For over 30 years, The Sperm Bank of California has conducted research about family-building through donor conception. We are leaders in the field by tracking the outcome of each insemination attempt, maintaining records of conceptions since the establishment of our organization, and conducting research on the well-being of TSBC families and donors. Since 2000, Joanna Scheib, PhD, has guided the research program.
Research findings shape how we provide family-building options and inform the long-term services and support we provide recipients, donor-conceived people, parents, donors and their respective families. We applied more than a decade of research to develop and implement a system for information release to adults with donors in TSBC’s Identity-Release® Program.
Please note that our published research has been primarily with self-identified cisgender women and men. In recognition and support of the transgender and nonbinary members of our community, we are working toward a more inclusive research program moving forward.
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The Sperm Bank of California (TSBC) Research Briefs
(Scheib, McCormick, Benward & Ruby, 2020)
After donor-conceived adults identified their family’s donor through TSBC’s Identity-Release® Program, the research team asked about their interest in others who shared the donor – their ‘same-donor peers.’
Almost all the young adults expressed interest and wanted to connect, and half had already done so. Those who were in contact shared that these relationships provided unique support based on their shared experiences of growing up in a donor-conceived family, as well as providing identity-relevant information through having shared characteristics. Contact among same-donor peers was perceived positively.
Connecting with same-donor peers can be an important resource for donor-conceived people, an option available to them and their families through TSBC’s Family Contact List.
(Scheib, Ruby & Benward, 2017)
This study included programmatic information on 10 years of open-identity sperm donor information releases, as well as interviews with over 80 donor-conceived adults who requested the donor’s identity from TSBC’s Identity-Release® Program. The adults had been born into families parented by female-same sex couples, single parents (all identified as mothers) or heterosexual couples. All adults identified as women or men.
Overall, adults from one third of eligible families requested their donor’s identity, most often when they were between 18 and 20 years old. Women were more likely to request than men. Adults with a single parent were most likely to request, while those with heterosexual-couple parents were least likely to request, some because they were not aware of their family having a donor.
Adults requested the donor’s information based on identity-relevant reasons: because they wanted to know what the donor was like as a person, what the donor looked like and what characteristics they shared. Through that information, they could learn more about themselves, and further develop their sense of self. The majority planned to contact their donor (of whom >90% were open to being contacted), and had modest expectations about the outcomes of that contact.
Findings indicate that origins information matters to some donor-conceived adults. Having an open-identity donor gives adults options. They can get more donor information, if and/or when they want it. Or they can choose not to – the option leaves it up to them.
(Goldberg & Scheib, 2016)
In a study with female-partnered mothers who used (sperm) donor conception (all identified as ‘mothers’), they described their connections with families who shared their donor via TSBC’s Family Contact List.
While shared genetics among the children sometimes sufficed to describe the relationships as familial, especially from the children’s perspectives, most parents did not describe them that way. Instead they were significant, “not family or friends, but a unique type of relationship.” It was important to highlight that while these relationships were based on genetic linkages, they were distinct from the family with whom their children were being raised, including siblings and non-gestational parents.
This research highlights the importance of developing terminology that is distinct from traditional kinship terms. We expect that different terms will resonate differently with parents and donor-conceived people, depending on their relationship (if any) with the people to whom they are connected. Terms varied – from “extended family,” “donor sibling,” or the traditional “sibling” to describe these relationships, to using “half-sibling,” or no term at all (see also Scheib et al. 2020). We need terminology that honors this variation in relationships.
(Goldberg & Scheib, 2015)
In the same study with female-partnered and single mothers listed above, mothers were asked why they chose donor conception rather than adoption. (All identified as ‘mothers.’) While many had considered adoption, only a few actually took steps towards adopting.
They wanted donor conception because they wanted the biological experience of parenthood, such as being pregnant or being genetically-linked to the child. The parents also noted issues with the adoption process, such as cost or structural barriers related to being female-partnered.
