Sperm and egg donation anonymity has become obsolete with the advent of DNA testing

Angelica Cheng

Active Member

Key points
  • Donor anonymity ended in 2005 when the first donor child located their formerly anonymous donor via a commercial DNA test.
  • Donor anonymity is still promised (and mandated) by the fertility facilities who benefit financially from the practice.
  • Many donors are being found via DNA websites, even when they themselves have never submitted their DNA.
  • Egg and sperm donors do not always want anonymity.

Gamete donation has been shrouded in secrecy and anonymity for more than 100 years.
Sperm and egg donation have historically been anonymous activities, with neither the donor nor the recipient knowing the other’s identity. Since the advent of sperm banks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, most parents have been given non-identifying (supposed) facts about the person who would contribute the other 50 percent of their child’s genes—along with a correlating ID/donor number. These donor IDs/numbers have made it possible for more than 25,000 donor-conceived people (DCP) to connect with their half-siblings and donors/biological parents on the Donor Sibling Registry (DSR) since 2000.

With the advent of DNA testing, donor anonymity has become an obsolete idea.
In late 2004, when consumer DNA tests were still in their infancy, a 14-year-old donor-conceived teen swabbed his cheek and submitted his DNA to a new commercial DNA company, Family Tree DNA, to find out more about his paternal ancestry and countries of origin. When the test results came back, the teen was shocked to learn that he had been matched with two very distant relatives (their common relative was born in the 1600s) with the same last name. Using the last name of those two Y-DNA connections, along with public records search and a Google search, in just nine days, he discovered the identity of his donor—his biological father, who never took a DNA test himself and assumed when he donated his sperm that he would likely remain anonymous. In early 2005, donor anonymity had ended.1

Even today, the sperm and egg-selling industry barely acknowledges this fact and still does not adequately counsel donors and parents on the realities of maintaining donor anonymity.
With the introduction of many commercially available DNA testing companies (Family Tree DNA in 2004, 23andme in 2007, Ancestry.com in 2012, and others like MyHeritage), the assurance of anonymity is no longer possible; it has been estimated that 90 percent of Americans of European descent are now identifiable from their DNA, even without ever having taken a DNA test themselves.2 Many DCPs born from the 1940s through the 1980s who had little to no donor information are now easily and regularly connecting with half-siblings and biological parents (and their families) via DNA websites.

When a donor-conceived person spits into a cylinder or swabs their cheek and submits their sample to a commercial DNA testing site, there’s a very good probability that they will connect with previously unknown relatives. Sometimes these relatives will be quite close on the family tree, and contact is needed to determine the exact relationship. For example, a 25 percent match could be a half-sibling, aunt, uncle, or grandparent.

Regardless of the closeness of the DNA match, any match at all makes it much easier to find a previously anonymous genetic parent. Simply determining the last name on a DNA testing site and conducting a Google search is sometimes all it takes to match up information from a donor profile to identify a donor accurately. A public records search can further confirm someone’s identity or help narrow the field. And social media sites give donor-conceived people access to their “anonymous” donors once they are identified.

Donor-conceived people’s stories can be found regularly on blogs, social media, and in the media:
“I’m 33 years old, and I just found out my biological father was a sperm donor.”
“I found out by DNA test that my dad is not my biological father a few months after he passed away.”
“I found out this year, at the age of 51, that my biological father was a medical student.”

“My mother didn’t tell me about my paternity until AncestryDNA revealed the secret.”

Many donors submit their own DNA with the hope of connecting.
It isn’t just donor-conceived people who are curious about their unknown genetic relatives. Many egg and sperm donors were never on board with the concept of forced anonymity or have had a change of heart and are now curious about the children they helped to create. Thousands have willingly joined and connected on the Donor Sibling Registry, and some also test their own DNA, hoping to make contact:

“I tested and registered on AncestryDNA with my first name, last name, and sperm donor ID number to confirm that I was a donor. And I specified on my public tree that I invite contact.”
— Former Sperm Donor
“I added myself to 23andMe because I am an egg donor from years ago and wanted to make myself available for contact. I've waited years, and I had a parent-child match last month! I sent a brief message stating I've waited/hoped to be contacted.”
— Former Egg Donor

Anonymity and the gamete-selling industry:
Sperm banks and egg clinics are in the business of selling gametes, which in turn makes them money. They are not in the business of counseling donors or recipients—or connecting the genetic relatives that are the result of their business.
Sperm and egg donation are highly unregulated industries, and this lack of oversight allows facilities to operate under their own sets of rules. While facilities might claim to have guidelines regarding the number of pregnancies or births that can result from a single donor, they have no way of enforcing these “rules”—and, in fact, don’t seem at all interested in doing so. In order to place limits on the number of children created from any one donor, you first must have accurate records on the children born, which no one has, as all birth reporting is voluntary.

Likewise, facilities that offer “open” or “willing-to-be-known” donors (donors who agree to be known when offspring turn 18) are extremely inconsistent in how they manage their policies and practices. Sperm banks have been known to tell donor-conceived people that their donor’s location is unknown or that the donor does not want contact—even when the donor has kept the bank up-to-date on his contact info and has made it clear that he is open to connecting with offspring. In such cases, sperm banks are failing to provide the contact that both the donor and the parents agreed to. Sometimes sperm banks tell families that the “open” donor they purchased is now “anonymous.”

Most sperm banks and egg clinics are not equipped to handle the process of connecting donors and offspring years later. Even when they attempt to do so, their efforts are questionable, inconsistent, and often unsuccessful.
Donor anonymity benefits sperm banks and egg clinics financially because it allows them to continue their current practices of not keeping accurate records, not updating and sharing medical information, and not limiting the number of vials sold/children born to each donor. But this practice fails parents, donors, and donor-conceived people.

Yet almost all U.S. donors are still sold as “anonymous”—for a minimum of 18 years.
Sperm banks and egg clinics should abandon the practice of mandating or promising donor anonymity, as this archaic and deceptive notion needs to be put to rest. Dozens of egg clinics have been writing the Donor Sibling Registry into their parent-donor agreements for years, facilitating contact right from pregnancy or birth of the child, thereby allowing donors and parents to share medical information with each other and define the depth, breadth, and speed of their own relationships. Sperm banks can also do the same.


1. Motluck, A. (November 3, 2005). Anonymous sperm donor traced on internet. NewScientist.com.

2. Murphy, H. (October 11, 2018). Most White Americans’ DNA Can Be Identified Through Genealogy Databases. New York Times.