Jaclyn Baxter spit into her 23andMe DNA kit trying to find out if she carried any troublesome genes she could pass on to her infant son, Jack.
She worried about his chances of developing Alzheimer’s or Type I Diabetes – diseases that ran in her family. Her results, however, changed everything she thought she knew about herself.
Baxter, 33 and a Placerville mother of two, thought she was an only child until three months ago, when she discovered a half brother in her DNA matches. This discovery launched a three-month journey that revealed three half siblings and a sperm donor they all had in common. And there could be many more siblings, possibly hundreds. Baxter figured her dad could be her half brothers’ sperm donor.
Baxter’s discovery and the eventual upheaval it caused are far from unusual, said CeCe Moore, a genetic genealogist and consultant for the PBS series “Finding Your Roots.” Without industry regulation or oversight, early sperm donors sired, usually unknowingly, tens or even hundreds of children until the federal government stepped in. Thousands of children were born, and many of them now, like, Baxter, are seeking health information or to connect with their biological family – and finding that it’s far more complicated than they ever imagined.
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The growing popularity of home DNA testing, however, also is bringing to light how even clinics that set standards didn’t always adhere to them, Moore said.
“No one ever thought we’d have a way to unravel this,” Moore said.
During their infancy in the 1960s, clinics routinely ran donor programs using local medical students and other donors, said Scott Brown, director of client experience at the California Cryobank, which ships frozen male reproductive material across the United States and to 60 countries.
To track the number of successful pregnancies, clinics often relied on women to self-report, Moore said. Many reports were either never made or were not properly documented.
Moore recalled a particular client who discovered more than 100 half siblings, all sharing the same sperm donor.
“It was really the Wild West of donor conception,” Moore said. “There was no regulation and no oversight.”
That changed amid the HIV crisis of the 1980s, which prompted the Food and Drug Administration to issue regulations regarding human tissue. The FDA required sperm samples to be frozen and quarantined for six months so the donor could be tested for disease, Brown said. After that, the sample was deemed safe to use for insemination.
Since many clinics didn’t have the facilities to freeze sperm and hold it for that period of time, they abandoned local donors for donations from large sperm banks such as the California Cryobank. The Cryobank limits the use of its sperm donations to 20 to 30 families worldwide and has done so since it opened in 1977, Brown said.
Other clinics and sperm banks determined their own best practices – though recent DNA home testing kits have helped reveal that they didn’t always follow them.
A case in Indiana revealed that a fertility doctor was replacing spousal and donor sperm with his own and using it to inseminate his patients. The substitution was discovered after one of the donor children discovered a number of half siblings through a 23andMe DNA test.
By 2005, the FDA had three rules in place that ensured sperm donations were tested for communicable diseases and that sperm banks maintained records on donors. But the regulations were too late for the spate of donor-conceived children of the ’70s and ’80s who have flocked to home DNA tests looking for siblings and donors.
23andMe, for example, has more than 2 million people in its database, and Ancestry reported in January that its database topped 5 million.
“Secrets are not secrets anymore,” said Kitty Cooper, a genetic genealogist who verified Baxter’s results. “Things are changing, so you better tell your kids now.”
When Baxter received the results of her 23andMe, she called her estranged mom for an explanation. Her mother refused to provide any answers.
“The first time I confronted her, I said, ‘Hey, I have a brother. Do you want to explain to me what’s going on?’ He says he’s donor conceived. Was dad a donor? And I got nothing from her other than she said, ‘You’re ridiculous for taking such a test.’ ”
Her half brother, Loren Chase, a firefighter in Berkeley, was just as surprised initially, he said. He told Baxter he’s known he was sperm donor conceived most of his life.
“I didn’t know how to relate to her out of the gate,” said Chase, 37. “But, I’m glad I figured that out because she’s great.”
He also told Baxter about Tim McNulty, another half brother he found in 2010 through a home DNA test, CaBRI, that compared Y chromosome DNA and confirmed they had the same biological father. In the space of a week, Baxter suddenly gained a whole new family.
“Finding out about Jaclyn, I was really surprised,” said McNulty, a partner in a bakery in Southern California. “I assumed if I had a sister I’d never find her.”
Chase and McNulty began exchanging emails with Baxter as she peppered them with questions about being donor-conceived, by, she thought, her father.
“Her whole world was flipped on its head. I thought back to what I went through so I wanted to support her and any questions she had,” McNulty, 37, said.
Something about the test results didn’t strike Baxter as quite right, though. She said she thought it was odd when she didn’t see her cousin from her father’s side among her DNA matches despite the fact that her cousin had taken a 23andMe test years ago.
She asked her paternal aunt and cousin to take another DNA test. The results confirmed her fear: they weren’t related to her. And that meant the man she called Daddy wasn’t her biological father.
“When I got the results, I fell to my knees and I couldn’t stop crying, like uncontrollably crying,” Baxter said as she dabbed tears away from her cheeks. “And while, of course, I’m very happy about my brothers, the first thing I felt was that my dad isn’t biologically mine. And even though I knew that didn’t change the love between us – that never for a second occurred to me that it could change the love – I’m just so proud of him and he’s one of the favorite parts about myself, and I was sad not to be genetically his.”
Baxter considered him her closest friend. He died when she was 18.
“After I got past that initial shock and pain, I felt invaded. I felt like someone is half of me and I don’t know who they are and I wanted out of my skin. I literally just itched and wanted out of my skin.”
Chase and McNulty had already spent years trying to find their biological father, but to no avail. The only information they had was he was a blond and blue-eyed UC Berkeley graduate student. They don’t have a donor number, which is used to track a donor’s identity. And the Berkeley clinic where they were conceived, Beernink & Beernink, closed in the late 1980s. The records were not kept.
A UC Davis study found 35 percent of adults conceived through sperm donated to the Sperm Bank of California sought the identity of their donor after they turned 18. At the California Cryobank, Brown said most donor kids request contact with their biological fathers.
But for the generation conceived through sperm donation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, records can be difficult if not impossible to track down. The Washington Post reported in 2011 that anonymous sperm donors deprived their children of valuable medical history, making medical treatment more difficult and putting offspring at risk.
McNulty is suffering from a health issue that he wonders may stem from their donor dad.
McNulty said he’s exhausted himself looking for their donor. In his 20s, he spent at least two hours a day posting on message boards and writing letters to potential donors. He poured through yearbooks, too. Chase said he’s walked the halls of UC Berkeley checking photos of students to see if any one looks like him. Eventually they stopped searching.
“I didn’t want to feel like I was missing something,” Chase said.
Connecting with their sister has rekindled their desire to find their father. The trio put their genetic information on the four top DNA databases – Ancestry, 23andMe, My Heritage and Family Tree DNA. The hope is to find matches that will help them build their paternal family tree. Baxter has also joined numerous Facebook support groups devoted to helping donor-conceived children find their biological parents.
Two months ago, Baxter was matched with a new half-sister, Andrea, on My Heritage’s database. She lives in Louisiana. They are now all exchanging emails.
Baxter, Chase and McNulty had their first family reunion in early July.
“All of our families were together for the first time,” Baxter said. “It was amazing. And I just left there on a high. Everything went well, it was as if we’d always been together. It’s weird how everything just clicked.”
They hope to meet Andrea very soon, Baxter said.
“Now knowing that I have the potential for a lot of siblings, every time you have any matches you get an email from 23andMe that says, ‘You have new matches,’ ” Baxter said. “And so every time it’s a heart drop for my specific case because I don’t know if that’s going to be a sibling or a donor dad. It’s an emotional back and forth.”