Forty-four sib­lings and count­ing

Amer­ica’s uniquely lax sperm-donor laws have cre­ated new kinds of fam­i­lies

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ARI­ANA EUNJUNG CHA

Kianni Ar­royo clasps 8year-old Sophia’s hands tightly as they spin around, gig­gling like mad. It’s late af­ter­noon, and there are hot dogs on the grill, bub­ble wands on the lawn, balls fly­ing through the air.

The mid­sum­mer re­union in a sub­urb west of the city looks like any other, but th­ese fam­ily ties can’t be de­scribed with stan­dard la­bels. In­stead, Ar­royo, a 21-yearold wait­ress from Or­lando, is here to meet “DNA-in-laws,” var­i­ous “sis­ter-moms” and es­pe­cially peo­ple like Sophia, a cher­ished “donor-sib­ling.”

Sophia and Ar­royo were both con­ceived with sperm from Donor #2757, a best­seller. Over the years, Donor #2757 sired at least 29 girls and 16 boys, now ages 1 to 21, liv­ing in eight states and four coun­tries. Ar­royo is on a quest to

meet them all, chron­i­cling her jour­ney on In­sta­gram. She has to use an Ex­cel spread­sheet to keep them all straight.

“We have a con­nec­tion. It’s hard to ex­plain, but it’s there,” said Ar­royo, an only child who is both com­forted and weirded-out by her ever-ex­pand­ing fam­ily tree.

Thanks to mail-away DNA tests and a pro­lif­er­a­tion of on­line reg­istries, peo­ple con­ceived with do­nated sperm and eggs are in­creas­ingly con­nect­ing with their ge­netic rel­a­tives, form­ing a grow­ing com­mu­nity with com­plex re­la­tion­ships and unique con­cerns about the U.S. fer­til­ity in­dus­try. Like Ar­royo, many have dis­cov­ered dozens of donor sib­lings, with one group ap­proach­ing 200 mem­bers — enor­mous ge­netic fam­i­lies with­out prece­dent in mod­ern so­ci­ety.

Be­cause most do­na­tions are anony­mous, the re­sult­ing chil­dren of­ten find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain cru­cial in­for­ma­tion. Med­i­cal jour­nals have doc­u­mented cases in which clus­ters of off­spring have found each other while seek­ing treat­ment for the same rare ge­netic dis­ease. The news is full of night­mar­ish head­lines about sperm donors who fal­si­fied their ed­u­ca­tional back­grounds, hid ill­nesses or turned out to be some­one other than ex­pected — such as a fer­til­ity clinic doc­tor.

And while Bri­tain, Nor­way, China and other coun­tries have passed laws lim­it­ing the num­ber of chil­dren con­ceived per donor, the United States re­lies solely on vol­un­tary guide­lines. That has raised fears that the off­spring of pro­lific donors could meet and fall in love with­out know­ing they were closely re­lated, putting their chil­dren at risk of ge­netic dis­or­ders.

Now the donor-con­ceived com­mu­nity is start­ing to de­mand more gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion — so far with mixed re­sults. Ear­lier this year, Wash­ing­ton and Ver­mont be­came the first states to re­quire clin­ics to col­lect donors’ med­i­cal his­tory and to dis­close that in­for­ma­tion to any re­sult­ing child. Sim­i­lar bills have been in­tro­duced in Cal­i­for­nia and Rhode Is­land.

But last month, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­jected a pe­ti­tion from a donor off­spring group that sought to limit the num­ber of births per donor, man­date re­port­ing of donor­con­ceived births and re­quire donors to pro­vide post-con­cep­tion med­i­cal up­dates. Peter Marks, di­rec­tor of the FDA’s Cen­ter for Bi­o­log­ics Eval­u­a­tion and Re­search, wrote that such over­sight ex­ceeds the FDA’s mis­sion, which is lim­ited to screen­ing donors for com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases. An FDA spokes­woman de­clined to com­ment fur­ther.

Sean Tip­ton, a spokesman for the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety for Re­pro­duc­tive Medicine, which rep­re­sents most of the na­tion’s fer­til­ity clin­ics, said such pro­pos­als would have in­fringed on the right to pri­vacy and to pro­cre­ate, giv­ing gov­ern­ment “con­trol over who has chil­dren with whom.”

“We think th­ese de­ci­sions are best made by the fam­i­lies, not by ac­tivists and cer­tainly not by the gov­ern­ment,” Tip­ton said.

The lack of fed­eral ac­tion has in­fu­ri­ated mem­bers of donor fam­i­lies such as Wendy Kramer, a Colorado woman who penned the FDA pe­ti­tion.

