Understanding Donor Arrangements

Having a Baby With Third-Party Reproduction

When choosing to use third-party reproduction technologies, one of the decisions you need to make is what kind of donor arrangement you want: known, anonymous, semi-open, or open. This decision applies to sperm, egg, and embryo donor arrangements.

The kind of arrangement you and the donor choose will have an impact not only on you, the intended parent, but also on your future child, the donor, and the donor's children (if they have any). The potential impact of your choice is good reason to carefully consider your options.

Of course, your options will depend on what is available to you. For example, using a known donor will not be an option if no one you know is offering or able to donate. In addition, you may not be able to get an open donor arrangement if the fertility clinic or donor agency you use does not offer it. Other factors such as local laws and regulations as well as your personal finances can affect your available choices when it comes to donor arrangements.

Navigating donor relationships is tricky, especially if surrogacy is involved. Always consult with a lawyer who is familiar with family and reproductive law before you make any decisions or sign any contracts.

Terminology

Understanding some of the basic terminologies when it comes to third-party assisted reproduction is important. Below are common terms and a quick definition of each.

Intended Parent(s): This is the individual or couple trying to have a baby. Note that the word "intended" is used because fertility treatment does not guarantee a live birth.

Depending on local regulations, the law may recognize the intended parent(s) with just the donor contract. Otherwise, there may need to be an adoption procedure after the baby is born. This is more common if a gestational carrier was also used.

Donor: This is the individual (or individuals) donating their sperm, eggs, or embryo(s).

Gametes: This refers to sperm or egg cells.

Donor-Conceived Child: This refers to the child conceived using donor gametes.

Gestational Carrier (Gestational Surrogate): This is a woman who carries a pregnancy for the intended parents if the intended mother can’t due to health or fertility complications, or if the intended parent (or parents) is a single male or male couple. Gestational relationships with the intended parents are also complex and should be given careful consideration.

Known Donor: This is when the donor is someone you know personally. They may be a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance. Unlike other donor arrangements, the person isn’t found through an agency or fertility clinic.   

Anonymous Donor Arrangement: This is when the donor and the intended parent have no identifying information about each other at all. This means the donor can’t contact the intended parent, and the intended parent can’t contact the donor.

The agency or clinic will offer information on the donor profile that can help the intended parents choose. This might include a baby picture, medical and family history, cultural or religious background, profession, hobbies, test scores, answers to personality questions, and more. However, the donor information cannot be used to locate the specific doner. The donor typically receives no information about the intended parents. 

Semi-Open Donor Arrangement: This involves some passage of information between the donor and the intended parent, but it’s limited. The donor and intended parent still don’t have each other’s personal contact information, but the agency, clinic, or a lawyer may be an intermediary. Details shared may include general information about the conception (like if a pregnancy occurred based on the donor's contribution—usually a donor does not receive this information in an anonymous arrangement), or even possibly a baby picture or a letter.

Ongoing communication isn’t typical. Later on, if both the donor and intended parent agree, they may change the relationship to an open one. Sometimes, a semi-open arrangement doesn’t include any communication between the donor and intended parent, but it does allow limited future contact between the donor and the donor-conceived child after they reach the age of 18.

Open Donor Arrangement: This is when the donor and intended parents have each other’s personal contact information and agree to communicate directly with each other. The donor and intended parents may meet each other before or after the birth of a baby. The possibility of communication, however, doesn’t guarantee ongoing frequent contact.

The amount of communication and what the relationship looks like is very individual. In one case, the donor and intended parents may meet once. In another case, they may have regular “family” gatherings every few years. Most commonly, there is frequent contact early on, which then naturally decreases as time passes.

Known Donor

As mentioned above, a known donor may be an acquaintance, a co-worker, a close friend, or a relative. Sometimes, a potential known donor has heard your story and knows you are looking for an egg, sperm, or embryo donor. Sometimes, you (or your partner) may decide to ask someone you know to consider being a donor.

While there are definitely some advantages to using a known donor, there are also many potential problems. Fertility clinics can be very cautious when it comes to known donor arrangements. Some will not even discuss the possibility of using a known donor until after psychological counseling and legal documents have been written and signed.

