The First Thing You Should Know When Choosing a Donor

Lisa Schuman, LCSW and Mark Leondires, MD, co-authors of Building Your Family: The Complete Guide to Donor Conception, cover both the medical and emotional aspects of becoming a parent through donor conception.

Mark Leondires, MD and Lisa Schuman, LCSW

Do you want to find a donor who possesses qualities you see in yourself or your partner?  That makes sense. Angelina Jolie adopted children before she had a genetically related child, but most people choose to have genetically related children first.  

Although a baby mouse has been created with two male mice, we are, unfortunately, far away from creating a child with a single parent or an LGBTQ+ couple.  Therefore, if you want to use the genetics of one partner, you will need the help of a donor to have a child. 

It’s not unreasonable to feel sad that your child will not have the same qualities you or your partner possess.  But, even if you don’t feel this way, and you have always expected as a queer person, that you will need to use another person’s genetics to help you build your family, it is likely that it raises some anxiety for you, even in ways you may not suspect. 

When individuals and couples look at a picture of a donor it’s common to hear, “he looks like me when I was little” or “I was also athletic when I was a child”. It’s understandable to want to choose characteristics that you believe resemble you and/or your partner. With this in mind, it’s understandable why so many people look for a donor with the perfect SAT scores or with looks you find most desirable.  

Yet, these choices are often considered without viewing the full picture of what it means to receive donor gametes. We would not suggest that you disregard your desire to feel some connection with the donor.  A connection is important. You want to say nice things about your donor to your child, you want to feel good about your donor, and your child may one day meet your donor, so that makes sense.  However, it also makes sense to be practical. So, let’s look at that first. 

As any parent will tell you, it’s not possible to choose temperament.  High IQ is not necessarily heritable either. Think about Bill Clinton and his brother, or the two princes of England. They are very different from each other in many ways.  When you choose a donor, you may be getting your donor’s genetic parents traits, like dimples or father’s talent. It is important to remember that you are not choosing your donor, you are choosing your donor’s genetic family tree. 

This can be a difficult fact to accept.  Having children is such an intimate experience and choosing another person to provide the genetics for your future child can feel uncomfortable.  As a result, people often reflexively choose someone whose profile makes them feel more comfortable. 

Accepting this is important, but where does that leave you? Why not choose the traits you have some control over first? Your clinic will ask the person who will be genetically related to the child to see a genetic counselor to ensure that if you are a carrier for a certain difficulty, your donor is not a carrier for the same difficulty.  They do not want you to replicate that risk for your future child.  Then the clinic will leave you to choose a donor of your choice. Why not begin your search with the same strategy of not replicating health issues? 

Your donor will be young and healthy. But what about their family? Medical history is more tangible than temperament or IQ.  Everyone has some difficulty in their family.  It’s rare for everyone in a family to die from old age. Usually, people die from cancer or heart disease, for example.  What about your donor? What did their grandparents die from?  If you have colon cancer in your family and your donor’s grandfather died from colon cancer, maybe they are not the right donor for you. 

After looking at serious medical issues, you can move to less serious medical issues that you may not want to replicate. For example, maybe you wear glasses and want your child to have good eyesight.  Look at the donor’s family tree. Do many of their family members wear glasses?  What about asthma or allergies? 

After reviewing medical issues, you can consider the more emotionally driven issues such as cultural background or looks.  Remember, however, that you are choosing a genetic pool. If you like that your donor is tall, but everyone in their family is short, you are more likely to get the short genes. 

Both you and your partner (if you have one) are your child’s parent(s).  There is no question about that.  But your child’s genetics will be connected to people outside of your genetic family. Since you have the opportunity to choose a donor without some of the difficulties in your own family tree, why not make this a first priority in your decision?  

Once you have considered your decision with health as your priority, then everything else is gravy. If you decide you want to choose an athletic donor because people in your family love sports, or you choose an Italian donor because you want to keep the Italian culture in your partner’s family, then do so and embrace it! You will then choose the traits you like and give yourself the best chance of having a healthy child. Ciao! 

Lisa Schuman, LCSW

Lisa Schuman, LCSW is the founding Director of The Center for Family Building, a comprehensive on-line program offering assessments, education and counseling for people at every stage of their family building journey.   

She is co-author of the book, Building Your Family: The Complete Guide to Donor Conception, host of the podcast, Donor Conception Conversations and facilitator of the TIP TOP workshop, a program designed to help donor conceived children manage difficult disclosure conversations.

Mark Leondires, MD

Mark P. Leondires, MD is Founder, Medical Director, and Partner in reproductive endocrinology at Illume Fertility and Gay Parents To Be. He is board-certified in both Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility.  

He is the co-author of the book, Building Your Family: The Complete Guide to Donor Conception. Dr. Leondires currently serves as a member of RESOLVE’s Physician Council and a member of ASRM’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Task Force.