Navigating Family Planning Decisions in the Age of Consumer DNA Tests
Apr 2, 2019, 10:12 PM | Updated: 10:45 pm
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – Imagine growing up as an only child and then learning you have multiple brothers and sisters you never knew about. That’s what happened to Salt Lake City resident Jeremy Walker.
Walker writes commercials for KSL TV, but the New Jersey native couldn’t have scripted the last couple of months.
Meeting Donor Family
Walker recently traveled to the East Coast to meet a handful of his newfound half-siblings.
“Now I have everyone saved in my phone as brother or sister whoever,” said Julian Cavin, Walker’s half-brother. “Brother Jeremy. Brother Joe. Brother Greg.”
Walker has been aware he was the product of artificial insemination since he was a child.
“I’ve always known that that’s how I was born, so that’s just kind of normal to me,” said Walker. But when his DNA test results arrived at the start of the year, he was surprised by the size of his newfound family.
“Lo and behold now I have 14 or more siblings,” said Walker. He knows that number may continue to grow.
Together, Walker and four of his half-siblings sought out their donor dad, John Wilson.
“This is like 25 years in the making,” said Walker nervously, during the ride to Wilson’s home.
Wilson welcomed the chance to host his now bigger clan with open arms.
“It’s a lot more calm that I thought I would be, and he’s extremely welcoming,” said Walker with relief.
As a young dad in need of some cash, Wilson said he donated his sperm for seven years.
“I’m happy. I’m happy for them,” said Wilson. “There’s not a bad bone in the bunch.”
“That’s what everyone wants to do, have a beer with your dad, right?,” laughed Joe Konowski, another half-sibling at the gathering.
“My whole life, as you probably feel, everybody always asked me if I was going to try to figure out who you were and my answer was always like, ‘Yeah that would be cool,’” Walker said to the group.
“These kids deserve it. They should know their heritage,” said Wilson, who now knows he has more than a handful of grandkids, too.
Wilson’s lineage may include many more yet undiscovered kids.
Ripple Effects of Donor DNA
While Walker’s story is a sweet one, DNA kits are causing trauma for some families.
Several of Walker’s half-siblings skipped this meetup with their donor dad because until the results of their DNA test came back, they had no clue they were created from a sperm donation.
They’re now trying to process what their parents never told them.
“There’s not a class on how to learn your dad is not your dad,” explained Walker.
The genesis of commercial DNA kits has changed how Dr. Erica Johnstone, a reproductive specialist in the University of Utah Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, counsels infertility patients.
Decades ago, donors and their recipients agreed to confidentiality. That often becomes impossible in the age of DNA testing.
While she says sperm donation is wonderful for families struggling to conceive, she now advises parents to educate their kids as they grow up.
“How will I talk to my child about this? How I will think about the fact that my child may have 14 or 20 or 50 half siblings out there?” asked Johnstone.
Donor DNA Regulations
The United States approached sperm donation differently than other nations. For one thing, there is very little regulation.
The federal government only requires tests for infectious diseases. Everything else is up to the individual sperm bank and the recipient.
Several countries have much more control. The United Kingdom, for example, limits how many children can be conceived from a single donor, and how and when the kids can communicate with the donor.
“If one sperm donor is creating 25 or 50 children in a single geographic area, that’s a lot more worrisome in terms of them meeting and what could happen there,” said Johnstone.
But Walker and his newfound family aren’t frustrated by the lack of fine print.
“I do think it’s pretty interesting that it’s so loose and unregulated,” said Cavin.
“I don’t know what to say about that,” said Wilson. “The genie is out of the bottle.”
“I’m alive,” said Walker. “If it was more regulated, maybe I wouldn’t be here.”
The half-siblings were all thankful one man’s choice helped families who couldn’t have had their own kids.
“If we can forge new relationships from this point on that’s just all positive to me,” said another half-sibling, Greg Konowski.
While Walker’s now much bigger family has a lot of catching up to do, he realizes the ripple effects of DNA test results have put a lot of people in precarious situations and that decades-old decisions carry consequences for family secrets and family planning. As he navigates his new reality, he sums it up the best way he can.
“I feel like I’m in a movie,” he said.