Possible Advantages of Known Donors

You know more about the donor and their background. Part of choosing a donor involves reading profiles and looking at baby pictures to try to get an idea of who the donor is. But you can’t really know who a person is from a profile description and a few baby pictures. When the donor is someone you know, you can feel more confident in knowing who is providing the genetics for your future child.

A known donor will be less expensive. A known donor usually will not receive a fee for the “trouble” of donating, and only direct medical and legal costs of the donation will need to be covered. For egg donation, this can save thousands of dollars.  

The experience may bring you and the donor closer together. The process of donation (especially egg donation) can be intense and emotional, especially when the donor cares about the family trying to have a baby. Going through the fertility treatments “together” and then (if successful) bringing a baby into the world can create a strong bond between you and the donor.

When the donor is a family member, the intended parent not using his or her gametes can have a genetic connection to the baby. For example, a brother may offer to be the sperm donor for his lesbian sister's partner. Or, a brother offers to be a sperm donor for his brother and his female partner. In both cases, there can be a positive result when a familial connection is maintained.

The donor-conceived child can have more information and possibly an ongoing connection with the donor. Research has found that donor-conceived children wonder about their origins. Even with a close and loving relationship with their parents, it’s natural to wonder about their genetic heritage.

An advantage of using a known donor is the donor-conceived child doesn’t need to wonder who this “mystery” person is who donated their sperm, eggs, or embryos. At the very least, they will have the ability to contact and talk to the donor. They may even grow up knowing the donor.

The donor can have a relationship with the donor-conceived child, or at least be more in touch with the child’s life and future. Most donors aren’t interested in having a relationship with the donor-conceived child because their primary motivation is helping someone else have a family. Even so, donors do sometimes wonder about the child they “helped” bring into this world. Known donors don’t have this problem because they usually remain at least somewhat in touch with the family they helped create (since they knew each other before donation.)  

Possible Disadvantages of Known Donors

There is potential for future conflict on parenting decisions. While the legal contract in a known donor agreement should make clear who the parents are and that the donor is giving up any parental rights or decisions, that doesn’t guarantee there won’t be disputes in the future. As the child grows up, the donor may disagree with the parenting choices of the intended parents. The ethical thing for the donor to do is to disagree but not interfere—still, conflicts can arise.  

There is an increased risk of legal disputes for the donor and the intended parent. Even with contracts before donation, legal problems can arise. There have been cases when an intended parent sued a sperm donor for child support, even with a contract in place saying the donor is not financially responsible.

The donor may feel pressure to agree to the donation. The donor may feel guilty turning down a request to donate for a close friend or family member. Or, they may have at first wanted to donate, but after learning about the risks and everything involved, want to back out. This can lead to resentment.

The donor may feel guilty or take personal responsibility if the fertility treatments are unsuccessful. Fertility treatment is only a chance—not a guarantee—of having a baby.

Failed treatments are emotionally difficult for intended parents, but can also be painful for the donor. Especially when there is a known donor who cares about the intended parents, this can be very difficult.

The experience may harm your relationship with the donor. Just as being a donor can bring some people closer together, it can also push people apart.

Some family donor pairs are ethical or medical problems. For example, a brother should not be a sperm donor for his sister (if she is using her own eggs), because it can appear like an incestuous relationship took place. Also, for if the donor-conceived child’s mother and father are genetically siblings, this may increase the risk of congenital birth diseases.

Another possible ethical issue is if a daughter is the egg donor for her mother, even if the intended father or sperm donor is not the daughter’s genetic father. The fear is that the daughter may feel pressure from her mother to agree to donate her eggs, due to the nature of a parental relationship.

Anonymous Donor

An anonymous egg, sperm, or embryo donor’s personal details are not revealed. There is no way for the intended parents or the donor-conceived child to contact the donor, and no way for the donor to contact the intended parents and donor-conceived child. (However, with genetic technology businesses, this is changing. More on this below.)

