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“Who am I?”: The ethics of sperm and egg donation

Daniel Groll, PhD, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Carleton College; Affiliate Faculty, Center for Bioethics, University of Minnesota

This post is part of our "Bioethics in Focus" series featuring experts from the Center for Bioethics community. 

Picture your parents in your mind. Maybe that’s easy for you to do. But maybe it’s not. Maybe the people that raised you are not the people you’re genetically related to. Maybe you think about two kinds of parents: your social parents and your genetic parents. And maybe when you think of one of your genetic parents, you’re not actually picturing someone in particular…because you don’t know who that person is.

Each year, tens of thousands of children are conceived with donated sperm or eggs. By some estimates, there are over 1 million donor-conceived people in the United States and many more the world over. Anonymous sperm or egg donation – where the identity of the donor is never intended to be made available to the donor-conceived person – is prohibited in places like the UK and Sweden. In these countries, donor-conceived people may learn the identity of their donor when they turn eighteen. 

In other countries, such as the United States and Canada, anonymous sperm or egg donation is not only allowed, but commonly practiced. The children created from anonymous donations may never know who one of their genetic parents is.    

Is this a problem? Here’s one thing we know: many donor-conceived people want to know who their donor is. In a 2014 study, 82% of donor-conceived people who knew they were donor-conceived expressed an interest to know their donor. But, findings like this should be taken with a grain of salt. Donor-conceived people who are uninterested in acquiring genetic knowledge are less likely to participate in these kinds of studies because they are less likely to learn about the studies in the first place, and less likely to participate in them when they do. Even so, the desire to know is plausibly very common among donor-conceived people. 

Clearly, there can be important medical reasons for wanting to know your genetic origins. However, medical information can, in principle, be obtained without knowing the identity of the donor. More importantly, many donor-conceived people are interested in knowing who their donor is for reasons that have nothing to do with the medical reasons. What should we make of that?

We may think someone’s desire to know their donor’s identity reflects the fundamental importance of having such knowledge for self-understanding. A desire to know the identity of your donor, in this view, is thought to be natural and near-universal. If that’s true, then it’s very easy to conclude that people have a right to know who their donor is and that, as a result, conceiving children with anonymously donated sperm or eggs is wrong (even if, due to cheap and easy genetic testing, it’s becoming easier to untangle the mystery of one’s genetic origins). 

There are two problems with this way of seeing things. First, even if many donor-conceived people have a desire for genetic knowledge, many do not. Some have no interest whatsoever and still live full lives with no sense that something important is missing. This strongly suggests that having genetic knowledge is not fundamentally important in the way suggested above. 

The second problem is that people’s desire for genetic knowledge does not exist in a vacuum. We live in a society that takes the traditional family structure – a mother and father who are genetic progenitors of their children – as the gold standard of what a family should be. Relatedly, we tend to attribute a lot of significance to genetic ties and “blood”. We are inclined to offer reductive and simplistic (pseudo-)genetic explanations of people’s behavior, mannerisms, and personalities. We are, for example, apt to treat a shared sense of humor or quickness of temper or a love of dancing between parent and child as akin to sharing blue eyes or detached earlobes, as simply a matter of genes being passed down from genetic parent to child. To put it simply: our culture tends to treat genetics as destiny. 

Once we see this, the desire for genetic knowledge looks less like a natural, universal desire and more like a culturally-mediated desire, one that reflects problematic attitudes about what families are, and should be, like. In such a culture, is it any surprise that people who are donor-conceived want to know who their donor is? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take people’s desire to know their donors seriously. But it does mean that we should critically examine it and work to challenge the culture that gives rise to it.

When we do, we might conclude that, setting aside medical reasons, there is nothing of genuine significance in people’s desire to know their donor’s identity. We might think that it is akin to some boys’ desire to not cry in front of their friends: a culturally produced and deeply problematic desire that boys (indeed everyone) would be better off without.

I think that is going too far; even if the desire to know ones’ donor is culturally mediated and even if it does arise in a culture that unjustifiably valorizes genetic ties, knowing who your genetic progenitors are can be a genuine source of self-knowledge. 

But it is important to see that it is just one possible source among many. And people can be intentional about where in their lives they find sources of self-knowledge. Some people will look for it in their genetic lineage. Others will not. And that’s fine. In other words: knowing your genetic progenitors is a potentially valuable, but optional source of self-knowledge. 

What does this mean for people intending to conceive children with donated sperm or eggs? Should they choose a donor whose identity will be available to the resulting child? The answer, I think, is yes. Prospective parents have good reason to think that their child will have a desire to know the identity of their donor. And that desire is tracking something genuinely valuable, even if it is not necessary for self-knowledge. 

One important part of being a parent is putting your child in a position to achieve what they want, provided that what they want is worthwhile. The implication is clear for prospective parents planning to conceive with donated sperm or eggs: they have good reason to think their child will want to know the donor’s identity (assuming, of course, that you don’t intend to lie to them about the fact they are donor-conceived. That’s a whole other kettle of fish, morally speaking). And that means they should care too.

Interested in exploring this topic more? Register for the Webinar “"Who Am I?" A Conversation About Identity, Donor Conception, & Family” with Daniel Groll, Libby Copeland, Anya Steinbeg and Samantha Brennan.