Mom Who Used Sperm Bank Threatened with Legal Action Following Child’s DNA Test
US Sperm banks have promised anonymity to donors – but can they keep that promise?
It was just after New Year’s 2019 that Danielle* received the startling Cease and Desist letter at the home she shares with her child in the US. The legal letter was sent from NW Cryobank, the sperm bank she used to conceive her daughter. In it, the sperm bank alleges Danielle has violated the Customer Agreement she signed with them after the sperm bank discovered Danielle had submitted her daughter’s DNA to popular home DNA test service 23andMe.
Reading the intimidating letter, Danielle’s heart sank as she felt shocked and then silent tears began streaming down her face while her daughter stood next to her. “A million different thoughts were swirling in my head. How could the bank do this?”
Since the advent of “assisted reproductive technology” in the 1940s to help families conceive babies, physicians in the United States have courted sperm donors with promises that they would help others with the dream of having a baby in exchange for income and anonymity.
With a parent’s passion for supporting her child, Danielle has made it her mission over the years to understand what donor-conceived individuals need in order to develop a healthy identity. She has used this information to inform her support of her daughter’s development. Danielle states that she has communicated with and read stories from donor-conceived individuals that emphasize how important connections to biological relatives, health history information, and knowledge of ethnicity and family heritage are in the development of a healthy identity.
When it comes to using donor sperm from a sperm bank, parents have the option to choose between 2 types of donors: anonymous and willing-to-be-known once the child is 18 years old. The information available regarding donors has historically been limited to written information about the donor’s looks and profession/academic major, along with a limited report of the donor’s family health history.
This lack of information has left questions in the hearts and minds of donor-conceived individuals that have led them to use home DNA kits in search of health, ethnicity, and ancestry information. Many donor-conceived people have also used these tests to link to half-siblings that shared the same donor.
With the popularity of these tests booming in the US over the last few years, Danielle was excited to help her daughter test with a home DNA test for health and ancestry information and the possibility of linking to biological siblings and relatives. “From everything I’ve learned from donor-conceived people, those connections are so important,” said Danielle.
When Danielle’s daughter received her reports from 23andMe, she was linked to DNA Relatives. Danielle said after reviewing the matches, “Based on the advice I’ve received [from donor-conceived individuals and recipient parents], I sent a message to one of the genetic matches,” but not the donor. She clarified, “My message did not ask for contact with the donor and I did not ask for the donor to be identified. Just that I was open to contact. Most of the stories I’ve heard have been positive, so that’s why I decided to reach out in the first place.”
NW Cryobank’s Cease and Desist Letter states Danielle violated the portion of her contract that states she should not seek to obtain any information about the “identity, background, or whereabouts of the Donor” and that she should “never…contact or attempt to contact the Donor for any reason.”
Danielle responded to say, “I never tried to contact the donor. The DNA test was used to gain information about my daughter, not the donor. Unless you believe half of the donor-conceived individuals’ DNA legally belongs to the bank. And there was nothing that mentions DNA tests” in the contract.
NW Cryobank states they will seek a “restraining order or injunction” against Danielle and that the bank is “entitled to seek $20,000 in liquidated damages…( $10,000 for seeking the identity, $10,000 for initiating contact).” The letter also threatens that NW Cryobank may be entitled to additional monetary damages if [Danielle has] used other ancestry DNA programs.” Yet, even these statements were not the worst for Danielle.
The sperm bank concludes their Cease and Desist Letter by stating to Danielle that they are “revoking your right to receive the four additional vials of Donor’s sperm that you purchased. No refund will be given.” Several years ago Danielle purchased additional vials of sperm from the same donor she used to conceive her daughter, with the intention that they would be used to create biological siblings for her child. The vials had been stored with NW Cryobank at Danielle’s expense in the intervening time period.
Danielle feels the sperm bank’s withholding of vials she’s already paid for is akin to withholding her daughter’s siblings hostage. She also noted that her contract did not state that NW Cryobank would withhold purchased vials of donor sperm in the event of a contract being allegedly breached.
Many users of home DNA tests are using the tests to connect with DNA relatives. Using the process of genetic genealogy, they search for long lost family members in the hopes of rekindling connections and uncovering family mysteries. Genetic genealogy is a type of “detective work” that combines DNA relative matches and genealogical records to trace down family trees to identify particular individuals.
In the case of a sperm donor, even if the donor himself has not tested directly with a particular DNA company, if any of his relatives – from close family members through distant cousins – have tested, those results can ultimately be traced back to the donor.
Sperm banks have been promising donors their identities will be held anonymous – either forever or until their biological children reach the age of 18 years old. But with the easy availability of home DNA tests combined with donor-conceived individuals advocating that they deserve the right to know their true origins, many who are familiar with “assisted reproduction technology” believe that sperm banks should communicate to previous and current donors that staying anonymous is no longer a real possibility, instead of legally threatening donor-conceived individuals and recipient parents regarding DNA testing.
The stress of this legal exchange is only compounded for Danielle when she considers the potential expenses she has ahead of her. “I’m worried that the bank will get away with this behavior because us little folk don’t have the money to fight back,” Danielle says. She also considers what this means for her daughter when she turns 18 years old and desires contact with her biological father, as was planned when Danielle purchased donor sperm from a donor who was willing-to-be-known. Danielle says, “That was the first thought that I had. I definitely worry [this ruins] things for her and possibly even the other donor kids. I never imagined I’d get such a terrible reaction in the first place. How could my daughter’s biological family reject her in this way?”
UPDATE: Since DNA+LOVE interviewed Danielle about the Cease and Desist Letter she received, several news outlets have been in communication with her and NW Cryobank regarding covering this story. In response to further communication, NW Cryobank appears to be backtracking from their original statements in the Cease and Desist Letter. A representative for the company stated in a follow-up communication to Danielle that NW Cryobank does not “prohibit DNA testing on anyone” and that they would offer Danielle a refund for the vials of donor sperm she has purchased to create biological siblings for her daughter. This is in direct opposition to what NW Cryobank’s attorney stated in the original Cease and Desist Letter. Danielle’s response to the latest communication from NW Cryobank is, “I want them to do what’s right. It’s not about the money. You can’t put a price on [these future] babies.”
*(Last name withheld at request to protect the privacy of individuals interviewed by DNA+Love)