It has never been easier to access sperm as a single woman or couple wanting a child. Regulated artificial insemination is available through the NHS but criteria are strict, so many turn to unregulated websites and social media platforms instead. This is perfectly legal in the UK as long as no money (other than expenses) changes hands.
But new reports suggest that women are feeling pressured into unprotected sex and being harassed and misled through these websites, with fertility experts calling for them to be banned completely, according to the BBC programme Inside Out.
Online donors offer their sperm in two ways: through artificial insemination (AI) or through natural insemination (NI), unprotected sex with the donor. Evidence suggests that some men are preying on vulnerable women and taking advantage of the fact that, unlike registered fertility clinics, online sperm donors don't have to undergo screening for STIs or medical health checks.
A couple named Kirsti and Danielle, from West Yorkshire, told the BBC they had felt pressured into using natural insemination (unprotected sex with a stranger). Kirsti said she had been sent photos of miscarriages by men who argued that artificial insemination carried greater risks in pregnancy.
"Some people try to put you off by sending you messages of miscarriages and stuff, like 'if you do it that way, this will happen'," she added. "They are trying to change your mind for the method, so then you have sex with them."
Others have reported being misled by donors. A 26-year-old woman named Sarah, from Yorkshire, said she wanted a baby without a partner but had been unable to afford treatment privately. She said she had been deceived by a married man who had had a vasectomy, "so was in no way viable at all," which made her suspicious of other donors' intentions. She is now calling for these websites to be "policed by a proper organisation" to check donors' identities.
Fertility experts and campaigners are even calling for unregulated online sperm donation to be banned, saying they leave vulnerable women at risk. Dr Larisa Corda described the trend as "really alarming" and called for the websites to be closed down.
"I think women are putting themselves in an incredibly vulnerable position medically speaking and secondly [there is the] potential for abuse," she told the BBC. "In the ideal world, I'd love to see them shut down because I think women's safety and welfare has to be paramount here."
However, there are valid reasons why many people turn to unregulated websites – unlike regulated clinics it is free, and often quicker and more straightforward than receiving artificial insemination via the NHS, which requires patients meet strict criteria before receiving a referral.
To access intrauterine insemination (IUI) on the NHS, you must be unable to have vaginal sex, have a condition that means you need specific help to conceive, or be in a same-sex relationship and have failed to get pregnant after up to six cycles of IUI using donor sperm from a licensed fertility unit. Meanwhile, private fertility clinics in the UK charge anywhere from £800 to £1,300 for a cycle of IVF, making sperm donation websites a more accessible, albeit riskier, alternative.
Online sperm donation is crying out for research and luckily Leeds Beckett University is conducting a study that's believed to be the first of its kind. It will investigate the number of websites currently operating, how men present themselves them and women's experiences using them, the university's senior psychology lecturer, Dr Tamara Turner-Moore, told the BBC.