A Grieving Family Wonders: What If They Had Known the Medical History of Sperm Donor


When Laura and David Gunner learned their 27-year-old son, Steven, had died from an opioid overdose, the couple were stricken by grief but not entirely surprised. They had struggled to help him overcome addictions and erratic behavior for more than a decade.

Seeking solace in the aftermath of Steven’s 2020 death, the upstate New York couple joined the Donor Sibling Registry, a website that connects sperm and egg donors and donor-conceived people. They hoped to make contact with the mothers and fathers of other children who, like Steven, had been conceived with sperm from a particular donor sold by a sperm bank in Fairfax, Va.

Donor 1558 had been described in his sperm-bank profile as a guitar- and hockey-playing college student with fair hair and brown eyes. The Gunners were eager to see glimpses of Steven’s features in photos of Donor 1558’s other offspring. They also wanted to let the parents of Steven’s half-siblings know that he had schizophrenia, a psychiatric disorder that causes hallucinations and delusions—and which can run in families.

“I felt obligated to tell the other parents,” Ms. Gunner said, adding that 18 half-siblings of Steven had been identified.

In interactions with the other parents, the Gunners learned disturbing new information about Donor 1558: The handsome, athletic, musical student had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had died of an opioid overdose in 2018, at age 46. And when Ms. Gunner later connected with the mother of Donor 1558, she learned that he had once been hospitalized for behavioral issues. For unknown reasons, he didn’t disclose that on a questionnaire he completed before donating sperm.

“The grieving started all over again,” Ms. Gunner said. She believes Steven inherited a susceptibility to schizophrenia from his biological father.

Schizophrenia often runs in families, and having a parent with the mental illness raises a child’s risk for having it. But such offspring are “much more likely not to develop schizophrenia than they are to develop the illness,” said Dr.

Niamh Mullins,

an assistant professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

David and Laura Gunner believe their son Steven inherited a susceptibility to schizophrenia from his biological father.

Scientists have devised and discarded many theories about what causes schizophrenia.

Lynn DeLisi,

a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who studies the disorder, said scientists have now identified a few hundred genes—including ones involved in brain development—that collectively may raise the risk for schizophrenia. Even so, she said, “It is still a mystery how schizophrenia is transmitted.”

Researchers are studying possible environmental risk factors for schizophrenia, including heavy marijuana use and childhood physical or emotional trauma. In addition, efforts are under way to develop schizophrenia risk scores based on genetic data. Such scores aren’t yet ready for clinical use, according to experts. But if they do become available, Dr. DeLisi said, “it’s something sperm banks ought to consider.”

Treatment of infertility is a multibillion-dollar global industry, with hundreds of fertility clinics in the U.S. offering artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization. Despite its scale, the industry is loosely regulated.

Steven Gunner was an active, outgoing boy, and his parents had no indication he might develop schizophrenia.



Photo:

Laura Gunner

Clinics are required by law to track births resulting from IVF but not from artificial insemination, according to experts, so there is no reliable tally of how many children are born after being conceived with donor sperm. And while sperm banks ask donors to fill out health questionnaires, they don’t always verify the information.

Donors earn about $100 to $150 for each donation, according to

Michelle Ottey,

consulting lab director at Fairfax Cryobank, the sperm bank that sold Donor 1558’s sperm. The men are encouraged to alert sperm banks of significant medical problems that arise after donation but don’t always do so.

“There is no mechanism right now for ensuring…



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