What donor offspring seek when they do DNA testing

Ellen S. Glazer, LICSW

Guest Contributor

I wrote previously about parents who fear that their donor-conceived children might uncover long-held secrets through DNA testing. Many were unsettled by Dani Shapiro’s memoir Inheritance, which told of how a DNA test done for no particular reason dismantled a family story. Now let’s consider reasons why some people who know they were donor-conceived might pursue DNA testing.

Why might people who were donor-conceived seek DNA testing?

Donor-conceived adults who embark upon DNA testing may, like Shapiro, stumble upon information accidentally. Their experience with DNA testing is not explored in this post, which focuses on those whose choice to do testing followed one of these three paths:

  • They were told their conception story at a young age, but had limited information about their donor and his or her family.
  • They were only recently told of their donor conception, but grew up knowing something was different or left unspoken (the “unknown known”).
  • As adults, they were completely startled to learn that they were donor-conceived.

What might people hope to learn through DNA testing?

So what might these people seek — and hope to find — in DNA testing? Everyone is different and DNA testers have a wide range of reasons for swabbing their cheeks. Yet most have the desire to better understand their personal story. We all have origin stories that circle around our ancestry, ethnicity, and the circumstances of our conception and birth. Whether they grow up always knowing, or learn of donor conception as young adults, personal stories for the donor-conceived are complicated. Questions people hope to have answered include:

  • Why did he or she become a donor? Am I simply the product of a transaction, or were there other reasons that motivated someone to donate?
  • Who else am I related to? This question is especially compelling for sperm donor offspring, who may have large numbers of genetic half-siblings. This is less often true for those conceived from donated eggs, yet there are the donor’s children, her nieces and nephews, all those she donated to, and in some instances, children born through embryos donated to other families after the original recipient family was complete.
  • What is my ethnicity? What does it mean if the ethnicity in my DNA does not match the ethnic identity I was raised with? One woman I spoke with had grown up believing she was Irish on her mother’s side and Jewish (Ashkenazi) on her dad’s side. When the DNA test results came back indicating she is 100% Irish, she felt a sense of loss. She always felt proud to be half Jewish. Did this mean that she is not?
  • What abilities and vulnerabilities might I have inherited from the donor? For many, the high beam of this question directs itself to medical issues. This can go both ways: learning one’s actual medical history may relieve worries regarding illnesses in the family, or it may bring new medical concerns. Either way, those who are just learning they were donor-conceived as adults have relied on a family medical history that they now know to be only half complete.
  • Most people feel they came from two people. I came from three. What does this mean for my identity? People conceived with donated eggs are often, though not always, told of the donation from a young age. They grow up always knowing that they are gestationally, but not genetically, connected to their mothers. Part of their task as they mature is sorting out as best they can what it means to literally come from three people. (Sperm donor offspring, by contrast, must reconcile with the fact that they have no physical connection to their fathers.)

What does the future hold?

The world of commercially available DNA testing is still in its infancy. These days it is being heavily marketed in the media as a nifty gift, an interesting tool, a key that will unlock doors. Undoubtedly its uses, and its meaning for all of us, will unfold and evolve over time. The questions it raises and the “answers” it provides are surely more complex and multidimensional for the donor-conceived.

For more information

If you’d like further information and support, you may find these organizations helpful.

Donor Conception Network

Donor Sibling Registry

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter


  1. marilynn huff

    Oh and ‘circumstances of my conception’ really means the circumstances of my abandonment. Nobody cares how they were conceived they were not even born yet. They care why their parent was absent once they were here. That’s part of the donor gig promising to be absent when their kids are born so – tell them what are the circumstances that would lead one to have a kid and then just give that kid away? What makes someone give away some kids for charity and keep the others? Having a relationship with the other parent? So a person’s kids are only worthy of care if their parents like eachother?

