Ancestry DNA Tests and the Implications on Sperm Donation and Anonymity
Author: London Sperm Bank
With Christmas around the corner, there’s almost a guarantee that if you’re not finding it under your own tree, someone you know will likely receive an ancestry DNA test for a gift this year.
The use of at-home DNA kits has soared in the recent years, as they have become a reliable and exciting gift option to give to family and friends for birthdays, Christmas, or just for fun. In fact, according to a survey carried out by YouGov, an estimated 4.7 million people in the UK have used a DNA testing kit – and this number is expected to only grow as their popularity continues.
But for those who have undergone fertility treatment, particularly treatments that require a sperm or egg donor, these DNA kits can sometimes be more than bargained for.
How Ancestry Tests Can Impact Sperm Donor Anonymity
A key part of the legislature surrounding fertility and donor treatments in the UK is the law regarding sperm donor anonymity and the releasing of donor information. As of the 2005 HFEA law change, donors are anonymous at the time of donating and when their samples are purchased by recipients for treatment. At this time, only non-identifiable information about a donor – such as hair colour, profession, and medical history – is made available to recipients.
Later on, donor conceived people are able to access identifiable information about their donor once they reach the age of 18. This information includes a donor’s name, last known address, and any other information provided to the clinic. This information, however, is only accessible if a donor conceived person is aware that they are in fact donor conceived. If this information has been withheld from their family, they will not know that this resource is available to them.
But these vital and well-respected laws about sperm donor anonymity are potentially compromised by at-home ancestry DNA tests.
Over the recent years, there have been multiple instances of a person coming to learn that they were donor conceived without previously knowing that their parents were not genetically related to them; or donors and donor conceived people attempting to find their genetic relatives, before the anonymity is lifted.
This was a topic explored in a BBC Two series DNA Family Secrets, where in one episode a sperm donor discusses their experiences donating prior to the 2005 HFEA regulation, where donations were completely anonymous, and their journey to try and find people conceived from their donations through ancestry DNA test sites.
What does this mean for donor conceived people, and sperm donors alike?
HFEA Advice About Ancestry DNA Tests
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority specifies that prior to a donor being accepted onto the programme, they are counselled and informed about the implications of at-home ancestry DNA tests and how, in the modern day, sperm donor anonymity cannot always be guaranteed and the impact of this.
“These kits can match offspring and donors and reveal that they are related, should both have taken the test. This can be quite distressing for recipients and donor conceived people if the offspring did not know they were donor conceived” says Sameer, Senior Andrologist and Donor Coordinator at London Sperm Bank. “It can also be distressing for donors who become identified before they expect to be.”
However, this knowledge doesn’t necessarily deter people from using the testing services.
The HFEA references a survey carried out in 2020 from We Are Donor Conceived, which found that 78% of respondents stated that they had successfully identified their donor through at-home ancestry DNA tests. Whilst this may not be a representation of all donor conceived people as a whole, it indicates that there is a potential for those who are donor conceived or donors themselves to find each other and make connections.
What London Sperm Bank is Doing to Help
At London Sperm Bank, we don’t actively discourage donors or recipients from using home DNA test kits, but make every effort to ensure that they are aware of the potential consequences of themselves or family members using them.
Jamie Forster, Senior Fertility Counsellor at London Sperm Bank and London Women’s Clinic, explains how this is discussed with both donors and recipients.
“The truth is we cannot promise absolute anonymity anymore because of the presence of recreational DNA testing and at-home ancestry DNA kits, and this is one of the reasons why it is so important we learn how to talk openly about donor conception,” she says.
“For the recipient families this means being as open as possible with their children about their genetic origins, so that their ancestry doesn’t come as a surprise later on in life. And for donors this means being open and honest, or even including, their partners, families, and children about their decision to donate.”
For many donors or donor conceived people, ancestry DNA kits can be a fun and exciting way to find out more about their genetic heritage, and may not necessarily cause any upset or confusion. But, it’s important to bear in mind the impact your results may have before you gift a DNA kit to your friends and family this Christmas.