“There is no gov­ern­ment agency that wants to step in to reg­u­late or oversee the busi­ness of cre­at­ing hu­man be­ings,” said Kramer, whose son, Ryan, 28, has so far dis­cov­ered 16 half sib­lings con­ceived with sperm from the same donor. “As won­der­ful as the con­nec­tions are, there is an un­der­belly . . . . It has re­ally re­vealed how this lack of reg­u­la­tion has had ram­i­fi­ca­tions for real fam­i­lies.”

Fam­ily clans

Eigh­teen years ago, Kramer and Ryan founded what has since be­come the largest on­line site for the donor-con­ceived, the Donor Sib­ling Registry, or DSR. In sim­plest terms, the DSR is a match­ing site. Peo­ple type in their donor num­ber — an anony­mous code as­signed by the fer­til­ity clinic — and con­nect with oth­ers born from sperm or eggs from the same donor. It’s all vol­un­tary, and con­tact is achieved through mu­tual con­sent.

To­day, the DSR has more than 60,000 mem­bers and has helped con­nect about 16,000 off­spring with their half sib­lings or donors. As the site grows, so does the po­ten­tial for new con­nec­tions. Ryan has dis­cov­ered five “new” sis­ters in just the past four months.

Jennifer Moore, a 55-year-old graphic de­signer from Love­land, Colo., has two boys con­ceived with donor sperm. Through the DSR, they have con­nected with triplet half sib­lings in an­other part of the coun­try.

The boys call one an­other “bro” and are all very ath­letic. They are also all “into crazy socks and hats and crazy fash­ion sense,” Moore said, adding: “As a par­ent, it has been a bizarre ex­pe­ri­ence hav­ing that many clones of your chil­dren ap­pear be­fore your eyes.”

Their par­ents try to get all the half sib­lings to­gether at least once a year, Moore said. Though her boys have a fa­ther, her ex-hus­band, she wants them to know more about their back­ground and not won­der why they might look or act dif­fer­ent from their par­ents.

“Foun­da­tion­ally, ev­ery­one has a right to know where they came from,” she said.

While a grow­ing num­ber of the donor-con­ceived are seek­ing to con­nect with half sib­lings, it can be harder to find the donors, who may not want to be found. But In­ter­net sleuthing and the wide­spread avail­abil­ity of ge­netic test­ing is erod­ing the guar­an­tee of anonymity they once en­joyed.

One of the most im­por­tant rev­e­la­tions of the DSR has been to con­firm the ex­is­tence of pro­lific sperm donors — real-life ver­sions of the Vince Vaughn char­ac­ter in the movie “The De­liv­ery Man” who learns that he fa­thered 533 chil­dren through his do­na­tions.

Many coun­tries set strict lim­its on the num­ber of off­spring a donor can sire. In Bri­tain, it’s up to 10 fam­i­lies; in Nether­lands, 25; in Tai­wan, just one. But no such laws ex­ist in the United States, where the Amer­i­can So­ci­ety of Re­pro­duc­tive Medicine rec­om­mends lim­it­ing live births per donor to 25 per 800,000 pop­u­la­tion — about the size of San Fran­cisco or Char­lotte. In a na­tion of 326 mil­lion peo­ple, that works out to a stag­ger­ing 10,175 pos­si­ble chil­dren per donor.

Donor #2757

Kianni Ar­royo had to work harder to meet her ge­netic fam­ily. The first per­son she found was her bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther.

Donor #2757 stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 185 pounds. He has hazel-green eyes, wavy brown hair and is de­scended from Ger­man, Ir­ish and Na­tive Amer­i­can stock. In his pro­file, he’s de­scribed as a pho­tog­ra­pher with a bach­e­lor’s de­gree who likes bik­ing, surf­ing and writ­ing. He do­nated his sperm to pay off col­lege stu­dent loans.

The women who chose Donor #2757 did so for var­i­ous rea­sons. Ar­royo’s mom liked his looks and his artis­tic back­ground. An­other woman, who would later give birth to Zac LaRocca-Stravalle, now 19, liked that he could trace his lin­eage to a brave mil­i­tary of­fi­cer whose ex­ploits were doc­u­mented by his­to­ri­ans. Rebecca, the mother of Sophia and twin Ava, thought “he seemed like some­one I’d date.” (Rebecca asked that she and the twins be iden­ti­fied only by their first names to pro­tect their pri­vacy.)

Ar­royo went search­ing for her donor’s iden­tity in her teens and met a per­son ac­tive in the dono­roff­spring com­mu­nity who had some­how got­ten that con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion. She friended her donor on Face­book and con­tacted him shortly be­fore her 18th birth­day. They met when he was in Or­lando on a busi­ness trip. She drove to his ho­tel and looked for a man who looked like her.

