'Hero' Wellington scientist helps find dad who made 800 sperm donations

Wellington fisheries scientist and genetic genealogist Patrick Cordue.
Cameron Burnell/Fairfax NZ

Wellington fisheries scientist and genetic genealogist Patrick Cordue.

A Wellington fisheries scientist has been hailed as a hero for helping an American lawyer find her father, a serial sperm donor that potentially fathered hundreds.

The unlikely connection began in 1975 when New Yorker Patricia Issberner, then 10, received two bombshells: her parents were divorcing, and she had been conceived using artificial insemination.

She knew nothing about her "real" dad, except that he was a sperm donor and studied medicine.

Patricia Issberner with one of several half-sisters she tracked down through online DNA databases, who asked to be ...
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Patricia Issberner with one of several half-sisters she tracked down through online DNA databases, who asked to be identified only as Elna.

Curious about her ethnic background and any genetic medical issues, she later joined "donor offspring" support groups. She took a DNA test and uploaded the data to genealogy websites offering mail-order DNA testing, online matching, alongside family tree resources such as birth, death and marriage records.

Eventually, she tracked down eight half-siblings.

Last September she contacted relatives around the world, looking for more clues. One was the stepmother of Wellington scientist and amateur genetic genealogist Patrick Cordue, who later found he was also distantly related to Issberner. Moved by her quest, he volunteered his skills.

New York lawyer Patricia Issberner's biological father, who was a prolific sperm donor in the 1960s. His family have ...
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New York lawyer Patricia Issberner's biological father, who was a prolific sperm donor in the 1960s. His family have asked that he not be named.

"I can only imagine what that's like – most people know who their parents are," he said.

By March, through "hard work and some good luck", Cordue had found another half-sister of Issberner, with a DNA test confirming they shared the same father. But crucially, and unlike Issberner and her other siblings, she knew who he was.

The news was bittersweet, though. The woman told Issberner their father had died decades ago, aged only 51. He was survived by his wife and their two children:  the unnamed woman, and her brother.

Her father's widow said he had made about 800 paid sperm donations to put himself through medical school. He told a cousin he was a favourite with clinics for being unusually fertile, and had possibly fathered hundreds of children.  

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Issberner said she had mixed feelings about possibly having many more siblings. 

"I am sad I cannot know him, or why he donated so much. He led a complicated life, much like my own," she said.

"I felt perhaps it was a rejection, just like from my legal father. He used his sperm for money with no thought of the children he would produce, or their futures."

But overall Issberner, who grew up an only child, was relieved. She described Cordue as a "hero" for the way he used his mathematical, statistical and scientific expertise to make optimal use of online DNA matching.

"Answers. Finally ... We are so lucky, as so many will never know... I'm so happy with my [new-found] brothers and sisters."

She felt strongly about the right of "donor offspring" to information about their biological fathers. "We did not enter into this 'contract' of anonymous medical information."   

Former government fisheries scientist Cordue, 54, a married father of two and member of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, has researched family trees for about 20 years. He was pleased to have been able to helped Issberner.

"She's got peace, comfort, she's got the full story there."

He will travel to New York in July to meet her, and some of her new-found family.

MYSTERY DAD

Learning the identity of her "real" father was a mixed blessing, Patricia Issberner said. Her half-sister described the former medical student, who became a successful psychiatrist, as funny, charming and good-looking.

But she revealed he also struggled with depression.

"He died young and unhappy, and we wonder if the gene followed us through our lives," Issberner said. "We pick apart ourselves and wonder. We wish we had a chance to say something."

As someone who was raised a Catholic, she was also surprised to learn her father was Jewish. "I am pleased to be Jewish, but it is quite shocking."

KIND DONATIONS

Fertility clinics in New Zealand are struggling to keep up as more professional, single women turn to sperm donors to conceive.

In 2012, the number of women approaching the country's biggest sperm donor service doubled from about 80 to more than 170, and the numbers have stayed that high since.

Fertility Associates Wellington medical director Andrew Murray said a shortage of sperm donors meant women faced a wait of up to 18 months.

Paying donors could push the numbers up, but the law does not allow it.

Murray said the United States in the 1960s was the "reproductive Wild West", creating cases such as Issberner's where one donor was potentially responsible for hundreds of conceptions. "The science had outpaced the legislation, and the legislation has now caught up to protect all the parties involved."

In New Zealand, all licensed clinics must abide by an industry standard limiting each donor to up to 10 children in five families.

While the law enables a person conceived through sperm donation to find out their biological father's identity, it also protects donors from any financial or legal responsibility. 

A donor can also ask for the identity of children born as a result of his donation, with their consent. 

 - Stuff

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