NEAR CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA. — One summer day in 2014, Vicki Childs of Mount Pleasant decided to sign into the Donor Sibling Registry online and enter her information. She had three children: Hiers, her biological son, and Georgia and Carson, twin sisters born of her partner, Laura Peaden. All three children were conceived using the same sperm donor.
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, a precocious 13-year-old, Zelda Jane Look, did the same thing. She was an only child and wanted siblings. She had read with fascination the 15-page donor profile the sperm bank provided her birth mother. It piqued her curiosity. She put in her information and — bing! — a match.
Soon after, Vicki Childs gathered the family for a talk. She had searched online for siblings and found one, she told them.
The children weren’t sure what to make of this information. They were intrigued, nervous. What were the implications of such a discovery?
After a while, Carson and Georgia emailed Zelda, and they arranged for her to visit the Charleston area in January 2015.
Zelda was apprehensive. What if these half-siblings didn’t like her? What if they didn’t all get along? She was desperate for it to work out well.
As she pulled up to the house just off Rifle Range Road in Mount Pleasant, she became tense, quiet. Her mother Kim Fugate led her inside, where the welcome was so warm it melted most of Zelda’s fears.
Hiers, a couple of years older, remained aloof. But the three girls quickly bonded, observing the physical traits and mannerisms they shared. It was an exciting revelation.
After a couple of days, it came time for Zelda and her mom to return to Atlanta. Sitting in the car as it pulled away, the girl burst into tears of anguish and joy. She had succeeded in enlarging her family. But what would happen now?
Zelda eventually would discover 18 additional donor siblings, a dozen of whom embraced the idea of getting to know one another. She plummeted down the internet rabbit hole in search of the man whose genes she inherited and began to wonder about the ethics and issues associated with sperm donation.
Mostly, though, Zelda and a growing number of her half-siblings found an unexpected opportunity to forge new bonds of affection. Ten of them gathered in mid-August in the Blue Ridge Mountains just west of Charlottesville, Va., to reinforce tenuous ties between members of an untraditional extended American family.
Finding each other
The rustic house is well off the road, perched on a slope and nestled among a variety of Appalachian trees near the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. Kimberly Vacca — at 29, the oldest of the half-siblings — found the rental on Vrbo, and everyone thought it was a perfect retreat site for the occasion.
Hard rain blunts the contrast between the steely gray sky and the deep green landscape. Water drips from the sloped roof onto the edge of the big lawn, creating a gutter of mud.
It’s late morning, but not all of the siblings are up and about. They emerge gradually and take a seat around the enormous hardwood table.
Carson is driving Alex McCollum to the Richmond airport and doesn’t return to the house until early afternoon. Alex, 29, hails from New Brunswick, Canada, and has the farthest to travel.
When 23-year-old Isaias Akers appears, he’s a little the worse for wear, still recovering from festivities the night before. But he manages to fire off pithy one-liners about his Saluda, N.C., upbringing and his country ways.
Zelda, 21 now, is last to surface, and her demeanor, at once stiff and inviting, betrays a certain vulnerability.
In 2014 (the year Zelda found Carson, Georgia and Hiers), Kimberly came across a now-defunct blog that led her to discover a Chicago family whose mom used the same donor specimen from the same Atlanta clinic. Though the mother was open to contact, her two young sons weren’t ready. Several months later, Zelda found Kimberly and her 26-year-old full sister Kristen. Now there were six, not counting the Chicago boys who preferred to avoid any association.
By 2016, most were registered with 23andMe, the genetic testing service that can notify participants when relatives are matched. That’s how Kim found Alex. Emma Antenen, 26, learned she had half-siblings after her brother did research via Ancestry.com and got a hit. But Emma laid low. Later, curious about her genetic makeup and unaware that the service connected you to siblings, she signed up with 23andMe and was surprised to discover she had several. But she didn’t want to make things complicated for her family, so she remained on the sidelines — until Zelda contacted her.
Annie Skelton, 21, is the latest to join the clan. She grew up just east of Atlanta in the city of Decatur, a diverse enclave of artsy and well-to-do residents. Like several of the other siblings, she has two moms. She expected to find maybe a couple of blood relatives, she said. Not 22 and counting.
When, 31 years ago, their donor visited that clinic in Atlanta, he assumed his identity would remain anonymous. There was no mass-market DNA sequencing and genetic testing back then, and no way to foresee the emergence of widely available commercial services.
Then the rules of the game changed.
