Secret sperm donors and the DNA unravelling the truth

David Glen has had five near-death experiences which caused him to take stock on his life. Photo / Michael Craig

A generation of Kiwis were born via sperm donor programmes run by doctors who didn’t keep records. But social attitudes have changed, and DNA-matching websites are unravelling the family secrets, writes Alanah Eriksen.

In his mind, David Glen was simply helping young, infertile couples start a family.

His wife, Susanne, a nurse at Auckland’s National Women’s Hospital, had shared with him one night how hard it was becoming for people to adopt babies in New Zealand. It was the mid-1970s and IVF had not yet been invented so the only way to conceive a child – if the problem was the husband’s sperm – was to use a sperm donor. A professor at the hospital was running what was thought to be the country’s first official programme following years of quiet inseminations in private doctors’ offices.

And so, in their 30s and having completed their own family, the couple decided Glen would help.

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“There was a serious shortage of donors … I was thinking, ‘I’m giving someone a chance at life’.

“I’d get a call, ‘Are you able to give us a donation tomorrow?’ They gave me half a dozen specimen jars at a time and I’d do it at home. My name certainly wasn’t on them.

“From that point on, you didn’t know what happened. I remember saying to Sue, ‘It would be interesting to know if it worked’.”

A generation of Kiwis were born via sperm donor programmes in which doctors told the parents to lie about how their children were conceived. Photo / 123rfA generation of Kiwis were born via sperm donor programmes in which doctors told the parents to lie about how their children were conceived. Photo / 123rf

But it would be 50 years before he would really understand how the children created from his deposits could be affected. He donated at a time when records weren’t kept to say which donor was used for which couple. Doctors were risking their careers carrying out the procedure amid religious opposition, social stigma and worries about donors facing financial responsibilities to resulting offspring.

But while the secrecy protected the donor, it meant the children were stripped of the chance to know their biological father. To know their medical histories, specifically whether they were predisposed to genetic diseases that could be prevented. To know their half-siblings – and avoid unwittingly getting into sexual relationships with them. To avoid tension with their parents when it came to the truth. And to avoid struggles with identity – not least of which stemming from not knowing their full ethnicity.

“It’s so bloody cruel,” Glen tells the Weekend Herald.

Donors were recruited from doctors’ private networks; medical students, husbands of patients or nurses. They would try to match the donor’s hair and eye colour to that of the intended father to avoid doubt. In some cases, sperm from two men was used so there was no way, even for the doctor, to know who the biological father was.

Many had no quota on the number of times a man could donate or on the number of resulting pregnancies – in an early New Zealand study, one man reported donating more than 40 times. In another study, a donor-conceived person grew up thinking their donor had been allowed to be used for only five families and they thought they had nine half- siblings. But at age 22, they discovered there were more families and that they had 18 half-siblings via the same donor.

And doctors told parents to lie to their children about how they came into the world.

But what they wouldn’t have counted on were advances in DNA and the ability to test online. Some of the offspring from that secretive era have tracked down their biological fathers and half-siblings via DNA-matching websites such as ancestry.com and 23andme.com.

But as technology advances, the donors age. Many will be long gone.

“Time is running out,” says Glen, 83, who lost count of how many times he donated.

He has only recently told his own children about his donations and has sent off his DNA in the hope of matching with offspring.

“It got to the stage where I thought I should tell the kids in case something happened. Now they’re saying, ‘We might have a half-sibling. Where would they be?'”

‘It became very damaging’

It’s hard to know when the first New Zealander was conceived using donor sperm because in the early days it was done quietly at private doctors’ clinics, as was happening overseas.

“There were some church reports in the UK that said donor insemination was akin to adultery,” says Professor Ken Daniels, who has been studying artificial insemination for 45 years.

Professor Ken Daniels has been studying artificial insemination for 45 years. Photo / SuppliedProfessor Ken Daniels has been studying artificial insemination for 45 years. Photo / Supplied

“There was a strong concern from doctors that they did not want to be identified with this because there might be a backlash from rights groups. There were also the legal issues – was the donor legally responsible, should the offspring make claims against the donor in the future?”

But desperate couples were ready to try anything for a baby.

“Doctors would often say to the parents to be, ‘Look, there’s no need to tell the child, we can keep it a secret, this is a private matter’. But … as the child grew and started asking questions, the parents struggled with the issues, ‘Am I honest with my kids or not?’ It became very damaging.