  2. marilynn huff

    Most people know who their mother and father are because law requires people to be named parents on their sons and daughters birth certificates and holds them accountable for their care and upbringing. When parents behave responsibly their sons and daughters know and are known to their maternal and paternal relatives. If someone does not know who their mother or father is it means they suffered the terrible tragedy of an absent parent and isolation from that paent’s kin while growing up. It is an injustice that our laws would ever under any circumstances exempt a person from parental obligations, even if their parental rights are terminated because exempting parents from their obligations interferes with the rights of their sons and daughters. I reunite families separated by gamete donation for free. Because they all share their ftdna and 23&Me accounts with me I’ve ammased a data base with the cousin lists of over a hundred donor offspring and adopted people, including cousin lists of their parents, siblings and other relatives. I build out family trees for them and triangulate their position within their grater family to identify their parents.
    Its tedius painstaking work that no person should have to go through in order to know the names of their mother and father.
    Articles like yours are intended to make the people who raised them feel less threatened by telling them what they want to hear, what they paid to expeirence. The reality is donor conception is the most massive black market adoption effort in human history. It’s abandonment and adoption, out of court and off the record, brilliantly executed by physicians so that evidence of the adoptions can be concealed behind medical privacy laws. There are no miracle fertility treatments helping the sick and elderly have children. It’s still just young healthy people reproducing, only they are not being recorded as the parents and the end result is vital statistics so mired in inaccuracy as to render record keeping a moot point jeopardizing the health of populations all over the world who can no longer eliminate their own relatives from the breeding pool. Not only can’t the offspring exclude relatives from who they breed with, donors and those they breed with can’t exclude relatives either – they don’t test donors against those who pay to breed with them for genetic relatedness because it would decrease sales if they knew they were 4th cousin or closer – oh and they are with amazing frequency related to eachother. The shock of having the maternal and paternal sides of their family tree converge has sickened many of my donor offspring friends.

    Donor offspring are just people and not all feel the same way about one or both of their parents being absent. Some even believe that their parent was just a nice man or woman who gave their “parents” help conceiving a them. Those are not the ones ordering DNA tests. The ones taking the tests are still trained to read the script about how their not searching for a father or mother and that they just want to know where they come from or know their story. Thats just what they say to make everyone else feel better about hurting them – they are very use to having to manage everyone else’s feelings, as a group they are polite to a fault. Let me then tell the readers what they are looking for when they take the tests. It’s not what but who they are looking for. KNowing their heritage, knowing their history, their biology that all means that they are hoping to meet some people like in person that they are related to in order to find the holy grail missing parent. They don’t want to just know why they donated in a good way, they want to know how the hell they could just have a bunch of kids and not raise them or think it was OK to give their kids away as gifts. Now they are polite, they may never get around to asking that question when they meet although many I’ve known did end up having that conversation after a while. They are most definately looking for their parent to react with interest and care about them and not be ashamed of them they want the parent to introduce them to the kids he or she has raised. They don’t want to be isolated left out cast off and different or less important than the kids their mother or father raised because that is not fair to them But they are made to feel guilty by articles like this one or by the people who raised them that wanting to not be rejected by their father or mother would hurt the feelings of the people that raised them. Everyone knows that they are looking for their mothers and fathers but nobody is supposed to call them that because they did not raise them, everyone knows that you don’t have to raise a child to be their parent you just have to reproduce but by not being allowed to call them that, having to call them donors, makes the injustice sound trivial. Who cares about a donor? But being abandoned by a parent, everyone sees the injustice in that. These people who are taking DNA tests in many cases have lost citizenship rights in their fathers and mothers countries of birth the list of unequal treatment goes on and on and yet they have to downplay it so they don’t hurt anyones feelings and make it sound like they just want medical information. They want to not be outcast or sequestered from their families. They try not to get their hopes up they’re willing to settle for shome medical information and a photo but no that is not nearly enough its not what they deserve. We don’t let other parents get away with hiding out why should we let theirs? Polite and forgiving those that I know personally all let the commercial aspect of it go in exchange for just starting fresh and getting to know that parent now – they chalk the sale of them to strangers up as misguided youth.
    What you said about egg donors not having large numbers of offspring is false – with the advent of egg freezing they are having over 20 in many cases and with repeat donors even more. And egg donors are the only mothers of their own offspring, just like any woman is the only mother of her offspring as far as biology and genetics and dna tests are concerned there is no difference in the percentage of centemorgans shared between sons and daughters an egg donor gave birth to and raised and the ones she didn’t. For all the epigenic talk about switching on and off genes or the gestator leaving trace amounts of dna in the body of the egg donor’s child – the numbers don’t lie. Whatever biological connection a carrier has with the egg donors offspring ends when she gives birth when technically, the one person who can test to be the biological mother is the egg donor no different than the sperm donor having offspring makes you a parent that meets that primary definiton of parent in the dictionary. DNA tests can tell whose really related to you as your mother, father sibling, etc and sometimes it still takes a person talking to the family to figure out the exact connection, but its a complete lie to say that a carrier created the egg donors offspring. She developed it but creators are not interchangeable without them their offspring does not exist. It does not matter who wanted to raise their offspring, or who was pregnant with them, that is not creation its caregiving. Bottom line is that gamete donation is profitable and it makes abandoning custom made high end designer offspring easy for young college kids to do and it makes it easy for those reproducing with them to pretend they had a child alone or with a favored partner. It’s all tidy until the the parents and sons and daughters start taking DNA tests to pull their families back togehter. It’s a beautiful mess and a joy to see them reunite but its a shame they were ever separated in the first place. I hope the laws change.

  3. trishanatechnologies

    useful article

Commenting has been closed for this post.