“When I found him, I didn’t know whether to hug him or shake his hand or not touch him at all. It was re­ally awk­ward,” Ar­royo re­called. “But then he kind of opened his arms into a hug and ac­cepted me. It was kind of re­liev­ing.” Donor #2757 told her he was still work­ing as a pho­tog­ra­pher, that he was sin­gle and that he had no chil­dren of his own. Through Ar­royo, he de­clined to be in­ter­viewed or iden­ti­fied, cit­ing pri­vacy con­cerns.

About a year later, the donor con­nected Ar­royo with her first half sib­ling: JoAnna Alaia, 20, of Tampa, who works in busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. She’s a twin, but her twin was not in­ter­ested in meet­ing with Ar­royo. So the two women ren­dezvoused near the high­way, drove all night, got pulled over for speed­ing, and met with Donor #2757 the next day in his home­town.

Since then, their sib­ling group has mush­roomed. Ar­royo has dis­cov­ered seven half sib­lings in Florida and seven more in New York, five in Mas­sachusetts and four in Ge­or­gia. Be­cause Amer­i­can sperm is sold widely over­seas, she has also found half sib­lings in Aus­tralia, New Zealand and Canada.

So far, Ar­royo is the old­est, but not by much. There are 10 other 20-some­things. Then there seems to be a decade-long gap be­fore an­other batch of half sib­lings ar­rived, chil­dren now in ele­men­tary school.

This sum­mer, Ar­royo’s va­ca­tion plans re­volved around meet­ing her donor sib­lings. She, Sophia and Ava spent a few days on Cape Cod with a 9-year-old half sis­ter from New York. Then they hosted a cook­out in the Bos­ton area for the Mas­sachusetts-based fam­i­lies.

Five of Ar­royo’s half sib­lings were at the re­union: Sophia and Ava, LaRocca-Stravalle and an­other set of twins, Ad­de­line and Vi­vianna Ju­liani, age 8. Ev­ery­one noted the fam­ily re­sem­blance: The laid-back, sporty kids all had wide smiles and prom­i­nent dim­ples on their right cheeks.

Kris­ten Ju­liani, one of the twins’ two moth­ers, re­counted how a sperm bank sales per­son had rec­om­mended Donor #2757 as a “model” donor. She was not thrilled to learn that her donor was so pop­u­lar.

“I don’t feel great about it,” she said. “There should be a cap on sales.”

Ar­royo has mixed feel­ings, too. While ev­ery visit with her half sib­lings has been a blast, she finds it “wor­ry­ing” that sperm banks per­mit so many chil­dren to be born from a sin­gle donor.

“Ev­ery time I find a new sib­ling,” she said, “I get anx­i­ety and think to my­self: When is it go­ing to end?”

A few days be­fore she left the re­union, Ar­royo got a mes­sage from yet an­other half sis­ter. Rylie Hager, 19, is a sopho­more study­ing so­ci­ol­ogy at Tem­ple Univer­sity in Philadel­phia. Ar­royo in­vited her to join a group of half sib­lings who planned to meet Donor #2757 in mid-Au­gust. The first night, they went bowl­ing, and Hager noted that three of the girls were wear­ing the same out­fit: gray tank tops and shorts.

“It’s all re­ally crazy,” she said. “Th­ese peo­ple are strangers, but be­cause I’m re­lated to them, they have all kind of ac­cepted me.”

Hager said when she first found out about the size of her group of half sib­lings, she sent an alarmed text to her mom. “Is that ex­cit­ing to you, or ter­ri­fy­ing?” her mom asked.

Hager replied: “Both.”

CAR­OLYN VAN HOUTEN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Kianni Ar­royo, Zac LaRocca-Stravalle, twin sis­ters Ava and Sophia, and twin sis­ters Vi­vianna and Ad­de­line, all half sib­lings from the same donor fa­ther, play dur­ing a re­union in the Bos­ton area.

PHO­TOS BY CAR­OLYN VAN HOUTEN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

TOP: Kianni Ar­royo, 21, hugs her half sib­ling Ava, 8, at a re­union in a Bos­ton sub­urb. Ar­royo is on a quest to meet all her “donor sib­lings,” in­clud­ing mid­dle, from left, Ava, 8, twins Vi­vianna and Ad­de­line, 8, and Zac LaRocca-Stravalle, be­low right. “We have a con­nec­tion. It’s hard to ex­plain, but it’s there,” Ar­royo said.

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