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Families on the Cusp of an Uncharted Realm

Relationships* As they approach 18, the children of women who patronized a pioneering sperm bank face the choice of learning donor fathers' identities.


BERKELEY — Marcus has two moms. And once the 15-year-old reaches his 18th birthday, Marcus expects to meet his ... well, what's the right term for the mystery man who provided the sperm that made his life possible?

"The donor" is how Marcus Liefert thinks of him now. Certainly not "dad," even though Marcus imagines they might go out to a ballgame someday. How about "genetic father"?

"No. I know that's biologically true, but that's not the term I would use," Marcus says.

The word "father" connotes parenthood, and Marcus knows who his parents are: Francey Liefert, who conceived him and carried him in her womb, and Laurel Liefert, Francey's longtime partner and the biological mother of Marcus' 12-year-old sibling, David. The Lieferts insisted on sperm from the same donor to assure that Marcus and David are genetic half-brothers, thus tightening the familial bonds.

The Lieferts are among a group of families on the cusp of an uncharted realm in human relations. The children born to women who have patronized the Sperm Bank of California since feminists founded it in Oakland in 1982 have been offered an unprecedented option: disclosure of the donor's identity when the child crosses the legal threshold of adulthood.

The nonprofit sperm bank, founded primarily to help lesbians and single straight women fulfill maternal goals, has helped in the conception of more than 1,100 children. Roughly four out of five clients have chosen the donor ID release option, officials say.

So far, three children who were conceived under the agreement have turned 18, one of whom has requested and received her donor father's identity. Claire, the daughter of a single Palo Alto woman, has seen the donor's photograph and received other factual information. (Sperm Bank of California officials urge participants to use only their first names in the media to help preserve confidentiality. The Lieferts prefer to use their full names.) A high school senior, Claire intends to meet her donor someday, program officials say, but she has not decided when. When she is ready, it will be up to Claire and the donor to handle the specifics of their meeting, but the task force hopes to stay in touch with all parties to see what issues arise down the line so they can prepare for the next generation.

Before the year is out, 15 other children of the bank's donors will turn 18. Within three years, the total will approach 100, says Sue Rubin, one of the sperm bank's directors. Rubin led a task force to find out the expectations among sperm bank participants and found that most children and mothers hope to meet the donors. Those donors are curious as well, Rubin says, and intend to honor the contracts they all had to sign more than 18 years ago.

The concept is a radical change in a reproductive field that dates to the 1880s and for generations has functioned as a clandestine service. Infertile couples assisted by sperm donors--who, before the advent of cryogenically freezing sperm, were often medical students--seldom revealed the nature of the conception to children.

The earliest published accounts of sperm donation--such as a doctor's memoir in the early 20th century and a British medical journal article in the 1950s--so scandalized the public that the practice remained secretive until the sexual revolution of the 1960s. "Society was truly offended," says Dr. Cappy Rothman, founder of California Cryobank in Los Angeles, one of the world's largest sperm banks.

Although the practice has become less closeted, the identification of donors is extremely rare. Only a few banks across the nation have followed the Sperm Bank of California's lead in promising disclosure at a later date. Some banks have weaker policies, including the "willing to be asked" option, in which a donor agrees to consider coming forward if the child, after turning 18, requests his identity.

California Cryobank promises parents that, if an adult offspring requests contact with the donor, the sperm bank will attempt to relay the request to the donor. Rothman suggests the varying and evolving policies reflect the clientele. Married couples, he says, have little interest in the disclosure compared with single women who "eventually have to tell the child something." The Sperm Bank of California developed its disclosure policy through discussions with clients, says founder Barbara Raboy. The children's right to know their genetic forebear, it was decided, outweighs the donor's desire for privacy--even if disclosure might create a Pandora's box of unsettling psychological effects for every child, mother and donor.

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