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.”
In November 2021, Mickayla Wininger’s then one-month-old son, Malcolm, endured a terrifying bout with RSV, the respiratory syncytial (sin-SISH-uhl) virus—a common ailment that affects all age groups. Most people recover from mild, cold-like symptoms in a week or two, but RSV can be life-threatening in others, particularly infants.
Wininger, who lives in southern Illinois, was dressing Malcolm for bed when she noticed what seemed to be a minor irregularity with this breathing. She and her fiancé, Gavin McCullough, planned to take him to the hospital the next day. The matter became urgent when, in the morning, the boy’s breathing appeared to have stopped.
After they dialed 911, Malcolm started breathing again, but he ended up being hospitalized three times for RSV and defects in his heart. Eventually, he recovered fully from RSV, but “it was our worst nightmare coming to life,” Wininger recalled.
It’s a scenario that the federal government is taking steps to prevent. In July, the Food and Drug Administration approved a single-dose, long-acting injection to protect babies and toddlers. The injection, called Beyfortus, or nirsevimab, became available this October. It reduces the incidence of RSV in pre-term babies and other infants for their first RSV season. Children at highest risk for severe RSV are those who were born prematurely and have either chronic lung disease of prematurity or congenital heart disease. In those cases, RSV can progress to lower respiratory tract diseases such as pneumonia and bronchiolitis, or swelling of the lung’s small airway passages.
Each year, RSV is responsible for 2.1 million outpatient visits among children younger than five-years-old, 58,000 to 80,000 hospitalizations in this age group, and between 100 and 300 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Transmitted through close contact with an infected person, the virus circulates on a seasonal basis in most regions of the country, typically emerging in the fall and peaking in the winter.
In August, however, the CDC issued a health advisory on a late-summer surge in severe cases of RSV among young children in Florida and Georgia. The agency predicts "increased RSV activity spreading north and west over the following two to three months.”
Infants are generally more susceptible to RSV than older people because their airways are very small, and their mechanisms to clear these passages are underdeveloped. RSV also causes mucus production and inflammation, which is more of a problem when the airway is smaller, said Jennifer Duchon, an associate professor of newborn medicine and pediatrics in the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
In 2021 and 2022, RSV cases spiked, sending many to emergency departments. “RSV can cause serious disease in infants and some children and results in a large number of emergency department and physician office visits each year,” John Farley, director of the Office of Infectious Diseases in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a news release announcing the approval of the RSV drug. The decision “addresses the great need for products to help reduce the impact of RSV disease on children, families and the health care system.”
Sean O’Leary, chair of the committee on infectious diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says that “we’ve never had a product like this for routine use in children, so this is very exciting news.” It is recommended for all kids under eight months old for their first RSV season. “I would encourage nirsevimab for all eligible children when it becomes available,” O’Leary said.
For those children at elevated risk of severe RSV and between the ages of 8 and 19 months, the CDC recommends one dose in their second RSV season.
The drug will be “really helpful to keep babies healthy and out of the hospital,” said O’Leary, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus/Children’s Hospital Colorado in Denver.
An antiviral drug called Synagis (palivizumab) has been an option to prevent serious RSV illness in high-risk infants since it was approved by the FDA in 1998. The injection must be given monthly during RSV season. However, its use is limited to “certain children considered at high risk for complications, does not help cure or treat children already suffering from serious RSV disease, and cannot prevent RSV infection,” according to the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Until the approval this summer of the new monoclonal antibody, nirsevimab, there wasn’t a reliable method to prevent infection in most healthy infants.
Both nirsevimab and palivizumab are monoclonal antibodies that act against RSV. Monoclonal antibodies are lab-made proteins that mimic the immune system’s ability to fight off harmful pathogens such as viruses. A single intramuscular injection of nirsevimab preceding or during RSV season may provide protection.
The strategy with the new monoclonal antibody is “to extend protection to healthy infants who nonetheless are at risk because of their age, as well as infants with additional medical risk factors,” said Philippa Gordon, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist in Brooklyn, New York, and medical adviser to Park Slope Parents, an online community support group.
No specific preventive measure is needed for older and healthier kids because they will develop active immunity, which is more durable. Meanwhile, older adults, who are also vulnerable to RSV, can receive one of two new vaccines. So can pregnant women, who pass on immunity to the fetus, Gordon said.
Until the approval this summer of the new monoclonal antibody, nirsevimab, there wasn’t a reliable method to prevent infection in most healthy infants, “nor is there any treatment other than giving oxygen or supportive care,” said Stanley Spinner, chief medical officer and vice president of Texas Children’s Pediatrics and Texas Children’s Urgent Care.
As with any virus, washing hands frequently and keeping infants and children away from sick people are the best defenses, Duchon said. This approach isn’t foolproof because viruses can run rampant in daycare centers, schools and parents’ workplaces, she added.
