Danielle Teuscher, a single mother-of-one, found the likely grandmother of her donor-conceived daughter – quite by accident – through a 23andMe test and contacted the potential relative.
The woman said she didn’t know what Danielle was talking about – but in short order, Northwest Cryobank, where she’d gotten the donor sperm, sent her a letter threatening to sue her for $20,000 if she tried to contact the donor again.
Worse yet, the cryobank said that Danielle could no longer access the donor sperm she had purchased with the hopes of eventually having more children who would be blood siblings to her five-year-old daughter, Zoe.
Danielle is one of many who has found hope of familial connections through at-home DNA tests, only to have those chances dashed and be left in legal and a ethical gray area between sperm banks and genetic testing technology.
Zoe Teuscher (left), five, was conceived with donor sperm her mother, Danielle (right) bought from Northwest Cryobank. A 23andMe of Zoe’s saliva turned up a probable grandmother and tried to contact her. Weeks later, the cryobank was threatening to sue Danielle
Danielle, a professional nanny who lives in her hometown of Portland, Oregon and adores children, has always known she wanted to be a mother. But her former husband has type 1 diabetes, which left him infertile.
Plus, the two didn’t want to pass his genetic risks for the disease to their future children.
Danielle posted in Northwest Cryobank’s forum to match people in search for donor sperm – like herself – with those who no longer needed their samples and were willing to resell them. It’s a ‘much less’ expensive option, Danielle says.
After a lot of ‘work’ and negotiation, she found a family willing to sell what was left of the sample they’d originally purchased from Northwest.
Danielle had done extensive research, reading countless forums for donor-conceived children and their families, and what decisions had had the best outcomes for the children.
‘It was important to me that all my children be conceived from the same sample. They’ll have someone that they can relate to fully, and can relate to for health reasons,’ she told Daily Mail Online.
‘I didn’t want to use a different donor [for future children] in case some day one donor wanted to meet their child and the other’s didn’t for some reason.’
After she found a match, Danielle’s transaction with the other family was between them. Northwest sent her an online contract and a bill for the transfer fee. But that was it.
‘There’s no phone call [from the bank], there’s no in-take counseling,’ Danielle says.
It was just a few clicks, and the donor sample was Danielle’s. She admits, she didn’t read the fine print of the contract, but ‘I also never contacted the donor himself or asked for any contact,’ she says.
Fast-forward five years: Danielle is open with her donor-conceived daughter, Zoe, age five, about where she came from, even reading to her from ‘little books’ that put her original story into ‘simple language.’
But no matter how openly Zoe and Danielle talk, ‘half of her identity is a mystery to us,’ Danielle says.
‘I feel like it’s my responsibility, since I chose the donor route, to provide her with as much [information] as possible.’
Again, she consulted the donor-siblings communities online.
Zoe was a healthy, happy baby – as far as her mother could tell, but half of her DNA was a ‘mystery’ to Danielle
Danielle was 25 when her daughter was born, but already she had done her research and decided she wanted to use the same sperm donor for all her children so they’d have siblings who could ‘fully understand them’
‘The consensus from the donor-conceived people is that genetic connection is really important to their identity,’ Danielle says.
‘I listened to other people like my daughter to inform my decisions.’
Among other donor-conceived people, 23andMe has been an affordable, accessible and popular way to find out more about their genetic identities, so Danielle ordered a health and ancestry kit and sent her daughter’s saliva off for testing.
Danielle’s exchange with the possible relative through 23andMe was brief, but life-altering
‘I never thought I would find any match, and that wasn’t my intention behind doing it, but I thought if I did find a connection then that’s great,’ Danielle says.
‘I’ve heard so many positive stories of connecting with family members from donor kids that have positively impacted their lives.’
The kit did return a match, a person who 23andMe’s data analytics suggested was most likely Zoe’s grandmother – the mother of her sperm donor. the woman’s profile said she was open to contact for possible relatives.
Danielle knew the weight of that moment, and her first words to this nameless, faceless person who might be her daughter’s grandmother. Over the next weeks carefully crafted a ‘nonthreatening’ message:
Hello, I believe your son may be my daughter’s donor. I’ve agonized for weeks about contacting you. The very last thing I want is to cross boundaries or make anyone feel uncomfortable. Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that we’re here and open to contact. Best Wishes, Danielle & Zoe.
The woman responded simply that she didn’t ‘understand’ the message.
‘Okay, I am very sorry,’ replied Danielle.
And that was it. The two didn’t communicate any more, and Danielle thought the ordeal was over as quickly as it had begun.
Zoe and Danielle play in the snow near their home in Portland, Oregon (left). Danielle wanted to have siblings for her daughter, but her experience with the cryobank has left her unsure what to do – or what to tell Zoe, now five (right)
But a couple of weeks later, a letter came from the Northwest cryobank, informing her that she had violated her contract by attempting to contact the donor, threatening to sue her for $20,000 and notifying her: ‘we’re revoking your right to receive the [additional] vials, no reason will be given, and that’s it.’
‘I was really upset. I couldn’t eat for days,’ says Danielle.
‘I was heartbroken in so many ways, but mostly for my daughter and how her donor family rejected her so aggressively and it almost brought about a lawsuit.
‘They’re so upset that the sperm made a child, and that just seems strange to me.’
At first, Danielle was wracked with guilt and worry that she had ‘done something terrible,’ but when she talked to others in donor-conceived communities, she found out that it was common for families to connect the way she had tried to – what was unusual was the legal action.
Still, Danielle was shell-shocked. She didn’t attempt to contact Northwest Cryobank, and still hasn’t.
The cryobank’s email form was offline and no one answered its toll-free phone line when Daily Mail Online tried to reach the company for comment.
But the cryobank did reach out to Danielle again, softening their stance in some ways, and taking a harder line in others. The bank said that if Danielle tried to use any other ancestry services, she would be liable for even more monetary damages, but also offered to refund her for the vials.
‘But that’s really not what I’m interested in,’ Danielle says. She has no idea if the donor sperm she purchased was destroyed, or what else might have happened to it.
Zoe has a relationsihp with her maternal grandmother (left), but Danielle now worries that if she would be hurt if she knew about the interaction with her possible paternal grandmother
Danielle did contact 23andMe. She hasn’t received a response – she figures that her messages were among many sent to the company’s customer service email and Facebook – but she isn’t particularly angry it, because they’ve been ‘honest’ and warned that the results of her daughter’s testing kit could be upsetting.
It’s the cryobank she’s angry with, and she worries that it will change the openness she’s had with Zoe and cause her daughter pain.
‘I don’t think I’m going to tell her about this. It could really hurt her to know [her donor family] rejected her so aggressively,’ Danielle says.
‘The bank doesn’t warn anybody. They don’t warn their donors that they may be found through these tests. At least 23andMe is honest and open about it.’
But she hopes that both companies will eventually see and respond to her story – because it’s far from the only one of its kind.
‘I feel like they might be interested in this because, basically, the bank is saying we can’t use these services,’ because, intentionally or otherwise, they might lead donor-conceived children to their donors, potentially violating cyrobank privacy agreements.
‘But a lot of [genetic testing kits’] customer base is donor-conceived people or people with unknown parentage.’
And trying to find out information about her daughter’s genetic history is just ‘my job as the mom of a donor-conceived child.’
Danielle still wants more children, but finds herself torn between a highly-improbably option and an impossible one.
‘If I am able to recover my stolen vials, I’d love to have a full biological sibling for my daughter,’ she says.
‘But if I could go back in time with the knowledge I have now, I never would have considered using a sperm donor from a sperm bank. I would have used a known donor.’