(Goldberg & Scheib, 2015)
In talking with female-partnered and single mothers (all identified as ‘mothers’) about matching with families on TSBC’s Family Contact List, parents shared that, most often, they sought the connection as support for their children.
These connections could provide relationships with and support from people who understood the uncommon experience of growing up in a donor-conceived family. Parents also sought information about their children’s shared physical and psychological characteristics. A smaller number wanted to create an extended family network, again for their children. However, some struggled with maintaining boundaries in these relationships.
It’s important that expectations about these family matches be clear and reasonable, for parents and children to benefit most from the unique relationships and support that come from knowing families who share your donor.
Strategies For Disclosure: How Parents Approach Telling Their Children That They Were Conceived With Donor Gametes
(Mac Dougall, Becker, Scheib & Nachtigall, 2007)
In a collaboration with UCSF researchers, this study explored heterosexual-partnered parents’ plans to tell their children that they had used egg or sperm donor assistance to have them. The sample included couples who (i) had already disclosed, (ii) were planning to disclose, (iii) did not plan to disclose, and (iv) were still deciding. In interviews, parents described being worried about their child’s reaction, how they would cope emotionally and psychologically, and how it would impact their relationship with their child.
Among those who had told or planned to, parents believed that disclosure was the best option for their family, and that honesty would support their parent-child relationship. These parents took two approaches to disclosing: Disclosing early or “seed planting” several times throughout the earliest years so that the child would, in essence, “always know”, and waiting until the “right time”, such that disclosure would occur when they felt their child was ready.
The right time was usually envisioned as the period between when the child could understand the medical reason for using a donor, but before adolescence. These “right time” parents wanted time to establish routines and solidify relationships with their children before starting the discussion. Those who used the “seed planting” strategy were more at ease with their approach, and parents who opted for the “right time” strategy were more wary of their decision to wait.
Of those who had already started telling their child, no one regretted their decision, regardless of their approach, and many reported feeling relieved that they had done so. Finally, parents reported wanting more peer and/or professional support and guidance to help them with sharing origins information, not only initially, but as their children grew up.
(Scheib, Riordan & Rubin, 2005)
In a first study of its kind, 12-17 year olds shared their experiences growing up knowing they were donor-conceived (DC), and the extent of their interest in the donor. These adolescents came from two-mother, single-mother and mother-father families, and all had donors who were willing to release their identity to DC adults.
The majority of the adolescents said they had always known they were donor-conceived (all knew by age 9.5), and were comfortable with it. All but one felt that knowing had a neutral (because they had always known) if not positive effect on the relationship with their mother, and, when applicable, their other parent.
Most were interested in what the donor was like as a person, and wanted a picture. Many planned to request the donor’s identity and make contact, with youths with one parent being significantly more interested than those with two parents. Youths also wanted TSBC to get the donor’s feelings about contact, rather than finding out themselves.
In considering contacting the donor, the majority shared that this would help them learn more not only about the donor, but also about themselves. Interest in a relationship most commonly was envisioned as a friendship; few hoped for a parent/child relationship. When asked, almost all were also interested in others who had the same donor.
(Scheib, Riordan & Rubin, 2003)
This remains one of the only studies about parents with open-identity donors who were interviewed when their children neared the age at which they could obtain the donor’s identity.
Using questionnaires, female same-sex couple parents, single parents, and heterosexual couple parents were asked about their experiences having an open-identity donor, whether they shared that information with their child(ren) and if so, how that went. They were also asked if their teen planned on requesting the donor’s identity at age 18.
The vast majority of parents responded positively about having an open-identity donor, explaining that they wanted their child(ren) to be able to get more donor information and possibly meet, and that it was the right option to have. Almost all parents, even heterosexual couples, had told their child(ren) about their family’s donor origins, with most doing so by child age 6. Almost all felt that telling their child(ren) had at least a neutral, if not positive impact on both the child(ren) and the parent-child relationship, and that the children remained neutral (just a part of their life, didn’t know any differently) to positive about the donor.