This was once considered ideal for all parties involved. Complete anonymity seemed like an ideal choice for all parties, especially a few decades ago when the concept of third-party reproduction was newer. Reasons people chose anonymous donors included:

  • Less risk for the donor. The donor doesn't have to worry about being sued later for child support. Some donors have long held the fear that a child may one day show up at their doorstep and ask them to be a parental figure of sorts—not something a donor intended to sign up for in helping create a family for someone else.
  • Less risk for the intended parents. Intended parents sometimes worry that if the donor-conceived child could contact their donor, they may seek out and choose the donor There is also worry that a donor may attempt to make parental decisions over the child.
  • Less shame. Especially so for sperm donations, some intended fathers are ashamed that they couldn’t produce a child of their own. Keeping the sperm donation a secret was a way to protect the perceived threat to their masculinity.
  • No one really considered the feelings and needs of the donor-conceived child. When third-party reproduction began, specifically with sperm donors, ideas about children were very different. It was thought best for both donor-conceived children and adopted children that their true origins be kept secret. However, we now know that many children can sense that “something isn’t right.” They may notice that they don’t look like their mom or dad, or they may just have this inner discomfort that they don’t fully belong to their parents. The complexity of children’s psychology and identity development was not fully appreciated and understood.

    With time, many reasons have emerged as to why complete anonymity is far from ideal.

    • Donor-conceived children are often curious about their genetic origins.
    • Parents sometimes long to connect in some way with the person who helped them have a family.
    • Donors sometimes wonder about the family they helped to create.

    Many of the fears surrounding donor-conception have been unfounded. Donor-conceived children who are curious about their origins aren’t necessarily looking to reject their parents—they just want to know where they come from. Most donors (who are strangers, not "known" donors) have no interest in claiming parenthood of the donor-conceived kids—they just wonder about the child who they helped bring into the world.

    Semi-open and open donor arrangements may relieve these problems.

    Possible Disadvantages of Anonymous Donation

    Another problem with anonymous donation is that it may not really be guaranteed with modern genetic technology. Now, with DNA services, anyone can send their saliva to a lab and find out if they are or are not a genetic relation to their families. Parents who hoped to keep the donor-conception quiet may not really have that choice when a simple mail-in genetic test can expose the secret. In addition, if the donors have also used a genetic service, donor-conceived children and their intended parents may be able to find their donors.

    There is also the Donor Sibling Registry, a website founded in 2000 to help donor-conceived relatives find their genetic siblings. As the donor sibling registry states on their site, “The DSR's core value is honesty, with the conviction that people have the fundamental right to information about their biological origins and identities.”

    Something else to consider: future laws may retroactively force donor agencies and fertility clinics to share donor information to donor-conceived children. This has already been done or attempted in Europe.

    Semi-Open Donor

    With a semi-open donor arrangement, more personal information is exchanged, but usually not enough that communication would occur directly between the donor and intended parent. There is typically an intermediary who passes messages between the donor and intended parent. While first names are shared, identifying information (like last names) that could lead to direct contact between the parties are not shared. This can reduce some of the fears and risks of fully open donor arrangements, while still addressing the right of donor-conceived children to have access to information regarding their origins.

    For donor-conceived children, semi-open donor arrangements may allow the child to write at least one letter to his/her donor, and receive at least one response back. Usually, the contract requires that the child be 18 years old before the first contact, and there is no assumption or requirement that contact remains ongoing.  

    Some semi-open donor arrangements also acknowledge that donors have a right to know about what happens to their gametes.

    In a semi-open donor situation, the donor may get information on whether the pregnancy was successful or how many children ultimately resulted from the donation. The parents may send (through the intermediary) photos of the baby after birth. In these cases, communication is usually expected to continue only up until the baby is born (or conceived), but that doesn’t mean it can't continue.

    There is also usually an understanding that if either the donor or intended parents want to continue to connect or send photos, or if there are second thoughts and they would like to “upgrade” the relationship to an open donor arrangement, they can propose that to the clinic or agency that is handling communication.

    Open Donor

    With an open donor situation, communication often takes place directly between the donor and intended parents. This is the least common form of donor arrangement.