“I don’t think doctors realised that when they were advising people to keep it a secret, they were by implication saying, you should be ashamed of what you are doing.

“We’re now trying to pick up the pieces, but we have now made sure that for the future it is very different and it will be a much more positive experience for the young people and the families.”

Dr Dennis Bonham. Photo / NZMEDr Dennis Bonham. Photo / NZME

Professor Dennis Bonham’s sperm donor programme in the 1970s at National Women’s Hospital is thought to have been the first clinic in a public setting. But in 1978 Daniels, a Canterbury University senior lecturer of social work, was contacted by a man who claimed to be a lawyer representing a couple who had had children via donor sperm in the 1940s. This is the earliest he has heard of the practice in New Zealand – but he wasn’t able to stack up the story.

“I always had a sneaking suspicion that it was actually the lawyer’s own family he was talking about, but I just couldn’t get him to give me any identifying information.

“Clearly, this was a family where the parents had not told the kids and now the issue of secrecy was being raised and he was wanting to check out some aspects of that, the clinics and the record-keeping.”

But living proof that artificial insemination using donor sperm was happening pre-1970s came when Daniels came into contact with a woman whose mother accessed fertility treatment in 1950 because her husband was deemed sterile.

The woman, now in her 70s, tells the Weekend Herald she found out she was donor-conceived later in life but it wasn’t until online DNA testing became available that she was able to find out who her biological father was. He had died by then, but she has since connected with half-siblings whose parents used the same donor.

The woman says that once she had the donor’s medical information – which indicated she may have risk factors – she was able to take the information to her doctor to get a checkup.

She explains the impact online DNA testing can have.

“Unless you had been told you were [donor-conceived], you may not even do DNA testing or if you have done DNA for other reasons, struggle to make meaning of the results or not accept the results believing the data is inaccurate.

“If you hold a perspective of wanting to know where you come from, seeking answers or wanting connections with family, then DNA websites are valuable. However, if you have undertaken DNA and find out that the person whom you thought was your biological father is not, this can be challenging psychologically and emotionally impacting on trust and one’s sense of security. Therefore, this highlights the potential damage of keeping this information secret.”

Bonham’s programme started in 1972 within a University of Auckland building of the hospital and donors were recruited from university staff and husbands of colleagues and patients.

“We all thought it was very courageous to start a donor programme in the early 70s,” says Dr Freddie Graham, who worked alongside Bonham. “He was bound to be criticised.

National Women's Hospital. Photo / NZMENational Women’s Hospital. Photo / NZME

“You have to understand that this was before IVF treatment, so there was not a lot we could do to help couples who were infertile due to sperm problems – about 40 per cent of couples.

“Back in those days everything was different, and it is so easy look back now and judge on today’s standards.”

Graham recalls a woman who was at Bonham’s funeral in 2005 with “immense gratitude”. “Without him, she would not have had a family. He helped a lot of women, couples. He was providing a service that was much wanted.”

Dr Freddie Graham, who took over running the country's first official sperm donor programme, with colleagues Annette Ellis and Joi Ellis in 1982. Photo / SuppliedDr Freddie Graham, who took over running the country’s first official sperm donor programme, with colleagues Annette Ellis and Joi Ellis in 1982. Photo / Supplied

Margaret McGregor, a nurse who worked for Bonham, told a documentary in 2001 that her husband donated sperm twice a month in the 1970s. He never heard back if his donation was successful but she sometimes knew as she would be tasked with taking in the sample to the patient. “I knew if that person became pregnant there was a chance that could be Bill’s baby … But you could never be sure because [Bonham] always used two donors.”

By 1974, a donor programme started in the Otago University’s professorial unit at Christchurch Women’s Hospital to help paraplegic men who were unable to produce sperm have children. Daniels remembers the pushback after he spoke in the media about it. “When I got back into my office that morning the phone was ringing. It was the chief of the hospital who berated me very strongly … pointing out that the programme was being run in the university unit and that he did not want to be identified with the programme of donor insemination in this hospital. And that was an indication of some of the thinking and feeling at that time.”

In 1983, Daniels surveyed all of the country’s obstetricians and gynaecologists to find out how widespread donor insemination was. Of the 98 (from 153) who replied, 20 had performed the procedure in the previous12 months. About 159 women had been inseminated.

Daniels found seven did not keep records of which sperm had been used for which couple. Six said they didn’t think it was desirable to tell the children of their origins, five said they weren’t sure. Six set no limit to the number of conceptions they allowed per donor.

