Should egg and sperm donors reveal their identities? The debate pivots on genetics and medical history.
Until age 35, Cassandra Adams assumed her mother and father were her biological parents. Then she took saliva tests through two genealogy databases—23andMe and AncestryDNA—and discovered a discrepancy in her heritage. In bringing up the matter with her parents, she learned that fertility issues had led the couple to use a sperm donor.
“Most people my age were not told,” said Adams, now 40 and a stay-at-home mom in Jersey City, New Jersey, who is involved with donor-conception advocacy. “Even now, there’s still a lot of secrecy in the industry. There are still many parents who aren’t truthful or planning not to be truthful with their children.”
While some of those offspring may never know a significant part of their medical history, Adams is grateful that she does. Surprisingly, the DNA test revealed Jewish ancestry.
“There are a lot more genetic conditions that run in Jewish families, so it was really important that I get my medical history, because it’s very different from my dad who raised me,” said Adams, who has met her biological father and two of three known half-siblings. As a result of this experience, she converted to Judaism. “It has been a big journey,” she said.
In an era of advancing assisted reproduction technologies, genetics and medical history have become front and center of the debate as to whether or not egg and sperm donations should be anonymous – and whether secrecy is even possible in many cases.
Obstacles to staying anonymous
People looking to become parents can choose what’s called an “identity-release donor,” meaning their child can receive information about the donor when he or she turns 18. There’s no way to ensure that the donor will consent to a relationship at that time. Instead, if a relationship between the donor and child is a priority, parents may decide to use a known donor.
The majority of donors want to remain anonymous, said reproductive endocrinologist Robert Kiltz, founder and director of CNY Fertility in Syracuse, New York. “In general, egg and sperm donation is mostly anonymous, meaning the recipient doesn’t know the donor and the donor doesn’t know the recipient.”
Even if the donor isn’t disclosed, though, the mystery may become unraveled when a donor-conceived person undergoes direct-to-consumer genetic testing through ancestry databases, which are growing in number and popularity. These services offer DNA testing and links to relatives with identifiable information.
In the future, another obstacle to anonymity could be laws that prohibit anonymous sperm and egg donations, if they catch on. In June, Colorado became the first state in the nation to ban anonymous sperm and egg donations. The law, which takes effect in 2025, will give donor-conceived adults the legal authority to obtain their donor’s identity and medical history. It also requires banks that provide sperm and egg collection to keep current medical records and contact information for all donors. Meanwhile, it prohibits donations from those who won’t consent to identity disclosures.
“The tradition of anonymous sperm or egg donation has created a vast array of problems, most significantly that the people thus created want to know who their mommy and daddy are,” said Kenneth W. Goodman, professor and director of the Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
“There are counter arguments on both sides. But the current situation has led to great uncertainty and, in many cases, grief,” Goodman said.
Donors should bear some moral responsibility for their role in reproduction by allowing their identity to be disclosed to donor-conceived individuals when they turn 18, Goodman added, noting that “there are counter arguments on both sides. But the current situation has led to great uncertainty and, in many cases, grief.”
Adams, the Jersey City woman who learned she was Jewish, has channeled these feelings into several works of art and performances on stage at venues such as the Jersey City Theater Center. During these performances, she describes the trauma of “not knowing where we come from [or] who we look like.”
In the last five years, Kathleen “Casey” DiPaola, a lawyer in Albany, New York, who focuses her practice on adoption, assisted reproduction and surrogacy, has observed a big shift toward would-be parents looking to use known sperm donors. On the other hand, with egg donation, “I’m not seeing a whole lot of change,” she said. Compared to sperm donation, more medical screening is involved with egg donation, so donors are primarily found through fertility clinics and egg donor agencies that prefer anonymity. This leads to fewer options for prospective parents seeking an egg donor with disclosed identity, DiPaola said.
Some donors want to keep in touch
Rachel Lemmons, 32, who lives in Denver, grew interested in becoming an egg donor when, as a graduate student in environmental sciences, she saw an online advertisement. “It seemed like a good way to help pay off my student loan debt,” said Lemmons, who is married and has a daughter who will turn 2-years-old in December. She didn’t end up donating until many years later, after she’d paid off the debt. “The primary motivation at that point wasn’t financial,” she said. “Instead, it felt like a really wonderful way to help someone else have a family in a few weeks’ time.”
