For 19 years, Melissa Guida-Richards believed she was the biological daughter of her Italian and Portuguese parents. Her brown skin, her parents said, was the product of these southern European roots.
When she was 14, Guida-Richards discovered paperwork that revealed her brother had been adopted from Colombia. Nevertheless, she continued to accept the story that her mother had unexpectedly given birth to her while she and her father were traveling abroad.
Then, while she was home from college for a visit with her boyfriend, “I was just going through old report cards and stuff and just trying to be cutesy,” Guida-Richards told HuffPost. She found some paperwork regarding her brother’s adoption, and saw the words “their adopted daughter, Melissa.” There it was: proof that her parents’ story, the story she’d bent herself into a pretzel to continue to believe, was a fabrication.
“I approached my mom about it and she was very upset,” Guida-Richards said. The years that followed were difficult. “I went through a really serious time of grief and just identity crisis.” For a time, she didn’t speak to her parents.
It has now been a decade. Guida-Richards is a mother herself, to her biological children. She has learned to speak Spanish, met her biological mother and made a career of supporting adoptees and preparing adoptive families to welcome children of different ethnic and racial backgrounds.
Cassandra Adams was also raised believing that her mom and dad were her biological parents. She grew up in New Jersey with her Italian-American mother and her father, whose family lineage goes back to the British Isles. She attended Catholic school, but never really felt at home there.
A year or two ago, Adams said, an old memory from her childhood resurfaced: “Calling the priest at at my school, looking through the phone book, finding the phone number and being like, ‘Is there any way that I can un-baptize myself? Can I not be Christian anymore?’ I wanted it to be erased from the records that I was ever Christian.”
Adams did make it through Catholic school. She grew up, found her partner and gave birth to a daughter of her own. Then her life took an unexpected turn.
“I took a 23andMe DNA test in 2017,” Adams, now 40, told HuffPost. She remembers the exact date she received her results: Sept. 26. “I had a big surprise,” she said.
The test showed that about half of her DNA indicated southern Italian heritage. The other half, however, was Ashkenazi Jewish.
The implications were pretty clear. “I had a half sibling match, so there were a bunch of red flags,” Adams said. That evening, she sent her mother a text message encouraging her to take a DNA test: “Maybe we’re part Jewish on on your side,” Adams wrote.
The following day, she confronted her mother more directly. “She started crying immediately,” Adams remembered. “And I said, ‘Mommy, he’s not my father, is he?’ And she said, ‘No.’” Through her tears, Adams’ mother explained that her father had been unable to have children, and so she and her brother were conceived with donor sperm.
Adams vividly recalls the moment when her suspicions were confirmed: “My daughter was only 19 months old. I looked over at my daughter. One of my first instincts was, ‘Oh, my God, what did I pass down to her?’”
Adams says that her mother, while upset, appeared to be experiencing some kind of physical release, an unburdening of the secret she’d held for 35 years. But Adams’ chapter of the story was only beginning. Some of the other things her mother told her that day were “hard to hear,” she said.
One that has haunted her: “I always thought you were Jewish.” It’s painful, she said, to imagine her mother looking at her when she was a child and knowing about this potential identity that was kept hidden from her.
In the years since the secret was revealed, Adams has met her biological father and been in touch with some of her half siblings. She has also converted to Judaism.
In different ways, Guida-Richards and Adams have both rerouted their lives around the uncovering of their family’s secrets. They have also both become advocates for people like themselves to have full access to their genetic histories. Adams speaks at conferences, addressing professionals who work with donor-conceived people. Guida-Richards wrote a book, “What White Parents Should Know About Transracial Adoption,” and gives workshops to prospective adoptive parents.
One of the invasive questions and judgmental comments that Guida-Richards has fielded over the years is: “[Your adoptive parents] are your real parents, so it doesn’t really matter. Why would you want to try to find your birth parents? … You owe your parents more respect than that.”
But to people like Guida-Richards and Adams, knowing about their genetic origins does matter, and greatly so. Their family reveals turned their lives upside down, casting every moment of their childhoods in a new light.
What adoptees and donor-conceived people share
Over the past decades, there has been a seismic shift in the way most adoptions are approached. Rather than hiding the fact of the adoption from a child in the name of “protecting” them from upsetting information, almost all domestic adoptions these days are “open,” meaning the child knows their birth mother (and, less often, their birth father) and may even have a relationship with other family members. The current consensus among adoption professionals is that it is best for children to know their whole story from the very beginning, to prevent experiences like Guida-Richards’.
