January 20, 2019

The Changing Norms Around Donor-Sibling Networks

“By now, it’s relatively common for people conceived through sperm donation to discover half siblings floating around in the world who they’ve never met—people who, despite being strangers socially, share half their genetic material and perhaps even look, talk, or act like them. It’s a scenario that’s formed the basis for many a human-interest story and provided the backdrop for works of fiction, like the 2011 French comedy Starbuck (and its 2013 American remake, Delivery Man).

Of course, as sperm donation has grown more popular, the practices surrounding it have changed, too, trending ever more toward transparency: Today, parents of donor-conceived kids are far more likely to openly share their children’s origins with others than in the past, and more donors than ever before now opt to make their biographical details and contact information available to their donor offspring when they turn 18. In other words, sperm donation has become less of a family secret in the past few decades. In the new book Random Families, Rosanna Hertz and Margaret K. Nelson (sociologists from Wellesley and Middlebury, respectively) make the case that networks and family-like structures among genetically related donor offspring have evolved as a result.

Up until the 2010s, these networks—known colloquially as “donor-sibling networks,” and now often facilitated by social media—generally used to spring up when donor-conceived individuals discovered one another in their school-age, teenage, or adult years. Now, however, as Hertz and Nelson found in their study of recently developed donor-sibling networks, some parents are making contact with donor siblings or the parents of donor siblings as soon as their children are born or even conceived. These parents in particular have a unique vision for what the donor-sibling network could offer their kids later in life—they see it as something like a cross between an extended family and an alumni network.”

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