Mickayla Wininger, Malcolm’s mother, insists that family and friends wear masks, wash their hands and use hand sanitizer when they’re around her daughter and two sons. She doesn’t allow them to kiss or touch the children. Some people take it personally, but she would rather be safe than sorry.
Wininger recalls the severe anxiety caused by Malcolm's ordeal with RSV. After returning with her infant from his hospital stays, she was terrified to go to sleep. “My fiancé and I would trade shifts, so that someone was watching over our son 24 hours a day,” she said. “I was doing a night shift, so I would take caffeine pills to try and keep myself awake and would end up crashing early hours in the morning and wake up frantically thinking something happened to my son.”
Two years later, her anxiety has become more manageable, and Malcolm is doing well. “He is thriving now,” Wininger said. He recently had his second birthday and "is just the spunkiest boy you will ever meet. He looked death straight in the eyes and fought to be here today.”
Story by Big Think
For most of history, artificial intelligence (AI) has been relegated almost entirely to the realm of science fiction. Then, in late 2022, it burst into reality — seemingly out of nowhere — with the popular launch of ChatGPT, the generative AI chatbot that solves tricky problems, designs rockets, has deep conversations with users, and even aces the Bar exam.
But the truth is that before ChatGPT nabbed the public’s attention, AI was already here, and it was doing more important things than writing essays for lazy college students. Case in point: It was key to saving the lives of tens of millions of people.
AI-designed mRNA vaccines
As Dave Johnson, chief data and AI officer at Moderna, told MIT Technology Review‘s In Machines We Trust podcast in 2022, AI was integral to creating the company’s highly effective mRNA vaccine against COVID. Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s mRNA vaccines collectively saved between 15 and 20 million lives, according to one estimate from 2022.
Johnson described how AI was hard at work at Moderna, well before COVID arose to infect billions. The pharmaceutical company focuses on finding mRNA therapies to fight off infectious disease, treat cancer, or thwart genetic illness, among other medical applications. Messenger RNA molecules are essentially molecular instructions for cells that tell them how to create specific proteins, which do everything from fighting infection, to catalyzing reactions, to relaying cellular messages.
Johnson and his team put AI and automated robots to work making lots of different mRNAs for scientists to experiment with. Moderna quickly went from making about 30 per month to more than one thousand. They then created AI algorithms to optimize mRNA to maximize protein production in the body — more bang for the biological buck.
For Johnson and his team’s next trick, they used AI to automate science, itself. Once Moderna’s scientists have an mRNA to experiment with, they do pre-clinical tests in the lab. They then pore over reams of data to see which mRNAs could progress to the next stage: animal trials. This process is long, repetitive, and soul-sucking — ill-suited to a creative scientist but great for a mindless AI algorithm. With scientists’ input, models were made to automate this tedious process.
“We don’t think about AI in the context of replacing humans,” says Dave Johnson, chief data and AI officer at Moderna. “We always think about it in terms of this human-machine collaboration, because they’re good at different things. Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed.”
All these AI systems were in put in place over the past decade. Then COVID showed up. So when the genome sequence of the coronavirus was made public in January 2020, Moderna was off to the races pumping out and testing mRNAs that would tell cells how to manufacture the coronavirus’s spike protein so that the body’s immune system would recognize and destroy it. Within 42 days, the company had an mRNA vaccine ready to be tested in humans. It eventually went into hundreds of millions of arms.
Biotech harnesses the power of AI
Moderna is now turning its attention to other ailments that could be solved with mRNA, and the company is continuing to lean on AI. Scientists are still coming to Johnson with automation requests, which he happily obliges.
“We don’t think about AI in the context of replacing humans,” he told the Me, Myself, and AI podcast. “We always think about it in terms of this human-machine collaboration, because they’re good at different things. Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed.”
Moderna, which was founded as a “digital biotech,” is undoubtedly the poster child of AI use in mRNA vaccines. Moderna recently signed a deal with IBM to use the company’s quantum computers as well as its proprietary generative AI, MoLFormer.
Moderna’s success is encouraging other companies to follow its example. In January, BioNTech, which partnered with Pfizer to make the other highly effective mRNA vaccine against COVID, acquired the company InstaDeep for $440 million to implement its machine learning AI across its mRNA medicine platform. And in May, Chinese technology giant Baidu announced an AI tool that designs super-optimized mRNA sequences in minutes. A nearly countless number of mRNA molecules can code for the same protein, but some are more stable and result in the production of more proteins. Baidu’s AI, called “LinearDesign,” finds these mRNAs. The company licensed the tool to French pharmaceutical company Sanofi.
Writing in the journal Accounts of Chemical Research in late 2021, Sebastian M. Castillo-Hair and Georg Seelig, computer engineers who focus on synthetic biology at the University of Washington, forecast that AI machine learning models will further accelerate the biotechnology research process, putting mRNA medicine into overdrive to the benefit of all.