What this openness can mean varies from one family to the next. Christine Tangel is the director of pre- and post-adoption programming at Spence-Chapin, an adoption agency in New York. She told HuffPost, “I always like to think about openness in adoption as both the relationship one has with birth family, but also how family talks about adoption — the communicative openness between a parent and a child where a parent makes sure to provide the child all the information they have.” The best practice, she said, is “as much openness as there can be.”
This understanding of the importance of transparency has been slow to transfer to the world of donor conception. No adoption professional would condone not telling a child that they were adopted, but sperm banks, egg donation agencies and other providers of third-party reproduction remain silent on the issue of donor-conceived people’s rights to information about their origins.
The first sperm bank was founded in 1964, and in the decades following, frozen sperm became more widely available. Into the 1980s, however, sperm donation to treat male factor infertility usually occurred quietly behind the closed doors of examination rooms. Donors, as in Adams’ story, were frequently doctors or medical students who happened to be in the building. There was no paper trail. Parents weren’t given any information about their donor, and donors weren’t told how many children were born as a result of their donations. It was assumed the children would never learn the truth.
The wide availability of DNA testing has blown open secrets in many families, revealing stories that parents had planned on taking to their graves. The population accessing donor sperm has also shifted substantially. Advances in fertility treatment have resulted in fewer men needing to use donor sperm, and increasing acceptance now means that queer couples and mothers who are single by choice make up a majority of sperm banks’ customers. These families tend to have a different attitude toward their sperm donors’ anonymity, with many specifically searching for “willing-to-be-known” or “identity release” donors who agree to allow their children to contact them once they turn 18.
Wendy Kramer and her donor-conceived son Ryan founded the Donor Sibling Registry in 2000 to connect donor-conceived people with their donors and half siblings. The Donor Sibling Registry has facilitated more than 20,000 such connections to date. Yet Kramer says she still regularly speaks with parents — those utilizing egg donation, in particular — who haven’t told their children that they are donor-conceived.
“Secrecy is still an issue,” Kramer told HuffPost.
Just like adoptees, donor-conceived people overwhelmingly want as much information as possible about their donors. Like Adams, they may be eager to make contact with half siblings and with the donors themselves.
In a survey of 529 donor-conceived people that the Donor Sibling Registry conducted in 2021, 78.1% said they would like to connect with their donor if possible, and 77.6% knew about donor-conceived half siblings from the same donor.
“I feel like there was this sense of being lonely in the world, or being alone,” Adams said. She knows when and where the donations took place, but even her donor doesn’t know how many children resulted. Of these potential half siblings, she said, “I feel like I want to find them and know if anybody else felt that way too.” She would want to tell them, “You weren’t really alone. I was out there looking for you, even if I didn’t know I was. You were looking for me even though you didn’t know you were.”
“I would welcome any of them,” she said. “DNA is not everything, but I would be open to loving anybody out there.”
Differences between the experiences of adoption and donor conception
Of course, there are crucial differences between the experiences of adoptees and donor-conceived people. The latter generally grow up knowing one biological parent, and often — although not always, as Adams’ case shows — they match their other family members in race and ethnicity. Adoptees must also reckon with the question of why their family relinquished them for adoption, while donor-conceived people do not.
A recent study published in the journal Developmental Psychology surveyed 65 families formed via third-party reproduction (sperm, egg or embryo donation) and compared them with 52 families who had not used assisted reproduction. The children were 20 years old at the time they completed the survey. Researchers found “no differences between assisted reproduction and unassisted conception families in mothers’ or young adults’ psychological well-being, or the quality of family relationships.”
It’s worth noting that in families where the children were informed about the donor by age 7, they were less likely to have negative relationships with their mothers, and the mothers themselves showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.
While the cohort was small, the study’s authors say their findings “suggest that the absence of a biological connection between children and their parents in assisted reproduction families does not interfere with the development of positive mother–child relationships or psychological adjustment in adulthood.”
This offers a stark contrast to another body of research showing that adoptees are more likely to deal with psychological problems. However, much of this research involves adoptees in traditional, closed adoptions.
Joni Mantell is the mother of an adult daughter via open adoption, and the founder of the Infertility and Adoption Counseling Center in New York and New Jersey. Three decades into her career as a therapist specializing in these topics, she discovered via DNA test that she herself was donor-conceived. Based on her personal and clinical experience, she believes that many of the negative outcomes experienced by adoptees can be attributed to secretive, closed adoptions, like Guida-Richards’.
“These adoptees that had closed communication … have an awful lot to be angry about,” Mantell told HuffPost. “A charade was presented. They had no help sorting out nature and nurture, because nobody told them it had to be sorted out.”
