'You have to prepare for every outcome': The search for donor dads

'Donors are often sympathetic to the desire of donor-conceived people to know more about their genetic origins.'
'Donors are often sympathetic to the desire of donor-conceived people to know more about their genetic origins.' Photo: Stocksy

In the 1970s and 80s – the early days of IVF and treatment via donor insemination in Australia – fertility clinics, desperate to shore up their reserves of sperm, often held donor drives. Cash was offered to young men happy to spend a few minutes in a room with a magazine and a specimen jar.

It was easy cash and was no big deal anyway: the donation was anonymous. Until 2016.

That's the year a law was passed in Victoria that, if you believed some in the media, was going to have a group of men dreading a visit to the mailbox. It allowed offspring to gain access to identifying information about their sperm donors – even if the donor had been explicitly promised anonymity.

“There was a niggling feeling that there were people out there I was related to but who I didn’t know.”
“There was a niggling feeling that there were people out there I was related to but who I didn’t know.” Photo: Supplied

At the time there was outrage from some social commentators and even medical associations, fearful of the impact it would have on anonymous donors and their families. Some of these donors hadn't told their families, they argued. Others might not want anything to do with their offspring.

The world-first law change was prompted by a mountain of research showing that knowing one's biological background is essential for a person's good mental health and development.

IVF regulations had been changed years ago to reflect this, and sperm donors now have to give consent before they donate to their identifying information being made available to their offspring when they turn 18.

Yet this left a group of adults, conceived in the 1970s and 1980s, who didn't have the same rights. So the law was modified retrospectively to include them, too.

Since the law has changed, Louise Johnson, the CEO of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA) – the statewide organisation charged with connecting donors and their offspring – says the experiences on both sides have mostly been respectful. "Donors are often sympathetic to the desire of donor-conceived people to know more about their genetic origins," she says. "It has also been our experience that donor-conceived people are respectful of their donor's lives."

Louise emphasises that the donor can be shielded. "Legislation provides donors and their families protection via the option of lodging a contact preference about a preferred way for contact or no contact at all.


"These contact preferences need to be respected by donor-conceived people who make an application to a central donor register."

Here, two donor-conceived Victorians share their stories about finding their donors – with two very different results.


Hayley Smith, 29, was able to fill the void in her life.

“I haven’t been upset or pining or anything like that. I’ve got a bit of information now, which is what I want. For me, ...
“I haven’t been upset or pining or anything like that. I’ve got a bit of information now, which is what I want. For me, that was really good.” Photo: Supplied

When Hayley was 12, her parents sat her down and told her a story. It was the story of a young couple who desperately wanted children but who were unable to fall pregnant naturally.

Thanks to modern technology and a generous stranger, their dream eventually came true.

That was the night Hayley learnt that she was conceived with the help of an anonymous sperm donor. "It was a shock," she recalls. "Until that time I had no inkling that I wasn't my father's biological daughter."

Yet, says Hayley, the news didn't have much effect on her life. "I was old enough to understand the implications of it and to understand that it was a reasonably significant revelation, but I was still young enough that I was able to incorporate it into my sense of self," she says.

"For a long time, it was just an interesting quirk in the story of me as a person."But there was a niggling feeling that there were people out there I was related to but who I didn't know, as well as information about who I was."

When Hayley was in her early 20s and at university, she decided to look into finding her donor. That's when she learnt that the law was not her friend. As a child conceived in 1989, the law provided her with no right to information regarding her donor.

She also learnt that in Victoria there was a voluntary registry that connected donors who were willing to reveal their identity with their offspring. Hayley signed up.

"I was nervous because it was such an unknown!" she says. "You just don't know who is on the register waiting for you to apply. Unfortunately for me, there was no one there."

In the years that followed, Hayley became an advocate for legislative change, telling her story to magazines and newspapers, giving a voice to donor-conceived offspring who had fallen through the cracks.

Hayley describes the experience of not knowing your biological heritage as "living with a splinter in your soul", and an "ever-present sense of loss".