Lemmons originally donated anonymously because she didn’t know open donations existed. She was content with that until she became aware of donor-conceived individuals’ struggles. “It concerned me that I could potentially be contributing to this,” she said, adding that the egg donor and surrogacy agency and fertility clinic wouldn’t allow her to disclose her identity retroactively.
Since then, she has donated as an open donor, and kept in touch with the recipients through email and video calls. Knowing that they were finally able to have children is “incredibly rewarding,” Lemmons said.
When to tell the kids
Stanton Honig, professor of urology and division chief of sexual and reproductive medicine at Yale School of Medicine, said for years his team has recommended that couples using donor sperm inform children about the role of the donor and their identity. “Honesty is always the best policy, and it is likely that when they become of age, they might or will be able to find out about their biological sperm donor,” he said. “Hiding it creates more of a complicated situation for children in the long run.”
Amy Jones, a 45-year-old resident of Syracuse, N.Y., has three children, including twins, who know they were conceived with anonymous donor eggs from the same individual, so they share the same genetics. Jones, who is a registered nurse and asked for her real name not to be published, told them around age seven.
“The thought of using a known donor brought more concerns—what if she wanted my babies after they were born, or how would I feel if she treated them as her own every time I saw her?” said Jones.
“I did a lot of reading, and all psychologists said that it is best to start the conversation early,” she recalled. “They understood very little of what I was telling them, but through the years, I have brought it up in discussion and encouraged them to ask questions. To this day, they don't seem to be all that interested, but I expect that later on in life they may have more questions.”
Jones and her husband opted to use a donor because premature ovarian failure at age 27 had rendered her infertile. “The decision to use an egg donor was hard enough,” she said. “The thought of using a known donor brought more concerns—what if she wanted my babies after they were born, or how would I feel if she treated them as her own every time I saw her?”
Susan C. Klock, a clinical psychologist in the section of fertility and reproductive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said, “Anonymity is virtually impossible in the age of direct-to-consumer genetic testing.” In addition, “selecting an identity-release donor is typically not the first thing parents are looking at when they select a donor. First and foremost, they are looking for a donor with a healthy medical background. Then they may consider donor characteristics that resemble the parents.”
The donor’s medical history can be critical
Donor agencies rely on the self-reported medical history of egg and sperm donors, which can lead to gaps in learning important information. Knowing a donor’s medical history may have led some families to make different or more well-informed choices.
After Steven Gunner, a donor-conceived adult, suffered from schizophrenia and died of a drug overdose at age 27 in 2020, his parents, who live in New York, learned of a potential genetic link to his mental illness. A website, Donor Sibling Registry, revealed that the sperm donor the couple had used, a college student at the time of donation, had been hospitalized during childhood for schizophrenia and died of a drug overdose at age 46. Gunner’s story inspired Steven’s Law, a bill that was introduced in Congress in July. If passed, it would mandate sperm banks to collect information on donors’ medical conditions, and donors would have to disclose medical information the banks weren’t able to find.
With limited exceptions, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires donors to be screened and tested for relevant communicable disease agents and diseases such as HIV, hepatitis viruses B and C, the Zika virus and several STDs. With current technology, it is also impossible to screen for thousands of rare genetic diseases. “If a couple is using IVF (in vitro fertilization) to conceive with the donor gamete, some may opt for pre-implantation genetic testing to assess for chromosomal abnormalities,” Klock said.
Even these precautions wouldn't cover every disease, and some would-be parents don't get the genetic screening. In a situation where one donor has a large number of offspring, it is concerning that he or she can spread a rare disease to multiple people, said Nick Isel, 37, of Yorkville, Illinois, who was conceived with donor sperm due to his parents’ fertility issues. They told him the truth when he was a teenager, and he found his biological father with a journalist’s help.
Since 2016, Isel, who owns a roofing company, has been petitioning the FDA to extend the retention of medical records, requiring the fertility establishment to maintain information on sperm and egg donors for 50 years instead of the current 10-year mandate.
“The lack of family health information,” he said, “is an ongoing, slow-motion public health crisis since donor conception began being regulated by the FDA as a practice.”
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”