The search for a sperm-donor father
November 22, 2009
By: Megan Ogilvie, Health Reporter
The two young men have the same broad, sloping foreheads, straight brows and receding hairlines.
They both like baseball – they're Blue Jays fans despite the winning drought – are outspoken and articulate, and have a similar barking laugh.
Four months after finding each other, Rob Hunter and Kevin Martin also want to know if they share something else: the same biological father.
Hunter, 24, and Martin, 23, were conceived with donated sperm. In the mid-1980s, their mothers sought help from the same small fertility clinic at the Health Sciences Centre in London, Ont. After their husbands were deemed infertile, the two women chose to be impregnated with a stranger's sperm. Neither one wanted – or was encouraged – to meet the donor.
Now, almost a quarter of a century later, Hunter and Martin want to know the identity of the man whose DNA helped form every cell in their bodies.
But in Canada, where egg and sperm donors have the right to remain anonymous, Hunter, Martin and other donor-conceived children face a long, often futile, search to find their genetic origins. And they are fed up with playing detective.
"There's this whole half of me that is completely missing," says Hunter, who has been looking for his biological father for two years. "To be asked why you want to look is like asking why you have to breathe. It's an essential component of human nature to want to know more about yourself and how you got to be here."
The first big wave of donor-conceived children, born during the fertility industry boom of the 1980s, is now coming of age. Vocal, motivated and often furious, these young men and women are banding together to tell the fertility community that anonymous donation is wrong.
They say it is their intrinsic right to know their genetic background, that they are being denied critical information about their medical history, that they are worried they might unknowingly have sex with a half-sibling. And they possess a deep desire to learn their full family heritage.
In recent years, they have received support from ethicists, psychiatrists and social workers who have seen first-hand how donor-conceived children struggle to form an identity. They point to adoption, which has become largely a child-centred practice, and ask why infertile couples and the fertility industry have yet to place children first.
Research, too, is showing the majority of donor-conceived children who meet their donor and half-siblings report that the new relationships have a positive impact on their life.
Other countries, including Sweden, Austria and the United Kingdom, as well as a number of Australian states, have decided a child's right to know their genetic background supercedes the parents' and donor's right to privacy.
Donor-conceived children say it is time Canada did as well.
"I don't think anyone could say, if they found out their dad was not their real dad, that they wouldn't want to know who has the other half of their DNA," says Martin, a fourth-year international relations student at the University of Windsor.
"That I don't know who he is just keeps coming up over and over again. It's something that eats at you every day."
HUNTER AND MARTIN are meeting for the first time at a Kitchener train station on a drizzly morning in late autumn. Until now, they have only corresponded by email and sent each other the occasional text message.
They had planned to meet at a coffee shop in the same Waterloo plaza where Hunter owns an ice cream franchise. But Martin's train from Windsor was delayed, and Hunter had an afternoon meeting in Toronto, so they end up first shaking hands in the entranceway of the Kitchener VIA station.
After a few minutes of small talk, the two sit next to each other on a long wooden bench in the station's waiting area. Like a blind date, the meeting is full of shy smiles, stilted conversation and sideways glances. Both men admit they had trouble sleeping the night before.
"I tell you," says Hunter, turning to look at Martin. "I used to have long hair, I used to have very long hair and it was exactly like that."
Martin glances at his shoulder-length mane, then softly chuckles.
Hunter was 22 when he found out how he was conceived. His grandmother, after drinking one too many toddies, let it slip during an evening visit with her grandson.
"She looked me right in the eye and said, `You know your dad is not your real dad,'" says Hunter, who confronted his mother the next day. "It was heartbreaking to find out that she had kept that from me for so long."
Five months later, when Hunter became curious about his biological father, he called the London fertility clinic. It took six months of badgering doctors and social workers before Hunter was told his donor's number – 188 – and another year before he learned that his donor had brown hair, brown eyes and was born between 1959 and 1964.
It was not enough.
"There's so much curiosity," says Hunter. "I want to see how we're alike, how we're different. Is he in business? Is he not? Does he run marathons? All the stuff that is unique to me, you wonder how much of it comes from my mom or comes from the environment or comes from the donor."
In June, Hunter was featured in The London Free Press in an article about sperm donation. Martin's mother saw it and passed it on to her son, who then contacted Hunter to find out how he had learned the few details about his donor. He also had to find out whether Hunter could be his half-sibling.
"The resemblance was striking," Martin recalls. "I've never met anyone who more closely resembles me in my life. It's quite scary."
Martin has known since he was 12 that his mother used donor sperm to conceive. "I remember sitting on my couch, and she told me that I was born thanks to a group of people who wanted to help mothers have babies."
It was only when he turned 20 that Martin says an overwhelming curiosity compelled him to search for his sperm donor. He also began to wonder how he could spend the rest of his life missing half of his identity.
"It's impossible to comprehend what it's like not to know," he says. "I began to think of myself as being oppressed as a citizen as opposed to someone who just doesn't know who their father is."