Q&A with Wendy Kramer: Your family tree just got complicated

Published on
March 18, 2009

We seem to be gripped by a national state of shock at the news that Nadya Suleman, a single mother with no job and six children, was able to have eight embryos implanted in her uterus, all of which resulted in children.

One of the few people in the country not at all surprised by this was Wendy Kramer. She has been cataloging the flaws, failures and flagrant fouls of the fertility industry for more than a decade, first as a single mom trying to track down the sperm donor who allowed her to have her son, then as the founder of The Donor Sibling Registry, the world's largest online registry of sperm donors, egg donors, recipients and donor children.

In our recent conversation, Kramer talks about why she thinks the Octuplet Mom doesn't deserve all the blame and how anonymity for sperm donors is all relative.

Q: Were you surprised to hear about the Nadya Suleman imbroglio?

A: No. This is just another disaster in a long line of disasters because nobody is watching what is going on in the fertility industry. She had some serious issues with responsible decision making, but let's ask what the hell this doctor was thinking? This can't all be about what the mother wants and fulfilling a parent's desire.

Q: But who are we to tell someone else that they can't have a child, or an eight-pack of children if they want them?

A: I think paramount is what is in the best interest of the children being born and the children who already are born, some of whom are disabled and need special attention. In her case, she didn't think about the burden this would place on kids she already has or what the likelihood was that some of her new children would be disabled, which always is likely when you have that many births at once.

Q: I imagine that the people on your discussion boards have been fired up by this. What are they saying?

A: I stopped the discussion on my board because I saw people being really judgmental and hurtful. And I don't like that. The bottom line is this woman needs help and the babies need help and the industry needs to be looked at. We can't put all the blame on this one woman. The industry says it has guidelines to prevent this from happening. Well, they're just guidelines, and things like this keep happening. It is just cringe worthy.

Q: Well, who do you blame?

A: These clinics are all about being responsive at the front door, not so much at the back door. Here's this doctor saying, how many babies do you want? Sure I'll put in four embryos or five or six embryos. Now you want some more? OK, I'll put in eight. But once you have the kids, you are on your own. The doctors are addressing the needs of the recipients and the donors and their own needs. Nobody is addressing the needs of the kids being born.

Q: Some people collect comic books or sell funny hats on eBay. You hunt sperm donors in your free time. How did that happen?

A: Because my son was curious about his donor, we put up one little posting in September 2000 on a Yahoo! group. By October 2003, we were so busy on the Yahoo! group that it was impossible to facilitate the matches so we created our own site. Now not a day goes by that somebody doesn't find a match with somebody else. As of today we have helped connect 6,173 people all over the world. Half brothers and sisters and donors to kids. We have 23,134 people who have registered with our site.

Q: But I thought that one of the main ideas behind these sperm and egg donations was that people were trying to remain anonymous?

A: That's what the sperm banks continue to promise, anonymity to the donors. I don't think that's very honest or even wise because there are a lot of ways to find donors. People take the basic profile, the DOB, height, weight, eye color, sometimes where they went to school and they can narrow it down quite a bit. And then there are donors who didn't want to be known but now do. We have more than 900 donors on our site who are willing to be known.

Q: Did you and your son ever find his donor?

A: Ryan is 18 now and he doesn't want to talk about any personal contact he may have had with his donor because it may impede any future contact he may have.

Q: Do you know if he has half-siblings?

A: Yes. The mother of two girls born from the same donor, my son's half-sisters, saw us on Oprah and said that her world turned upside down. She just saw my son's face and knew he was from the same donor. She contacted me and asked if I was from donor number 1058. My son was ecstatic. I have two half sisters! When can I meet them? But this mother said she had not told her girls that they were donor conceived and had no plans to. He's had four other half-sisters contact him since then.

Q: I notice that you refer to your son's donor, not his father. What are the rules of nomenclature?

A: Take a woman who has carried an embryo that was made with an egg donation. She doesn't think that she is a surrogate mother. She thinks of herself as the mother. I carried this child, therefore it's mine and I have no intention of ever telling the child that she came from a donated egg. At some point, though, that secret is toxic. It's a lie. You are raising them under the pretext of a lie. They are genetically not who you are. You are entitled to call yourself the mother, of course, but no, genetically you are not the mother. In the same way, some people are really offended by using father for a donor. But then "sperm donor" is too clinical. I think it should be up to the kids to call these people whatever they want to. My son has used all of the above. He wrote a letter to the sperm bank when he was 6. They never wrote back.

Q: Was he hurt?

A: He was feeling really frustrated. That's a normal age when boys start gravitating away from their moms and toward a male figure, usually their dads. And that wasn't when he first started asking about it. When he was 2, he asked me, "So is my dad dead or what?" I had been married, and my husband and I had made the decision to use a sperm donor. But we split up when my son was 13 months old.

A: Have any clinics been helpful to you in connecting donors to recipients?

Q: I have had conversations with a lot of them, but none of them continue the conversation. They are very threatened by what I'm doing. They wish I would go away. I tell them to link to us from their site, that we would be liable for anything that happens, not the clinics. But they are worried about liability. Which is why they shouldn't be doing what they're doing in the first place.

A: What should they be doing?

Q: The way that it's set up right now is not working. It's working just fine for the industry, but it's not working for the families. They need to be tracking in one place all the donors, all the recipients and all the births. They need to limit the number of babies that can be born from each donor. There needs to be updating and sharing of medical information about the donors and the children. If there is something genetically wrong right now with one donor and that donor has more than 100 births we are talking a potential epidemic. There should be genetic testing of the donors. And there should be legal and financial protection for donors so they are more willing to come forward and share medical information with the kids after they are born. They are worried they're going to be sued and have to pay for 50 kids to go to college.

A: But none of these things would have stopped Nadya Suleman from having eight kids?

Q: Maybe we need to look at the adoption world and see what has worked. With adoption they do a full background check on a prospective parent. They do a psychological check, a financial review. Are you fit to be a parent? This woman has six kids and is already on food stamps. Somebody should have looked at her financial ability to take care of these kids, the conditions she is living in, her state of mind. If it was an adoption case they would have looked at all those things and maybe she wouldn't have had all these kids.