Graham and a team introduced IVF to New Zealand in 1983 and soon after took over the donor programme but started keeping records. “We did not use any of Bonham’s donors … We did not have their records.”

By 1987, the Status of Children Amendment Act released donors from legal liability to the children created. The same year, Graham and colleague Richard Fisher started the country’s first private IVF clinic, Fertility Associates, taking the donor sperm programme with them. “A few religious zealots were against all fertility treatment. Both Richard and I had to explain to our kids who the picketers were on the front lawn.”

The pair canvassed donors in 1990 and found the majority were agreeable to being identified by offspring. Within a few years, only identifiable donors were offered.

But it wasn’t until the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act in 2004 that it became a legal right for donor-conceived people to receive details on the donor’s identity once they turn 18 – or 16 if the Family Court allows it – meaning it became illegal not to keep records. So the 28 children born in 2006 who were conceived from sperm donated after August 22, 2005, come of age next year.

Graham and Richard Fisher started Fertility Associates in 1987. Photo / SuppliedGraham and Richard Fisher started Fertility Associates in 1987. Photo / Supplied

But the new law relies on parents telling children they were donor-conceived – there is no legal requirement to do so. “If in fact, you want your kids to grow up with an attitude of honesty and morality, why would you lie to them about something like this?” says Daniels.

He says parents feared the donor-conceived person would reject the social father and be committed to the donor, but he’s never seen that happen.

And it doesn’t help the children born before the new law came into effect, especially those where no records were kept in the first place. They need to rely on donors signing up to a voluntary register that was set up at the same time. As of December, 29 offspring had signed up and 28 donors, says Jeff Montgomery, Registrar-General Births, Deaths and Marriages.

Facebook sperm donors

The law also doesn’t look after the children who were conceived by a “freelance” donor. Plagued by two-year waiting lists at clinics, big costs (about $3500 per intra-uterine insemination attempt or up to $15,000 for IVF) and the fact our country does not allow the importation of sperm from overseas donors, more desperate intended parents are going down the home insemination route.

They’re often finding the donors via dedicated social media pages or websites, like “Tauranga Tony” – as he wanted to be known because some colleagues and friends don’t know about his donations – who could be New Zealand’s most prolific donor, having created more than 20 children.

“Why pay $4k for IUI at a clinic when you can buy a $2 syringe from Chemist Warehouse with same odds?”

Tony, in his 40s, says the parents he has helped include single women and lesbian and heterosexual couples. The youngest couple he has helped were 20 and the oldest mother was 50. The children range between 3 months old and 11.

Sperm donor Sperm donor “Tauranga Tony” and one of the children he helped create. Photo / Supplied

“I always like to meet at a cafe for a chat first and give them the opportunity to back out if they don’t feel 100 per cent. Sperm is dropped off at their home or motel or can take place on site. Most people travel or fly to Tauranga or fly me around New Zealand and the world, all expenses paid.”

He says he flew to Australia 14 times in 2019 and over the years has travelled to Japan, Vanuatu, Hong Kong, and Jakarta to donate. Covid-19 slowed travel, but last year he did go to Australia for a night and was back the next day.

“I would tell people I’m away on business for a few days. One recipient I was helping would fly me business class and [I would] stay in 5-star accommodation, one time was a three-bedroom penthouse in Brisbane for New Year’s Eve.

Tony won’t reveal the number of children he has helped create, but two years ago confirmed he had created more than 20. There have been more since then and he is still donating.

“People now search online for me as odds are plenty good of it working first time. I look after the swimmers by taking supplements … this gives me a high sperm count 10 times the average … plus I do make cute and advanced babies.”

Tony has two of his own children, ages 18 and 15, who he says know what he does. And recently he has started a relationship with a woman for whom he was a sperm donor. They met via the Facebook page he advertises on. He now considers the son she had through his donation as his own son and they are expecting another child next year.

“Throughout the pregnancy we talked as I do with all mums and basically we hit it off.

“I have said a couple of times that I would retire and she has encouraged me to keep helping others.”

Medical professionals and donor-conceived offspring have expressed concern about the practice, saying there is no adequate record-keeping or medical testing. And while there are no laws around the number of people someone can donate to, clinics protect clients by setting their own limits – Fertility Associates set a limit of seven (recently up from five to cope with waiting lists).

