Using a private donor offers more control – but can mean more pitfalls
By Clare Wilson
PRIVATE sperm donation, taking place outside a licensed fertility clinic, is on the rise. The chief appeal of the DIY approach is that it gives both recipients and donors complete control – but there is a dark side to this trend.
Some donors lie about their intentions and the legal paternity of the resulting children can be unclear. Some men are having dozens of children this way, leading to a risk of incest in future. So should we be concerned?
Fertility clinics today offer sperm donation for heterosexual couples where the man has too few or poor quality sperm, as well as increasingly for LGBTQ couples and single people. In the past, donors were anonymous and users tended to keep their child’s origins secret if possible, but these days parents are encouraged to be open. In the UK and many other countries, children now have the right to find out their genetic father’s identity when they turn 18, making the choice of donor even more pertinent.
Clinics generally provide a few details about sperm donors, such as their appearance and profession. But for many would-be parents, that is nowhere near enough – they want to see his face, talk to him, get a feel for his personality, says Erika Tranfield, who hit this problem when seeking a sperm donor herself. “You get a lot more from meeting someone face-to-face than you do on paper.”
Of course, such private arrangements have always been possible. The difference is that people can now choose from hundreds of potential donors on Facebook and other websites. Tranfield and her wife met 10 men from all over the UK before making their choice, meeting the donor several times before they tried to conceive. “We got to know and trust him,” she says.
“Many women want to see their sperm donor’s face, talk to him, get a feel for his personality”
For the insemination, he came to their house and left his semen sample in the bathroom for Tranfield to use. She got pregnant at the second attempt and now has a 1-year-old daughter.
Doing this at home – where her wife did the insemination – was another benefit. “Your partner placing the sperm in an intimate environment is more relaxing and personal,” she says.
There are other benefits: the child can learn about their father from an early age or even have some kind of a relationship if that is what everyone wants. Some LGBTQ couples and single people arrange “co-parenting” agreements with their donor, where the man has a defined role in the child’s life, says Natalie Gamble, a lawyer who specialises in this area. In the UK, such arrangements wouldn’t be possible for clinic donors, whose names can legally only be released when the child turns 18 (although see “End of anonymity”).
The DIY approach can also be cheaper, as many countries have limited state funding for fertility treatment. While less expensive than IVF, artificial insemination at a clinic can cost more than £1000, with several attempts sometimes being necessary. By contrast, in many countries it is illegal to pay private sperm donors anything other than expenses.
One of the biggest specialist matching websites was started by Tranfield and her partner. Called Pride Angel, Tranfield says it now has 50,000 registered members worldwide.
Another minefield is the child’s paternity. In the UK, if sperm donation takes place at a clinic, the donor never becomes the legal father. Outside a clinic, he may do in some circumstances, for example if the insemination happens by sex, says Gamble.
Another concern is that some men are fathering dozens of children this way, risking them unwittingly having incestuous relationships with each other as adults. In the UK, sperm banks only let donors contribute to 10 families each.
“Some men are fathering dozens of children, risking them having incestuous relationships as adults”
Mitch Kennedy, an online sperm donor in Aberdeen, UK, who has fathered 33 children so far and plans to stop at 50, says the likelihood of incest is low. He only donates to women who say they are going to be open with their children, so they would know to check if a potential partner could be related.
Kennedy sees it as a bonus for his children to have multiple donor-siblings, or “diblings” as they are called. “I hope that long after I’m in the ground, they can look out for each other.” But he cannot guarantee that the parents are honest with their children.
With these concerns in mind, is there a middle ground between going through a clinic and DIY? Some would-be parents are choosing to identify a donor online, then pay for him to be screened at a fertility centre and for insemination to take place there. That gives more legal and medical protection, but costs more and rules out home insemination. And the six-month delay due to STI testing can be tough for would-be parents with an eye on their biological clock, says Tranfield. “If you’re older, this can be quite stressful.”
At a fertility conference held by the Progress Educational Trust in London in December 2018, Tranfield called on clinics to help people using online donors, by giving legal advice and starting a central register of donor-conceived children so they can look up their genetic father and diblings. “People want more choice,” she later told New Scientist. “If [clinics] want to up their game, they need to bring the service into the 21st century.”
To read more please go to https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24132153-400-people-are-seeking-sperm-donors-online-but-are-the-risks-worth-it/