Many were curious about the donor, but few felt that the donor played an important role in their family’s life. Parents also expected their child(ren) was at least moderately likely to request the donor’s identity, and almost half expressed concerns about how the information releases would go for their (future adult) children. Despite this, parents remained positive about their child having the identifiability option.
Overall these TSBC families appear to be doing well. Parents do not regret telling their children about the family’s donor origins and feel that knowing this and having the open-identity option did not harm their family.
(Scheib, Riordan & Shaver, 2000)
Initial studies both at TSBC and elsewhere focused on how recipients selected sperm donors, including interest in a donor identifiability option (almost all donors were anonymous then), and among parents, whether or not they planned to tell future children about using donor assistance. The study sample here included female-partnered participants, with smaller groups of heterosexually-partnered and single women.
Using confidential telephone interviews, we found that regardless of participant relationship status and (when applicable) being female- or male-partnered, all but one planned to share with their child(ren) that they had used donor conception. Using both the interviews and actual recipient donor choices, most chose donors based on physical and personal characteristics, health profiles, and, when applicable, matching donor characteristics to their partner. When identifying why they chose open-identity donors, participants reported wanting to give their (future) child(ren) an option to know the donor, and even reach out to them. When asked why anonymous donors were chosen, participants reported having other priorities, including wanting to match the donor to the genetically-unrelated parent, minimize the donor’s role in the family’s life, and decrease the likelihood of donor contact.
These reasons were not surprising; single and female same-sex couple parents faced (and, in many places, still face) risks to their legal parenting status when a donor was known. Anonymity helped parents protect their families. Open-identity donation, while being available only when children were adults/no longer dependents, was still new with little precedent available – TSBC was the first in the world to offer this option.
Now, after 40+ years of families having open-identity donors and 20+ years of donor-conceived adults identifying them, we are learning that these donors often play a minor role in the family’s life when the children are young, and contact between the donor-conceived adult and the donor so far has not caused legal challenges.
Children’s Psychosocial Adjustment and Parental Well-Being in Donor-Conceived Families by Lesbian and Heterosexual Mothers
(Chan, Raboy & Patterson, 1998)
Internationally known developmental psychologist, Charlotte Patterson, teamed up with Ray Chan and TSBC’s Barbara Raboy to conduct one of the first studies on the wellbeing of parents and children in sperm-donor assisted families. The sample included both female- and male-partnered parents, as well as single mothers.
They examined the relation among family structure (e.g., number of parents, parental sexual orientation), family interactions (e.g., parental relationship satisfaction, interparental conflict), and child psychological adjustment in families with children ages 5-10 years. Both parents and (separately) the children’s teachers provided Information about child adjustment.
The results indicated that family dynamics rather than family structure predicted child well-being. First, children were assessed as well-adjusted overall (as compared to national norms). In addition, child adjustment was not related to parental sexual orientation or whether the child had one or two parents.
Instead, child adjustment (while still in the healthy range) was related to family dynamics: parents who experienced higher levels of parenting stress, higher levels of interparental conflict, and lower levels of love for each other had children who exhibited more behavior problems. Said differently, lower parenting stress and parental conflict, along with greater relationship satisfaction were associated with best outcomes for the children.
This groundbreaking research has been replicated now by other researchers (reviewed in Scheib & Hastings, 2012), leading to the strong conclusion that children conceived via donor insemination develop in normal ways, and that what matters is not who your parents are, but what goes on in the family.
Research Program Funding & Support
(Past & Current)
- TSBC Families & Donors
- Stephanie Bright (Bright & Associates) – Database & Programming Consultant
- Gill Foundation
- Horizons Foundation – Bay Area Career Women’s A Fund of Our Own
- Horizons Foundation – A & P Fund
- Lesbian Health Fund of GLMA: Health Professionals Advancing LGBTQ Equality
- Rainbow Endowment
- Sasha & Kevin Alexander
- Uncommon Legacy Foundation
- University of California Davis Faculty Research Grants
- University of California Davis Consortium for Women and Research