And because it’s done off the grid, the number of offspring and donors don’t appear in the official numbers (Births, Deaths and Marriages started recording this after the 2004 law took effect – as of December, there were 2815 offspring on the mandatory register and 2989 donors, which included egg donors).

The relationship with Tony and some of the mothers has turned sour and he featured on an episode of TVNZ’s Sunday in 2019 in which they claimed some of the children may have inherited health defects. Tony denies this, but has said the women stopped updating him on the children, and he was unhappy about that.

He says he agrees with the parents before his donations that they will provide him updates. “I know every child’s full name, birthday and location.”

He likes to catch up with each child once a year. Some have been told by their mothers he is just a friend, others know who he is and a couple even call him Dad. “I think it is a human right that children should know, it’s basically like putting a present under the Christmas tree and saying you can’t open it until your 18. I only donate as a known donor and make this clear from the beginning. If they want just a donor, I suggest they use a clinic. Children start asking from 3 to 5 years when they see other children with fathers why they don’t have one.”

Tony, who now owns a manufacturing, importing and exporting business, says that after appearing on the Sunday programme he lost his job but 23 women messaged him looking for a donor and six men messaged inquiring about donating “so some good came from the story”.

He says he is not worried about the risk of accidental incest between his biological children. “I have nine children in Tauranga, some know each other … Since donating I have never seen any of these children or parents randomly on the street so for a child to meet another child, talk, date, and form a relationship would just never happen.

“Being honest from the start about who their donor is or just being donor-conceived would just stop this.”

Donor-conceived children now have a legal right to receive identifying information about their donor when they turn 18. Photo / 123rfDonor-conceived children now have a legal right to receive identifying information about their donor when they turn 18. Photo / 123rf

‘You could end up dating your brother or sister’

Twenty-one donor-conceived people shared their thoughts around secrecy for a 2017 thesis, supervised by Daniels, by psychology master’s student Angela Mostyn.

One said they ask any potential mates if they are donor-conceived. “Because you could end up dating your brother or sister. I found out that one of my donor’s children, he went to the same university as me and studied almost the same things, and at the same time, so I possibly have encountered him at some point but I’m not really sure. I could have easily become friends with him or something because we have five mutual friends on Facebook and stuff.”

Another tells of being in a relationship with a man for six months. When she went home for Christmas she fished out a photo the donor had given them. “I got the photo out and studied it and convinced myself that it looked like my boyfriend and so I had to talk to him about it and he had to kind of remind me that I was being crazy and that he was naturally conceived by his parents and things … it consumed me for a couple of weeks.”

Not knowing their full medical histories was a problem for some participants. One said they had a genetic disease and part of how it comes about is both parents have to have the degenerative gene. “So there is an element there that interests me because obviously the donor has the defective gene as well, and the only thing I’ve ever thought about wanting to know would be that kind of medical side of things and maybe finding out about how that came about, maybe some more information about how they screen donors now or how they did back then, or if there is some kind of family history on that side.”

Another said her husband’s family carries the BRCA 1 gene, which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancers. “And that’s something because of his family history he could document, he was able to get testing on and insurance for and we found out that he has it … maybe my biological father’s family does have the BRCA gene, but I don’t know and as a result, I can’t get insurance coverage to just test that”.

Not knowing their full ethnicity had lasting impacts. For one participant who had since discovered her donor’s nationality, there was a sense that something was stolen from her. “I almost feel like I married my husband and had a baby under false pretences; he didn’t know what he was getting. Also, my donor is Czech, so it turns out that I’m half Czech, which really makes me think about things in a different way. Like, why did I waste my time learning Japanese; I should have been learning you know, my bi-ancestral language or something.”

Participants who didn’t know their donors wondered things like; is he still alive? Is he a millionaire? Is he in prison?

Some who grew up knowing how they were conceived said there still wasn’t open communication around it. One said when they brought it up, their mother would just tell them to be grateful.

Some were asked by their parents to withhold the information from family on their father’s side amid concerns they wouldn’t be accepted as family. Others, learning of their donor conception later in life and discovering other family members less directly affected were aware, reported feeling betrayed, confused and angry.

“It was quite awkward in my later teenage years and particularly when my grandmother would say, ‘that’s something your father would have done’, you know, like we were genetically related,” said a participant.

Those who sought information on their donors and were blocked from receiving it, experienced a deep sense of grief and loss.

Happy to be contacted

But the massive and profitable business of online DNA testing now means donors and parents can’t hide from the truth. 23andMe began selling test kits in 2007 and says it has sold to more than 10 million customers. Ancestry.com started selling kits in 2012 and says it has sold more than 18 million.

