The first known use of donor sperm was back in 1884, and it was so secret that even the woman being inseminated wasn't told that the sperm was from a donor, not her husband.
In sperm donation, secrecy seems to benefit everyone - the infertile husband bears no shame, the donor bears no responsibility, and the woman bears a child.
But as 60 Minutes first reported in March, that's where things get tricky: What does secrecy mean for the child? Correspondent Lesley Stahl reports.
Katie Whittaker, a high school senior in Ocala, Fla., is one of an estimated 30,000 people a year who are born through sperm donation. She assumed that she had been conceived the old-fashioned way, until an unexpected conversation with her mother, Carol, nearly three years ago.
Katie's parents used artificial insemination because her father, Jim, had children from a previous marriage and had had a vasectomy. Jim suggested using donor sperm, but with one condition. He wanted it left anonymous.
But as Katie grew up, keeping the secret became a problem.
"I was lying," says Carol. "And the older she got, the more real a lie it
And so Carol broke her promise to her husband and told Katie the truth, something doctors like Joseph Feldschuh think parents of sperm donor children should never do.
"I think that there's a clear benefit in not traumatizing the child by telling him something that can only disturb their identity for years, can potentially disturb the relationship with the father, and further disrupt the family relationship," says Feldschuh, who ran the Idant sperm bank and is now president of its parent company, Daxor.
But what about the mother who says to herself, "I've told my child a lie,
and it's weighing on me?"
"Well, it depends on what you call a lie," says Feldschuh. "This is unnecessary cruelty. It's really cruel to tell a child that this isn't your father."
Filmmaker Barry Stevens couldn't disagree more. He and his sister were born through sperm donation, but didn't learn the truth until after their father died. Barry says the secrecy drove him and his father apart.
"I was not close to him and I think it would have been good for all of us," says Barry. "If he could have been open … He would have felt more easy. My mother would have been more relaxed. We all would have had an easier time. Truth is best."
As was often the case 50 years ago, Barry's parents were actually instructed by their doctor never to tell anyone, including him. For years now, Barry has been on a search to find the donor, sending out letters to possible candidates.
But is it fair?
"I never entered into a contract with these folks. I had no voice," says Barry. "I had no choice in the matter. I don't feel bound by a contract made by a doctor with this donor. I don't feel bound by that contract."
Although he's never found the donor, Barry made a documentary about his search. "One of the most satisfying experiences in my life was meeting my genetic half brother, a man I'd never met until I was 47 years old, a man to whom I'm very, very close now."
Katie Whittaker decided she, too, wanted to search for her donor, and both her parents agreed to help. But all they knew was the name of the sperm bank and the donor's coloring and blood type.
They didn't have his medical history because he had been adopted. When Katie called the sperm bank, they said that if they could figure out who he was and where he was, they would call him to see if he'd be willing to hear from her. If he were to say yes, Katie would be among the very first donor children ever to find her biological father.
It was a long shot, but a few weeks later, Katie got a call back and discovered they had found him.
"I started crying. I was so happy. And I was, like, they found my dad," says Katie. "They found him. The next step from there was: Does he want to know who I am? Does he want me to know who he is?"
The man Katie was searching for was Bobby Gerardot. What went through his mind?
"I'll be honest with you. I really don't remember, other than, 'Oh, my God,'" says Bobby, who had given sperm in college to help earn extra money. He was paid $50 a donation and promised the whole thing was confidential.
Bobby had since married Lisa and had a young son, Will. All he could think at first was: Thank God I already told Lisa about being a donor. Now he had to tell her that the donation had turned into a real live person.
"I remember saying, 'Is this allowed? I mean, I'm sorry, but are they even allowed to contact you about this,'" asks Bobby's wife, Lisa.
"That's what we were wrestling with, you know, what's the motivation here? We knew she was a teen-ager. And I'm, like, you know, if this is a teen-ager who's mad at her parents and is looking for a grass-is-greener situation, we don't want to play that game."
They finally decided to ask the sperm bank to have Katie write them a letter.
"I just wanted to know who he was," says Katie.
"Katie's letter was very matter of fact. You know, it was, like, 'don't want a dad,' you know, 'don't want money,' but she did say 'you know what it's like because you were adopted,'" says Bobby. "You know, that put the hook in me."
It's an odd coincidence that Bobby himself had searched for his own biological father, found him, and now they have a good relationship. So Bobby sent his own letter with pictures back to Katie overnight. He included his phone number and waited for Katie's call. They stayed on the phone for almost three hours, says Katie.
"It felt so good to know that he was there and that he was as curious about me as I was about him," says Katie.
Bobby may be unusual in waiving his secrecy agreement. But other donors may feel they did enough by just giving their sperm.
But what about the notion that these children would not have been born if not for this secrecy?
"I would call this the Oliver Twist question, in a sense," says Barry Stevens. "You know, you can't ask for more. You're an orphan. You should be glad you were raised in an orphanage. You should be grateful to the people who raised you in this orphanage. So don't go looking for your parents. Well, I am grateful. I am grateful for everything, but I still want to know his identity."
Barry has become an advocate for radical change. "This system of anonymous sperm donation and egg donation should stop," he says. "They should be identifiable … when those offspring reach adulthood."
If so, this would have resulted in lots of later-life introductions, like Katie's and Bobby's. Two and a half weeks after their first phone call, Katie and her parents were on their way to Bobby's hometown for the weekend. They checked into a hotel room and waited for the meeting that was never supposed to happen.
"The minute you all saw each other in the hotel room, I mean, they fell into each other's arms with this hug," says Linda Gerardot. "They just grabbed each other."
"We had all kind of made ourselves comfortable, and he looks down
at my feet and he goes, 'God, she's got my feet.' And I do. I have his feet," says Katie.
Katie went back and celebrated her 18th birthday with Bobby, Lisa and Will, and they spent another week together last summer, trying to get to know one another.
How would Bobby describe the relationship? Are they friends? Does he feel paternal?
"Oh, yeah," says Bobby.
"He acts paternal when he can," says Katie. "I'm 18. I like to go out with my friends. And we went out one night, and I came out of the room wearing what I was wearing to go out, and it wasn't anything bad, but he had some comments to make about it."
Fashion issues aside, Bobby's experience with Katie has been nothing but positive. But there's more to the story. Like most donors, Bobby donated sperm many times. In his case, more than 200 times over a five-year period.
"I've realized now the enormity of the decision I made 18 years ago, not just on my life, on my wife's life, on my son's life, on my daughter's life, on her parents' lives," says Bobby, who realizes that Katie may not be the only person who will contact him.
Imagine that, being contacted over and over and over. Bobby and Lisa say it's just too emotionally exhausting. They have decided that if any other kids come calling, they will provide medical information but nothing else.
"This should tell people that donating sperm can't be regarded just like a handshake. It can't be regarded just like you're selling a little bit of tissue, you're selling a fingernail or a bit of blood," says Barry Stevens.
"You're creating life from your own body. It's a tremendously powerful act. You're creating another human being. Of course, that's going to make him nervous. WhatI'm saying is, then let's change the system so that that doesn't happen."
The system is changing, but slowly. There are now a handful of sperm banks that ask donors up front if they'd be willing to be contacted when kids turn 18. So far, though, most donors say no.