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Words Have Power in Sperm and Egg Donor Families

The language of reproductive medicine can be tricky.

Key points

  • Terminology indicates how we define our relationships.
  • Language in donor conception is always evolving.
  • Listening to how donor-conceived people define their donor family relationships is crucial.

Nomenclature in donor conception

We can all educate ourselves about the importance of terminology when dealing with sensitive family groups and communities, including in the world where sperm and eggs are sold and bought.

Accurate and honest terminology is an important factor in communication as it helps to give context to the content of our conversations. Knowledge of common definitions, terminology, and the vernacular is critical to optimizing communication within your own donor family, with other family, friends, or acquaintances, and/or with your donor family clients.

There is some inconsistency in the use of terms within the field of reproductive medicine. For example, the use of the term “donor” may imply one who provides selfless contribution, whereas most "donors" are paid for their sperm or eggs, except occasionally in the case of known donors.

This person is actually the biological mother, biological father, or biological parent, as they contributed around 50% of the DNA to create the child. Many donor-conceived people (DCP) don't like the term donor because they feel that they do not have a donor, as no one "donated" anything to them, but they do have a biological father/mother, which is accurate. In our family, I used a sperm donor, and my son has a biological father.

The word parent can be used as both a noun and a verb. So while donors are the biological parents (noun) of a donor-conceived child, they are usually not parenting (verb), as they do not actually raise or actively parent the child.

Differing perspectives of parents and donor-conceived people

Many parents view the donors/gamete sellers as merely contributing a "piece of genetic material" or a "donated cell," but to the DCP, it's oftentimes about so much more than that. For DCP it's about:

  • One-half of their ancestry
  • One-half of their family medical history
  • One-half of their identity

Donor/biological parent can be a good way to clarify which type of biological parent they're referencing when they're not referring to the parent(s) who raised them, but to the person who sold their gametes to a facility (who in turn sold them to the parent(s)) and who gave them approximately half of their inherited DNA.

  • ©DonorSiblingRegistry
    A donor-conceived person's parents
    Source: ©DonorSiblingRegistry

    Here is how 1,683 surveyed sperm donor-conceived people1responded when asked how they refer to the "donor": 67% of the DCP who had heterosexual parents included the words father or dad in their responses, while 43% of DCP with LGBTQ parents used those words to describe the person from whom they received 50% of their DNA.

    Interestingly, another research study2 found that only 22% of the 1700 surveyed sperm donor recipients (the mothers) used the words father or dad when describing the person who contributed 50% of their child's DNA.

    More Helpful Donor Conception Terminology:

    DNA Testing: Usually a commercial DNA test is taken to determine one’s genetic relatives and ancestry via 23andMe and/or For donor-conceived people, this type of genetic testing often turns up unexpected half-siblings and biological parents or their relatives. This is especially shocking for DCP who had no idea about their donor origins.

    Donor: This is the person who sold their sperm or eggs. Most typically, but not always, this was for money. They are the biological but not the legal parent of the donor-conceived person, so they, therefore, have no parental rights or responsibilities. Donor-conceived people may refer to this person as their biological father/mother or genetic father/mother or bio dad/mom, donor dad/mom, or simply as donor/father/mother. Donor-conceived people may use several of these terms depending on who they’re speaking with, and as they mature and define the relationship between themselves and the person who contributed around 50% of their DNA.

    Donor-Conceived Person/People (DCP): The person who was created using the purchased gametes (or more infrequently) the gametes donated by a family member, friend, or acquaintance.

    Donor Insemination (DI): Inserting purchased sperm into the recipient in order to create a pregnancy. This can be done at home or with the assistance of a doctor or nurse at a medical facility. Intrauterine insemination (IUI) is the most common procedure in which prepared sperm cells are placed directly into a woman’s cervix or uterus to produce pregnancy.

    Donor Sibling/Half-Sibling/Sibling/Dibling: These terms are interchangeable. These are the siblings created by parents using the same donor or from the donor’s children that they themselves are raising. They share ~15%-30% of their DNA with each other. Donor-conceived people tend to prefer donor sibling, sibling, or half-sibling as some are offended by the term dibling, as they feel it minimizes the relationship.

    Donor Sibling Registry (DSR): The Donor Sibling Registry is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that I founded in 2000 that connects, educates, and supports egg and sperm donors (and their families), prospective parents, parents, and donor-conceived people. The DSR has facilitated mutual consent contact between more than 25,000 DCP and their half-siblings and/or their biological parents, the donors.

    Gamete: The reproductive or genetic material, in the form of sperm or egg cell, that will contribute ~50% of a donor-conceived person’s DNA.

    Gamete Vendor: The clinic, sperm or egg bank, agency, doctor, or facility that purchases the gametes from the sperm or egg donor and then sells them (typically with a substantial mark-up), to the recipient family.

    In Vitro Fertilization (IVF): IVF is a method of assisted reproduction that combines an egg with sperm in a laboratory dish. If the egg fertilizes and begins cell division, the resulting embryo is transferred into the woman’s uterus where it will hopefully implant in the uterine lining and further develop. IVF is commonly used with purchased eggs and embryos.

    Non-Biological/Social Parent: Parents who are raising a donor child but who have not contributed to the child’s DNA. This includes the spouse or partner of a sperm recipient parent as well as the gestational recipient parent of an egg donor child. While epigenetic influences, like diet, alcohol, drugs, stress, and exposure to toxins can impact the fetus, the mother (or surrogate) who carries the child but who doesn’t contribute the egg is not the genetic or biological parent. Parents using a donated embryo are the child’s non-biological parents, similar to adoption. There is usually one non-biological parent in same-sex couples that purchase gametes. In most cases, these parents are also the child's legal parents.

    Recipient: The intended parent(s) who purchases the gametes and who will raise the child.

    Single Mother By Choice (SMC): Women began embracing single parenthood as a conscious choice in the late 70s. A SMC is a woman who chooses to be a single parent to a child/children without assistance or support from a partner. SMCs often build their families with gamete donation (using a known or unknown donor) and represent around 50% of the parents using donor sperm.

    I find that no matter which term you use, you're likely causing discomfort to someone. Generally, though, I try to defer to the donor-conceived people's preferences.

A donor-conceived person's parents
Source: ©DonorSiblingRegistry


1. Human Reproduction. Offspring searching for their sperm donors: how family type shapes the process. DOI:10.1093/humrep/der202

2. Reproductive BioMedicine Online. A survey of 1700 women who formed their families using donor spermatozoa. DOI: