationship already resembles a grandparent-grandchild bond more than a parental one. Joy’s social father, while not enthusiastic about the reunion, isn’t trying to prevent it. Donor White has no children of his own, so he doesn’t have to worry about hurting the feelings of his own kids when he pays attention to Joy. Still, who knows how it will turn out in reality? Slate will keep in touch with Donor White, Beth, and Joy to discover what happens in their new family.
The original idea of Seed was to see what became of the children born from the “Nobel Prize” sperm bank. We were happily surprised when it turned out that people were just as interested in lost families as in genius babies—and that Slate, purely by accident, had become a tool for helping donors and repository families find each other.
This is a task we welcome. I’ve heard from several other repository donors who would like to meet their children and from several other repository mothers who would like to meet their donors or have their children meet unknown siblings. (Slate has introduced two half-siblings from one donor and plans to introduce several others to each other in coming weeks.)
Beth and Donor White hope their story will inspire other Donor White families to seek them out. Beth would like siblings for Joy. Donor White would love to know more about his other, lost family.
To other parents who conceived children using Donor White’s sperm: If you would like to be in touch with Donor White or with your child’s half-sister, Joy, and Joy’s mom, Beth, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at (202) 261-1370. All contacts will be considered confidential.
If you are a parent, child, or donor who wants to find lost repository relatives, Slate wants to hear from you and to help you find them. Please e-mail me at email@example.com or call me at (202) 261-1370. All contacts will be considered confidential.