Thirty-eight years ago, in vitro fertilization revolutionized our concept of family structures by creating the first generation of children born of donor cells.
With many of these children now well into adulthood, researchers are looking at the impact these children have had on society, as well as the challenges and lessons learned. In an interesting twist, these donor babies are now looking to return the honor to a new generation of families — offering them the same gift of life they were given themselves.
Menno Jansen (not his real name), told LifeZette he knew he wanted to be a sperm donor from the time he was 17. It wasn't until a short time later, however, that the 34-year-old from the Netherlands found out he was donor-conceived. When he turned 18, he followed through on his plans and donated several times over a span of about six years.
"It's different for me (as a donor) because my parents needed a donor, too," Jansen said. "I'm helping people like my own parents. It makes being a donor more emotional."
Jansen said he is happy to be contributing to the second generation of donor-conceived children. He's perfectly fine with the notion that he was donor-conceived.
"It made it extra clear I was planned and not an accident," he said.
Though he has decided not to seek out his donor, he believes in openness from parents and opposes anonymous donations.
"It's much better to keep things out in the open from the start. It saves a lot of unnecessary problems," he said, reflecting on the stress his family went through in keeping the secret of his conception for so long. "My mother was quite stressed to tell us. All the stress — it was not necessary."
When Jansen first became a donor, he had the option of being known, or staying anonymous. As an advocate for donor-conceived individuals, he chose to always be a known donor.
Today, the Netherlands requires all donors to be known, while in the United States most donors remain anonymous.
"Twenty percent of donor offspring in our study said that, as adults, they themselves had already donated their own sperm or eggs or been a surrogate mother," said the Institute for American Values in 2010 research.
Though the organization claims that 1 in 5 donor offspring will become donors themselves, Dr. Nicholas Shamma of IVF Michigan disagrees.
President and CEO of the largest third-party reproductive clinic in Michigan and Ohio, Shamma said that in his 30 years of experience, "I have not come across a single donor, not one donor, who is themselves a product of oocyte donation or sperm donation."
This discrepancy is likely because donation clinics and agencies require a thorough genetic history before accepting someone as a donor, Shamma said. Since many donor-conceived individuals do not have access to information on their donor-parents, providing this information becomes impossible.
However, many people opt for private donations that are not facilitated by a clinic or agency.
In the United States, parents who use either private or agency-matched donations still have the option to keep the donation a secret from their children.
"Thirty-five to 60 percent of parents never tell their kids," Shamma said. "So those kids will grow up never knowing they were a product of sperm donation and/or egg donation."
Shamma does not make recommendations to his patients, but says he would never tell his children about the truth of their conception, should he and his wife ever require the assistance of a sperm or egg donor.
While Jansen and Shamma disagree on the point of anonymous donors, they agree it is highly unlikely anonymous donations will cause problems for society.
"The chances of two randomly chosen people who fall in love, get married and have a family being genetically related is extremely rare, even though there are more people using oocyte donation and sperm donation," Shamma said.
What we still must worry about is the social and psychological impact that third-party reproduction has on the children conceived through anonymous donations, say some. While Shamma claims children who are conceived through egg or sperm donation are not more likely to suffer from social or psychological problems, the first-hand experience of individuals such as Jansen suggests otherwise.
Damian Jones (not his real name), a 41-year-old Australian man who was conceived through a donor, said he once considered becoming a donor, but decided against it.
"My views changed 180 degrees after having my own children. While others may disagree, I would now view the act of donating as giving away my own children and the siblings of the children that I already have — something I would have an extremely hard time living with," he said.
While medical professionals and legislators set guidelines for donor anonymity in the United States, it is ultimately up to parents to decide what information they choose to share with their children.
"Children grow up. They will become adults. They will make up their own minds. They can either look or not look (for their donor). Parents should be prepared for both," Jansen said.