The World’s Biggest Family

A man with 600 half-siblings takes a hard look at the hidden costs of sperm donor anonymity.
Barry Stevens in a pub with some of his half-siblings
Available on CBC Gem

The World’s Biggest Family

CBC Docs POV

Some years ago, director Barry Stevens uncovered the identity of the man whose sperm was used to conceive him. He later found the same donor had sired some 600 children. With the advent of cheap consumer DNA testing, Stevens’ half-siblings began showing up on ancestry websites, and most of them were completely unaware of how they had been conceived until their genetics revealed it.

Many expressed shock and distress at the discovery. But meeting each other at a party, set up for them to get to know one another, they also discover the excitement of belonging to a new giant family. Inspired by the experience, Stevens begins a quest that takes a critical look at anonymous sperm donation.

In Ottawa, he meets Rebecca Dixon, a young woman who discovered that a doctor who had supposedly cured her parents’ infertility had secretly used his own sperm. Norman Barwin did this a lot. Dixon has since found many of her half-siblings and, though she rejects the idea that Barwin is her father, is close with her “new” brothers and sisters.

In his journey, Stevens also finds problems associated with sperm banks. In Port Hope, Ont., he meets Angie, whose child’s sperm donor lied about his health: he was in fact diagnosed with schizophrenia and a criminal, she says. Health Canada does not collect information on a sperm donor’s health, resulting in anonymously-conceived people often lacking information that could save their lives.

Barry Stevens with Tim Gullicksen and two of his sperm offspring

Most of Stevens’ siblings are against donor anonymity, something which has long been assumed essential to encourage men to provide sperm. But that notion is called into question when Stevens goes to Los Angeles and meets Tim Gullicksen, a donor who has always been open to knowing his offspring — two of whom we meet in the film.

Some donors may have produced as many offspring as Stevens’ bio-dad and possibly even more. Stevens speaks to Dr. Steve Shelton — a bodybuilding psychiatrist who could have as many as 1,000 kids — and his recently discovered biological son, Derek Schaeffer. The pair meets one of the doctors who bought Shelton’s sperm. But, while cordial, the doctor denies the biological tie has much meaning and claims a flood might have destroyed Shelton’s records.

Related Links

•   When it comes to sperm donor anonymity, Canada is behind the curve •   Finding out I had 600 half-siblings sent me on a quest to end sperm donor anonymity

In the mountains of Colorado, Stevens visits Wendy Kramer, a mother of a donor-conceived child, whose website has helped to connect thousands of people with their donors and half-siblings. A passionate advocate of an open system, Kramer discusses the inherent problems with anonymity and some sperm banks’ lies.

With what he has learned, Stevens visits Ottawa and challenges MP Hedy Fry, who argued years ago that anonymity should be preserved in Canada. She says Stevens is free to organize with others and challenge the law.

Finally, Stevens gathers some of his siblings in an English pub to hear how strongly they feel about putting an end to the secrets and lies of anonymity. But it is also clear how connected their shared heritage has made them.