“We grew up at the perfect time to find each other,” 26-year-old Hiers says.
Isaias, 23, puts it another way.
“Technology has outpaced privacy,” he says.
‘The wrong tree’
The rain is coming down steadily, rattling the leaves, so Sunday excursions are on hold. The half-siblings gather in the game room where a couple of them are playing pool, missing the majority of their shots, the balls clattering on the red felt surface.
The first night they gathered here, they ate tacos and played board games. On Saturday, they hiked through a portion of Shenandoah National Park, admired a waterfall, then visited a big brewery, Pro Re Nata, in the village of Crozet. Isaias consumed a bit too much, but he’s improving thanks to a self-administered dose of dark humor.
They note how everyone except Hiers has blue or green eyes; how everyone including Hiers has thick eyebrows; how several of them are bisexual or, at least, highly tolerant of sexual and gender fluidity, probably because of upbringings in nontraditional families. They all love to play board games. They all have dry skin. “Most of us are pretty funny,” Kristen says. Both Isaias and Hiers have the same shoe size: 11½.
They know the donor was Colombian, that his father was indigenous and his mother was part European. Does that make these siblings Latinos? To what degree should they embrace that part of their genetic heritage? Some wonder whether they ought to check the Latino box on government forms, especially if doing so qualifies them for certain benefits. But they all identify as Caucasian, so maybe not.
Besides, the donor plays no active role in their lives; he demands anonymity, and the siblings respect his wishes.
In 2016, Zelda was notified by 23andMe of another match, a paternal uncle. She cross-referenced the information with the donor file her mom had kept, which noted one brother. As soon as she reached out, the brother locked his profile, stripped out the family history and reduced his name to his initials.
So Zelda dug deep, searching for the identity of the donor. What she craved most was a photo.
“I just wanted to know what he looked like,” she says.
Her efforts bore fruit, but she didn’t dare pursue it for two years. By the time she turned 18, she had collected eight phone numbers, perhaps among them was the correct one. She texted and received a response, perhaps from the donor’s wife. Zelda asked to speak with him. Instead, she received a message.
“You are mistaken. You are barking up the wrong tree.”
And then she was blocked.
Her emotions were in a jumble. She was disappointed, angry even. He should be aware of his progeny, she thought. These are real people, with feelings and needs and desires, who he helped create.
On the other hand, she understood his predicament and sympathized. She knew he had every right to avoid contact with myriad offspring he didn’t know, and didn’t want to know. She was content to find her siblings.
And she achieved her true goal: On Facebook, she found his picture.
‘The right thing’
It’s hard to know how many children of mothers who used donor sperm have discovered one another, but it’s safe to say that this group is not unique. Both Zelda and Annie have friends who also have found donor siblings. And the commercial DNA services now collect enough information to make these connections easier.
The definition of family has widened in recent years to include same-sex parents who, to have children, often must adopt or rely on medical interventions. And men in the U.S. have seen a decline in sperm count and motility that has impacted their ability to father children, according to some studies.
The sperm bank market is predicted to continue growing as more and more Americans choose assisted reproductive technology (ART) to have children. The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported nearly 74,000 successful infant births in 2018 thanks to ART, and 84,000 in 2019.
“Although the use of ART is still relatively rare as compared to the potential demand, its use has more than doubled over the past decade,” the CDC states. “Approximately 2.0% of all infants born in the United States every year are conceived using ART.”
Grant Goodrich, an ethicist at the Medical University of South Carolina, said ART interventions can be extremely beneficial, enabling all kinds of people to have families. But the profit-driven business model can create problems.
“There’s a strong incentive for people to donate (eggs or sperm),” he said. “The financial incentive could override their own best interests, particularly for egg donations.”
Clinics, Goodrich said, can take advantage of people desperate for children. Fertility services in the United States are expensive — an in vitro preparation and procedure, for example, typically costs between $10,000 and $15,000, according to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. And the success rate is about 20 percent, so determined women can end up spending much more.
Some health insurance providers cover ART, at least partially, while others do not, raising questions of privilege and fairness, Goodrich said.
“If you don’t have insurance or if you are poor, you don’t have the option of having a family if you’re unable to conceive,” he said.
And this, in turn, raises a bigger question.
“Is having a family a human right? We usually think a woman has a right to get pregnant … but it’s not a violation of rights to be unable to conceive,” Goodrich said. “Perhaps we have an obligation of sorts to help them create a family.”