    More identifying details are shared, including full names, occupations, and locations. The donor and intended parents may meet, and they may agree to get together occasionally after the baby is born. Oftentimes, with an open donor arrangement, all parties want an ongoing relationship between the donor-conceived child, the donor, and the intended parents. What that relationship will include and will look like can vary greatly between families.

    Donor-Conceived Children

    As mentioned earlier, when third-party reproduction was a newer option, the needs of donor-conceived children were not fully considered or appreciated. This wasn’t out of malice, but the result of an incomplete understanding of child psychology.

    Only recently have researchers begun studying the needs and psychological effects of being donor-conceived. It’s not easy to study because the vast majority of donor-conceived adults may not even know they are donor-conceived. Also, with complete anonymity, tracking down individuals to study is difficult to impossible. However, the little research that has been done reached some interesting conclusions:

    • Many donor-conceived children are curious about their donor “family.” One study on donor-conceived adults—who had been conceived with sperm donors—found that while 90 percent had little to no information on their donor, about 76 percent wanted to be able to meet or at least obtain more information on their donor, 65 percent referred to their donor as their “biological father,” 80 percent have tried to search for the donor, and 88 percent want to find and meet their half-siblings from the donor.
    • Some donor-conceived child may have a “sense” that something isn’t right. In cases where families try to keep the donor-conception a secret, research has found that some kids may grow up feeling like something is off. They may wonder why they don’t look like anyone on their dad or mom’s side of the family. This can even lead to anxiety and identity issues.
    • Most experts believe children should be told they are donor-conceived. While it was once thought best to keep donor-conception a secret from children, the vast majority of experts believe that being honest with children is best. This is especially true with modern genetic technologies, since children may eventually be able to discover their true origins and then feel their parents had been dishonest.
    • Most donor-conceived children are not interested in making their donors “new” parents—they just want to know more about themselves. The stereotypical image of a donor-conceived child wanting the donor to be an “idealized” parent has been found to be untrue. Most of these kids (or adults) just want to learn more about where they came from. They aren’t looking to replace the parent or parents who raised them.
    • Access to medical history updates can be essential. Even if the donor provides a comprehensive and complete medical history at the time of donation, future medical problems can arise. The donor may have no way (or incentive) to share updated medical history with the family. This means the donor-conceived child may have incomplete medical history available to them. Also, it can happen that a donor-conceived child develops a health problem that the donor should know about. Not having any way to pass on that information could be harmful.

    A Word From Verywell

    Choosing to build your family with third-party reproduction can be emotional and complex. Part of making that decision includes considering what kind of donor relationship you and your potential donor-conceived child may benefit from. You may also want to consider the experience of the donor and the donor’s own children (who would be half-siblings to your donor-conceived child.)

    There are no absolute right or wrong answers. This is something to discuss thoughtfully and carefully with a therapist—one familiar with the complexity of donor-conceptions—so you can feel you made the best decision you could with the information you had at the time.

    Was this page helpful?
    Article Sources
    • Crawshaw M1, Daniels K2, Adams D3, Bourne K4, van Hooff JAP5, Kramer W6, Pasch L7, Thorn P8. "Emerging models for facilitating contact between people genetically related through donor conception." Reprod Biomed Soc Online. 2015 Nov 10;1(2):71-80. DOI: 10.1016/j.rbms.2015.10.001

    • Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. Interests, obligations, and rights in the gamete donation: a committee opinion. Fertil Steril. 2014 Sep;102(3):675-81. DOI: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2014.06.001

    • Ethics Committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. "Misconduct in third-party assisted reproduction: a committee opinion." Fertil Steril. 2014 Jan;101(1):38-42. DOI: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2013.11.007

    • Hewitt, G. (2002). Missing links: Identity issues of donor-conceived people. Journal of Fertility Counselling, 9(3), 14-20.

    • Mahlstedt PP, LaBounty K, Kennedy WT. "The views of adult offspring of sperm donation: essential feedback for the development of ethical guidelines within the practice of assisted reproductive technology in the United States." Fertil Steril. 2010 May 1;93(7):2236-46. DOI: 10.1016/j.fertnstert.2008.12.119