When the law eventually changed in Victoria, Hayley contacted VARTA​.

"I was lucky that there were records kept by the hospital that included the name of the donor and they were able to track him down using electoral records."

VARTA began the process by sending a carefully crafted letter telling Hayley's donor there was an enquiry of a personal nature and requesting he contact them.

The donor was then provided with Hayley's reasons for making her application to the central register and informed of his rights and options under the legislation.

"Within a week of the letter being delivered, I got a call from VARTA saying he would love to get in touch.

"I had been preparing for the worst but the exact opposite happened! I discovered that my biological father is exceedingly warm and open. It was wonderful – I couldn't have asked for anything better."

Hayley and her donor began exchanging emails, and then talked via Skype because he was now living interstate. They met up for the first time last year, and since then he has visited Melbourne and introduced Hayley to his wife and son – her half-brother.

Hayley still delights in discovering traits she has in common with her donor. "There are these funny coincidences! He studied geology for his first degree, and I studied science with a minor in geology.

"Determining parts of me that may be more nurture than nature isn't simple in my case, though. My dad also studied science and I studied chemistry, like him!"

While the change in the law made the path to connecting with her donor simpler, Hayley says the journey to connecting with a donor is never easy.

"You have to prepare for every outcome. The donor might not want anything to do with you and be angry that you've made contact. You have to be in a good place in your head so you can deal with whatever happens."


Ross Hunter, 41, went looking for the answers.

When Ross was told that he was donor-conceived, he says a lot of things suddenly made sense.

"I was 33," he remembers. "My dad had been diagnosed with a terminal illness and Mum just thought it was time to let me know."

Rather than being shocked, Ross was relieved. "It just all made sense," he says. "The divergence of our interests; the difference in our looks. I was relieved in a way because it explained these differences."

Yet, while the revelation cleared up a lot of questions, for Ross it raised a whole lot more. "You do wonder about the other part of who made you who you are," he explains.

He firmly believes that both genetics and environment play an important part in a person's identity, and so for him it was natural, that he search for his donor

The hospital where he was conceived kept excellent records and was able to provide him with some non-identifying information, such as the donor's height, weight and age.

Yet, in accordance with the law, identifying information was vetoed.

Ross was working as a teacher in Timor-Leste when the law changed in Victoria, and despite being overseas, he quickly got the ball rolling.

"I got in touch with VARTA and they helped me with putting together my statement of reasons for why I wanted contact," he said.

Ross had made it clear that he wasn't looking for a replacement father and was happy with as much or as little contact as the donor was comfortable with.

"My desire to know my donor was more philosophical," he explains. "I thought it would be fascinating to look at someone who contributed massively to my genetic make-up. I'd had conversation with donor-conceived people who say it's amazing seeing all the movements and gestures you have in common."

When VARTA contacted his donor, Ross says he didn't have any great expectations – but he still wasn't prepared for the response he got.

Ross's donor did not want to meet, but agreed to supply some heritage and personal details.

"Then he wrote the line: I do not wish to become pen pals."

The donor was not happy about being contacted, and even suggested that if he had known the law would change and put him in this position, he would never have donated.

"He wrote that anonymity was at the forefront his mind when he donated and nothing had transpired since to make him think differently."

As confronting as those words were, Ross hasn't taken them personally. "It would have been nice to have a meeting, but if he doesn't want one, I don't want one. I certainly don't want to impose myself on anyone's life."

"I haven't been upset or pining or anything like that. I've got a bit of information now, which is what I want. For me, that was really good."

The donor's non-contact veto letter contained a page of information which Ross has used to conduct his own research into his heritage.

"I have found out a bit more about my paternal grandparents based on the information my donor gave me and there's information in the national archives. I've been able to look at the original documents of when they arrived in Australia, and that's been really interesting."

Despite his experience, Ross encourages both donors and their offspring to put aside their fears and make contact.

"I want donors to know we are not out to get them," he says. "Donor-conceived people are a fantastic bunch – you really want to know them."

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale April 14.