Politically, assisted reproductive technology, especially in vitro fertilization, has become a divisive religious issue since multiple eggs are fertilized and frozen for potential future use, but eventually are discarded, he said. Is a zygote — the microscopic earliest phase of the fertilized egg — a human being? Does it have a soul? Is destroying it a sin?
Sperm donation itself has its social and biological implications.
“The number of gametes produced is astronomical so you can have literally hundreds of offspring,” he said. If those offspring are concentrated geographically, and if they don’t know they’re genetically related, there’s the potential for romantic entanglements.
That’s why many clinics strive to limit the number of times a particular specimen is used, but there is no independent oversight, Goodrich said.
“You’re trusting these clinics to do the right thing,” he said.
‘To help people’
John Schnorr, medical director of Coastal Fertility Specialists in Mount Pleasant, said assisted reproductive technology, which has been in use for decades, is a fundamentally benevolent service, even if it has been commercialized. It helps people get what they want: a family.
Today, donors typically are tested for diseases and disorders and must provide a wealth of personal information, he said.
His clinic has no sperm donor program, but it allows patients to use samples provided by any accredited sperm bank in the U.S., Schnorr said.
Coastal Fertility follows disclosure guidelines set forth by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, which strongly encourages parents to tell their donor-conceived children about their status.
There’s a growing movement opposing donor anonymity, he said.
“People’s genetic identities matter to them,” Schnorr said. “They are naturally going to be curious about who their genetic dad is, or genetic mom. That makes sense. A donor needs to know he could be found, that he should probably assume he will be found, what it means to donate, what to say to his genetic offspring. It makes the donation process more serious.”
Kathleen Vacca, mother to Kim and Kristen, said entering the domain of assisted reproductive technology requires not just rules and regulations, but reliance on an honor system. Parents and children must respect the wishes of the donor.
“The reason the donor was doing it was to help people,” she said. “I’d like to think that altruistic intent is honored. … I appreciate his willingness to do what he did.”
Vacca, a retired law enforcement officer, said she thinks it’s natural for her daughters to want to extend their family connections.
“I come from a very large extended family,” she said from her home in Florida. “I have 58 first cousins … so for me ‘family’ is a broad term.”
Her daughters are sensible and smart, so she never worried that their interest in knowing donor siblings would lead them astray, she said.
“It was all mutual,” Vacca said. “Whoever wanted to meet and talk would, whoever didn’t, no problem. I can’t think of a downside, but I respect those who feel otherwise.”
More than friends
At the big cabin in the woods, the rain persists into the afternoon, but the half-siblings are hoping it will soon subside so they might do a little exploring.
Kristen remembers how, when she was perhaps 9, her mom said something about a sperm bank and “other kids.”
Emma recalls how she was surprised and a little upset when she discovered she had these special siblings. She feared it could complicate an already complicated family life. She avoided telling her brother about it.
“I didn’t think it would be a positive experience,” she says. “I felt judged by the others.”
Then Zelda contacted her, and added Emma to the group chat. Soon, Kimberly visited her in New York City. It took a while, but eventually Emma warmed to the idea of knowing more and meeting up.
A couple of them worried about alienating one or both of their parents. What would the non-biological mom think? Was this a betrayal of sorts? But they all say their parents have been supportive.
Now seated around the big table again, they are playing Bristol 1350, a board game whose theme is avoiding the Black Death. You have to get your apple cart out of town before getting infected by the bubonic plague. The rain outside seems to be subsiding. The sky is a lighter shade of gray.
The half-siblings, at ease, are laughing together. They are, as Carson puts it, not quite family — at least not yet — but more than friends.
Zelda, standing nearby, is happy to be here in this mountain house among these people who are more than friends, people who share something essential in common. But concern colors her voice.
The group surely signifies something positive, but the gathering also alludes to uncertainties large and small.
How many more of them might be found? Should the baby-making industry be better regulated? Can these new relationships deepen? Will they last?
Other questions, though, have been answered, questions of identity and acceptance, family and affection. They are kin.
And Zelda, an only child, knows she is not alone.
The rain has stopped. So the group piles into a couple of cars and drives into Charlottesville to explore the town, get some ice cream and find a place to eat dinner. They settle on a little restaurant that makes pasta. Their bonds strengthen further.
The next day, they disperse, returning to their regular lives in Charleston, Atlanta, New York City, Asheville, Saluda, Lansing and Washington, D.C. The rain in the trees is a memory now.