Family ties are more than a bit ambiguous for children conceived with the help of a sperm donor. And finally being able to give meaning to the phrase can be a life-changing experience for all concerned. Our Cover Story is reported by Mark Strassmann:
Todd Whitehurst is walking into the unknown ("Oh my God, yeah, no idea what to expect," he said). Four kids are waiting for him a half-mile away.
One of them is 20-year-old Sarah Malley.
"I don't know what to say. I don't know what to do," she admitted.
Strassmann asked, "What makes you nervous?"
"What do you say when you're meeting your biological family for the first time? I don't know."
Whitehurst is their biological father -- the one they're about to meet. "Like, what if they turned out to be really strange and shy? And they don't look up and they're very anti-social or something?" he said.
He's a 49-year-old computer engineer who works for Google.
In 1998, then a Stanford grad student, he noticed something in the school paper: "They would run a big ad, say, you know: 'Young men, 18-30, needed for sperm donation."
Did he have any qualms about it? "No. I guess my feeling on it was, the folks who end up going to a sperm bank really want children quite badly. Why wouldn't you want to help those people out?"
Whitehurst, who had two children of his own from a previous marriage, never expected to MEET any of his donor children. Sperm banks follow a protocol: all donor-dads sign an agreement to remain anonymous.
The families on the receiving end are only given basic background information about their donor -- his age, ethnicity, height, birthplace, education and so on.
Clinics also give each donor-dad a unique donor ID number. And THAT has become the gateway to improbable meetings, like the one Whitehurst is about to have. "It's a bit nerve wracking," he said.
And it never would have happened, if not for one woman: Wendy Kramer. The mother of a donor son, she saw how curious he was to learn more about his donor father.
"It's an innate human desire to want to know where we come from," she said.
So Kramer founded an on-line database called the Donor Sibling Registry. It's a networking site for children who want to connect by matching their donor-father's ID number. Forty-seven thousand people have registered, including 2,300 donor-dads.
"Kids want to know: 'I want to hear my donor's laugh. I want to see him smile. I want to know what he thinks is funny. I want to look into his face, I want to shake his hand,'" she said.