While the issue of relinquishment is real, Mantell believes that adoptees and donor-conceived people share the experience of looking around for a mirror of some of their traits and not finding one.
“A lot of donor people like to go, ‘Well, it’s not the same as adoption, because they didn’t get given up,’” Mantell said. “No, they didn’t get given up. But that’s not the whole thing about adoption. Growing up in a family that you don’t match biologically, and not knowing it half the time — I would have liked to have known it. It would have been nice to know that my weirdnesses weren’t so weird.”
Reforms to third-party reproduction
Kramer believes that with donor conception, the intentionality on the parents’ part makes them that much more responsible for telling their children the full story of their creation.
“It’s different than adoption. We’re deliberate,” she said. “Is it ethical to bring a child into the world who is deliberately cut off from half of their ancestry, half of their medical family history, and half of their close genetic relatives?”
Among the reforms that Kramer and other advocates for donor-conceived people demand are mandatory counseling for prospective donors and parents, a limit on the number of births allowed from a donor’s sperm or eggs, and a ban on anonymity.
Kramer points out that de facto anonymity ended with the widespread availability of genetic testing.
The U.S. stands out for its lack of regulation in the area of assisted reproduction. Anonymous donation, for example, is against the law in the U.K., the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand and some states of Australia.
Lindsay Harris is a therapist who works with the Donor Conceived Council. She lives in Georgia with her wife and two sons, whom they conceived using donor sperm. When Harris was having difficulty trying to get pregnant, she began asking her mother questions about her own conception. Eventually, her mom revealed that Harris herself, along with her brother, had been conceived using donor sperm.
Just like the stories of Adams and Mantell, Harris’ mother was inseminated in a doctor’s office with no paper trail and no exchange of information. Their parents didn’t even know if Harris and her brother were conceived using the same donor. Using DNA testing, Harris discovered that they were not. She spent five years looking for her biological father. Eventually, a “search angel” ― that is, someone who performs genealogical searches for others at no charge ― found him.
Harris contacted her biological father, she said, and “he gave me his phone number and offered to get to know me, which was probably the best response I could have hoped to have.”
During these years of searching, Harris and her wife welcomed their sons. At a low point, when they found out that another insemination had failed, they considered switching donors. But then Harris was admitted to an online group of families who’d used this same donor, and she saw a photo of one of the children conceived using his sperm. (Families generally find one another using the name of their sperm bank and a number assigned to their donor.) She took it as a sign, and they eventually got pregnant using that donor.
While they had been open to contact with the donor and with half siblings, Harris’ new experience as a donor-conceived person led her to pursue a path of complete transparency with her own children. They remained part of the donor group and stayed in touch with the families of their sons’ half siblings.
“I feel like we really are truly living the most ideal scenario, and that’s because in the fall of 2020, our group of parents that use the same donor got connected to our donor,” Harris told HuffPost. “He was absolutely incredible with his response to open his heart to all of us and say, ‘I’m willing to form relationships.’”
Serendipitously, it turned out the donor lived 45 minutes from Harris and her family’s home.
“My boys know who he is and they have a relationship with him,” she said. “They know he’s their donor. He’s come out to my oldest son’s soccer game, and he went trick-or-treating with us on Halloween.”
Harris is a proponent of the reforms that Kramer and others advocate for. While she’s grateful that her family is able to sustain a meaningful relationship with their donor, she wishes their story were the norm rather than the exception.
Their donor siblings (her sons’ biological half siblings) are located throughout the U.S. and other countries, so it’s tricky to arrange regular in-person visits. But the donor has traveled to Canada and Australia.
Another issue is the size of the group ― 96 children and counting.
“It just feels overwhelming, when I think about my kids grasping that someday,” Harris said. “It’s unfair for our donor to feel like, even though he’s willing and open — how does anybody manage that?”
As part of her work for the Donor Conceived Council, Harris advocates for limits to the number of children each donor can produce.
She wishes her parents had told her the truth about her own conception from the beginning. At the same time, Harris says, there “was no better time to relate, because I was also trying to do whatever I could to have a child.”
If, for whatever reason, parents have not yet disclosed to a child that they were donor-conceived, advocates encourage them not to wait another moment. Ideally, children would never remember a time before they knew they were donor-conceived, because parents would speak about it frequently and openly. There is no minimum age a child needs to reach in order to hear the story of their origins. In addition to being the right thing to do for their children, parents also owe this truth-telling to themselves.
“If not for your child, do it for yourselves,” Adams said. “No one deserves that kind of weight.”