“The doctors had no idea that DNA was going to develop in the way that it has,” says Daniels. “They were operating in a culture where you could promise anonymity.”

In many cases, donors have been happy to be contacted by offspring. “Once men were married and had children of their own, they had a different perspective on this than when they were young and single.”

Prior to the advances, Daniels knew of donor-conceived people getting class photos of medical students and looking for likenesses, desperate to find their biological fathers.

He carried out the first study of donors in New Zealand in 1987 and found 39 per cent expressed an interest in knowing the outcome of their donations. The study also highlighted how many potential offspring one man could have; “There must be concern that four donors (11 per cent) have been used between approximately 25 and 40 times. The donors were located in cities of approximately 60,000 population, although it needs to be recognised that recipient couples often travelled to these cities from outlying areas – sometimes up to 100km away.”

Most of the men did not know how many babies had resulted from the donations. Two said they worried about accidental incest.

David Glen has had five near-death experiences which caused him to take stock on his life. Photo / Michael CraigDavid Glen has had five near-death experiences which caused him to take stock on his life. Photo / Michael Craig

Glen didn’t think much of his donations until more than 20 years later in 2002, when he saw an advertisement in the Herald – donor-conceived woman Rebecca Hamilton was searching for her biological father. He agreed to do a DNA test. “We weren’t a match but that made me realise then just how bad the system was, the fact that records weren’t kept. I could hear the desperation in Rebecca’s voice.”

Then, more recently, he was cleaning out his files and found the DNA results, which reminded him of Hamilton’s desperation. He’s also had five near-death experiences that caused him to take stock on his life, including an accident on a ride-on lawnmower, a car crash, cancer and pneumonia.

After reading in the Herald that Hamilton had finally tracked down her biological father via a DNA website, he’s connected with a group she is involved with, Donor Conceived Aotearoa, and has sent off his DNA to see if it matches with any members.

“I would be absolutely thrilled that they would be able to trace who their biological father was.”

Group member Sophie Turner says DNA websites have “made the previously impossible task of identifying biological parents possible but not guaranteed”.

“And if you’re lucky enough to identify a biological parent, finding them is another matter, as is forming a relationship with them. And there’s always donor-conceived people who go through the process, which involves paying a company to have access to your DNA, and find nothing. That must feel like a second loss.”

To sign up for the voluntary register to connect with a sperm donor or donor offspring or to find out about the mandatory register, visit the NZ Government website.

‘All children have the right to know where they came from’

Tauranga mum Candice Phythian and her son Bentley Phythian, who was conceived using a sperm donor from the USA. Photo / SuppliedTauranga mum Candice Phythian and her son Bentley Phythian, who was conceived using a sperm donor from the USA. Photo / Supplied

At 6 years old, Bentley Phythian knows the American man in the photo with the flash of red hair, blue eyes and freckles helped the doctors create him.

His mum, Candice, was living and working in Adelaide and after going on a terrible date with a man who was judgmental about her weight, she decided to give up dating and concentrate on having a baby. She had wanted to have a child by the time she turned 30.

She went to the Flinders Fertility clinic, which partners with the Seattle Sperm Bank and was able to choose from five sperm donors, who had supplied their health details and a childhood photo.

The man she chose had shared a “gorgeous” photo of him as an 8-year-old that she has shown to her son many times. “He and his family had wonderful health, no strokes, heart issues. He was very tall.”

Phythian started treatment four months after meeting with a fertility doctor and when she was seven months pregnant, moved back to Tauranga to have Bentley.

Bentley is now 6 and knows how he was conceived. Photo / SuppliedBentley is now 6 and knows how he was conceived. Photo / Supplied

She prides herself on being open with her son and told him at 3 years old that he was donor-conceived. “I explained to him that he doesn’t have a dad, his dad is a donor who helped me have him as I really wanted him. I explained that I had to go to the doctors so they could help me too. He knows that [the donor] lives in the USA and now at 6 he explains this to his friends.

“All children have the right to know where they came from and where their dad/donor is.”

The pair have no direct contact with the donor but are able to send letters and photos via the clinic. Bentley will be able to connect with him when he is 18, which his mother supports and they can have peace of mind knowing that the clinic limited the number of children the donor could help create to five.

“I myself would like to meet him and thank him. Thank him so very much for gifting me with a precious child, giving me my lifetime dream.”