Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Family Dynamics

Why are Sperm and Eggs Still Sold Anonymously?

Personal Perspective: The consequences of donor anonymity.

Key points

  • Mandated donor anonymity affects donors, parents, and most importantly, donor-conceived people.
  • Knowing one's family medical history is crucial: sharing/updating medical information with close genetic relatives can save lives.
  • Most sperm and egg donors are not contacted after their donations for medical updates.
  • All donor family members can benefit from connecting right from pregnancy/birth of the donor child.

Sperm banks and egg clinics still mandate and promise donor anonymity, either for 18 years or forever.

When purchasing sperm or eggs, most people are given a "donor profile" that has non-identifying information about the donor, including self-reported medical information. This information preserves anonymity and offers no further outlet for medical questions a would-be parent may have. Many published research studies, along with many years of anecdotal information, tell us that donor anonymity has a negative impact on many people: medically, psychologically, and socially. It has affected not only donor-conceived people but also their parents, donors, and even the donor’s family.

Medical consequences of anonymity

Many health problems are heritable, including both physical and psychological health issues. Many diseases are adult-onset — which can appear long after donations have occurred. While many facilities claim to update (and share) updated medical information, most rarely do. So, for many years after a donation, children who share the donor’s DNA may develop medical and health concerns that can only be properly addressed (eg. with medical screenings or preventative medicine) with the donor’s updated information. Conversely, it might be crucial for a donor to know about any medical issues reported by families, in part, because the donor may someday have children of his or her own. Anonymity precludes ongoing access to medical information.

Earlier research (2009 and 2012) reported:

  • 97% of egg donors and 84% of sperm donors have never been contacted to update their medical records.
  • 31% of egg donors and 23% of sperm donors report that they, or immediate family members, do have medical/genetic issues that would be important to share with families.

A 2021 study of 363 egg donors revealed that not much has changed in the egg donation business, as more than 94% reported never being contacted by a clinic for any medical updates after donation and almost 25% indicated that they or close family members have medical/genetic issues that would be important to share with families.
For medical reasons alone, donor anonymity is unconscionable.

Psychological effects of anonymity on donor-conceived people

  • Wondering where they got some of their physical characteristics,
  • Wondering where they got their talents and personality traits,
  • Curiosity about family history and ancestry,
  • A longing to know and/or connect with their unknown genetic parent and other close relatives.

Donor-conceived people desire to know more about themselves, find connections, and fill in the missing pieces. In a 2021 study of 529 donor-conceived people, they were asked: Have you ever sought professional support or counseling regarding your donor conception origins? More than 29% answered "yes".

In an earlier survey of 2,103 people, we asked: “If your donor is anonymous, do you wish that your parent(s) would have used a willing-to-be-known or known donor?”

  • 58.6% of offspring in LGBTQ+ families said yes.
  • 73.3% of offspring with heterosexual parent(s) said yes.
Source: adragan8@123rf

Donor-conceived people are left to wonder why the rights of the sperm/egg banks/clinics (to make money), the rights of the parents (to have a child), and the rights of the donors (who at the time agreed to or had no choice about anonymity) outweigh their own rights to know where they come from. Nowhere in the conversations regarding sperm bank and egg clinic policies have the needs and rights of the donor-conceived people been considered. It's time to give them a voice regarding donor anonymity, and it’s time to move away from the antiquated idea of anonymity being in everyone’s best interests.

Many egg clinics now connect parents and donors right from pregnancy/birth on the Donor Sibling Registry. They can exchange messages and share medical information and photos, all while remaining anonymous to each other if desired. Not a single sperm bank offers this to parents and donors. We ask: Why not?

Psychological effects of anonymity on parents

One of the main arguments for maintaining donor anonymity is to protect the non-biological parent’s status and to ensure the family’s integrity. In these cases, donor anonymity lends itself to parents not disclosing the method of conception to their children, family members, or friends. Parents can become quite invested in keeping this secret. From their point of view, non-disclosure is a personal choice that they as the parents have the right to make for their family. Parents who make this choice do not like to hear about why not telling (lying by omission) might be harmful to their children and unhealthy for their families. What these parents don’t understand is that secrecy implies shame. Carrying these secrets can weigh heavily on parents and cause cracks in the foundations of their family relationships. Healthy families are based on honesty.

Even when the method of conception is disclosed, or is obvious, such as in LGBTQ families, the concept of donor anonymity is often based on fear. Parents are sometimes misled to believe that choosing an anonymous sperm or egg donor will keep an unwanted party from intruding on their lives. This misleading and incomplete information is given to parents as they make decisions that will affect their children for decades to come. In reality, donors who donate through sperm banks or egg clinics have no parental rights or responsibilities, nor do they desire them in this scenario.

Similarly, parents are led to believe that by choosing an anonymous donor, they are giving up their right to the donor’s identity. Some parents have stated that because they made an agreement to use an anonymous donor, they felt ethically bound to not try to gain any information. Even if their children later express a desire to know the donor’s identity, these parents can feel trapped and guilty.

Psychological effects of anonymity on donors

Sperm and egg donors are typically young, often college-age when they donate. Because the majority of donors are not properly counseled or educated about the children they are about to help produce, they frequently make their donations without thinking about the psychological consequences of doing so. Donors sign an agreement that clearly protects and releases them from any obligations and rights to any children who are born as a result of their donation. But they often don’t consider how they will feel about those children as time goes on.

They may struggle with an overwhelming desire to meet children born from their donations — or at least have some kind of contact with them. They may wonder whether those children look like them, act like them, or share their interests. In addition, they might have important medical information to update and share. They may have children of their own who are curious about half-siblings and parents who would like to know if they have grandchildren. In addition, they might have important medical information to update and share. They may be shocked to learn about dozens or hundreds of offspring and have no idea how to manage new connections. Young donors who are not properly educated or counseled at the time of donating oftentimes don't anticipate their own (or their family's) future needs or the needs of the resulting children they are helping to create.

Social consequences of anonymity

An important social consequence of donor anonymity is that donor-conceived people might unknowingly encounter their biological half-siblings. The world is becoming smaller and smaller, and even donor-conceived half-siblings who live halfway across the world from one another may someday meet.

But more likely, donor-conceived people might encounter half-siblings in their own backyard. In one group on the Donor Sibling Registry, consisting of children from a donor who donated at multiple facilities located in two different states, five separate sets of these half-siblings have encountered one another in their day-to-day lives. Two girls who attended the same school and played on the same sports team discovered that they were genetic half-sisters when their parents started chatting one day. Two sets of parents in the group were friends before conceiving and only discovered during their pregnancies that they had used the same donor. Many more instances of this sort of meeting can be documented.

Not only is it possible for donor-conceived people to meet their donor siblings by chance — it’s also just as possible for them to meet their donor’s own biological children. One donor-conceived girl was the camp counselor for the son of her (then-unknown) biological father. Chance meetings are a social consequence of donor anonymity and can cause serious psychological and/or medical consequences in cases of non-disclosure if unknown genetic siblings meet and eventually date or marry.

It is an innate human desire to know who and where we come from.

Is it ethical to keep a person from their close genetic relatives for the first 18 years of their lives? Never in history, anywhere in the world, has this been accepted practice. It's just what the reproductive medicine industry has sold us, along with the gametes.

Donors and parents can be connected to each other right from pregnancy/birth on the Donor Sibling Registry.

More from Wendy Kramer
More from Psychology Today
More from Wendy Kramer
More from Psychology Today