Genetic Orphans: Do you know who my daddy is?

"Like other donor kids, Olivia Pratten was told to get lost. But the genetic bond is proving surprisingly strong"

By MARGARET WENTE November 1, 2008

Here's what Olivia Pratten knows about her father: 5 feet 10, stocky, blood type A positive, Caucasian, blue eyes, medical student. She has this information on a piece of hotel stationery, scribbled by the doctor who used donor sperm to inseminate her mother. "This person gave me half my genes," she says. "And all I have is this scrap of paper." At 26, Ms. Pratten is among hundreds of thousands of donor babies around the world who have come of age. Now they are searching for their fathers. They have set up websites, harassed fertility clinics, taken DNA tests, searched through medical-school yearbooks, and launched lawsuits. This week, Ms. Pratten launched a lawsuit in British Columbia that, she hopes, will give donor offspring the right to learn the identities of their other parent. For decades, the guarantee of donor anonymity has been sacrosanct. It's what's kept fertility clinics in business. The trouble is, nobody thought about the kids. There are practical reasons why they want to know who their parents are. But the deeper reasons are existential. "Everybody else - the doctor, the donor, my mother, her husband - was a consenting adult," says Ms. Pratten. "But I was just born into this. And now I have to live with all these decisions that were made before I was born." She has long pressed for a system of open donation, which would abolish the right to anonymity and give donor offspring the same rights to know their parents that adopted children have. Like other donor kids, Ms. Pratten was told to just forget about who fathered her. She already had a loving non-genetic, father. What did paternity matter, anyway? Yet, the genetic bond has proved to be more primal than anybody thought. "My friends from other cultures never question why I'd want to know who my father is," she says. "If your genetic origins don't matter, then why do so many people care about researching their family trees and tracing their ancestors?" Ms. Pratten, who grew up in Nanaimo, B.C., was conceived in 1981 in the office of a busy Vancouver fertility doctor named Gerald Korn. At least 1,500 babies that he knows of were conceived there over nearly 30 years. No doubt there are more, because many of his patients didn't let him know when they got pregnant. He used 300 or 400 sperm donors, and says he cut them off after eight known children. One of those donors is Dwight Jones, 64, who estimates he sold his sperm to Dr. Korn on 300 to 400 occasions over 10 years. He figures he fathered at least 30 children, and sympathizes with Ms. Pratten (who has had her DNA tested, and is not his daughter). "If you are going to manipulate somebody's entry into the world like that, you have no business hiding it." But secrecy has always been essential to the business. Many families don't want people to know they conceived with donor sperm or eggs. Ms. Pratten was told at an early age that she was a donor child, but some offspring still don't know today. When they do find out, the news can be shattering. "I talked with a 23-year-old this week who wasn't told until he was 18," says Ms. Pratten. "He is incredibly angry." She's in touch with at least 50 other donor offspring in B.C., and hears from new ones all the time. Fertility treatment - and its aftermath - is an area in which technology has moved far ahead of our social and ethical thinking. Whose rights should prevail? And should we be creating genetic orphans in the first place? Some people argue no. "We have obligations not to create genetic orphans deliberately, obligations not to impose the suffering and loss of identity that result from loss of a sense of connection to those through whom life travelled to us," says ethicist Margaret Somerville. "It is paradoxical that, in an era of sensitivity to individual human rights and intense individualism, we are prepared to wipe out for others one of the important bases on which we find meaning in life." But fertility doctors warn that removing donor anonymity might kill off the sperm supply. After all, most donors won't thrill to the idea of familiar-looking strangers popping up at their doors in 20 or 30 years. Nor do they want to open themselves to possible paternity suits. Those who advocate for open donation say that obstacle can be overcome. But in Britain, where the government banned anonymous donation in 2005, sperm and egg donation have plummeted. Most clinics now have waiting lists of at least two years for sperm. Many desperate patients have become fertility tourists, seeking treatment in countries where anonymous donation is still legal. Ms. Pratten, who recently graduated from Columbia University, is a journalist living in New York. She knows that, for many genetic orphans, the odds are long. The donor business wasn't regulated in the 1980s, and many records from those years have been destroyed. Luckily, Dr. Korn, now retired, has kept his. But, I ask, what about her father's rights? He was promised anonymity. Wouldn't it be unfair to burst into his life now? What if it ends badly? "I accept that he may not want to know me," Olivia Pratten says. "But I'd be satisfied to just know who he is." It's obvious to her who has the greater moral stake. For him, it was a matter of a few minutes in a doctor's office and a few dollars in payment. For her, "it's the missing first chapter of the story of my life."

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