Zara* watched nervously as a car pulled up outside her house in London. She rushed outside and took from the driver – a man in his 40s – a sterilised plastic cup containing about two centimetres of semen and a syringe. After a three-minute interaction, during which she handed the man some money, she hurried back into her house, giddy with excitement.
Zara, who is in her 20s, had arranged to meet this man via a Facebook sperm donor group. She’d heard about him before they started speaking as he is a prolific sperm donor and well known online.
He had seemed nice enough before their meeting and although a little "socially awkward" in person, says Zara, the transaction otherwise went smoothly.
The pregnancy was ultimately unsuccessful.
"I wasn’t too disheartened," Zara says, "because these things just happen sometimes." It’s normal for sperm donor recipients to share their experiences online to inform others considering a potential donor. But when Zara posted in a Facebook sperm donor group, giving an honest account of what had happened with the donation she bought, the man she’d purchased the semen from turned aggressive.
"He told me to take the post down immediately," says Zara. "At first he tried to make me feel sorry for him and then he started to threaten to remove me from some of the other [sperm donor] groups that he admins. I said fine; I didn’t think it was right to delete the comment." He continued to bombard her with threats and desperate pleas until she blocked him. That he had turned on her so quickly felt like a violation of trust, Zara says.
Acquiring sperm can be a hugely expensive process. Fertility clinics and sperm banks usually cost thousands of pounds and there is no certainty of pregnancy. It is for this reason that people like Zara resort to unofficial (and unregulated) means of securing sperm.
While it is possible to receive IVF on the NHS, because local clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) choose how to distribute NHS funding in England, accessing the treatment has become a postcode lottery. Same-sex couples often face additional barriers before they can get NHS IVF support due to discriminatory fertility policies. According to Stonewall, nearly four in five CCGs require LGBTQ+ couples who are seeking artificial insemination to self-fund before they are eligible for any NHS funding. And as Refinery29 has reported, the whole process can cost up to £50,000 if you can't get support.
For Zara and her girlfriend, who simply could not afford these costs, Facebook felt like one of their only options. It is illegal to sell sperm in the UK and many of the donors on Facebook do not charge. For those who do charge illegally, the cost is often a small fraction of what a clinic might cost. Zara, for example, paid £50 for her sperm and an extra £36 for the donor’s travel costs from Luton (donors are technically allowed to charge for the latter).
Demand for this already thriving black market exploded during the pandemic as many faced huge delays in accessing IVF treatment and sperm banks saw their stocks diminished due to people being unable to go into clinics. It was reported in 2021 that the number of available donors had fallen by 66% in the UK since the pandemic started and the effects of this are still being felt.
Faced with this shortage, it is unsurprising that more people desperate to conceive are turning to riskier methods. And these are not insignificant risks: horror stories of rogue donors are easy to come by on Facebook. There are numerous reports of people claiming to have caught STIs from donors. In one recent post, an anonymous Facebook user from the UK said she had caught HIV from her donor. "I’ll regret it for the rest of my life," the person wrote, "but I’m sure you all understand that feeling of desperation because you want a child so badly."
There has to be fair and equitable funding across the UK. There's no equitable service in England and that includes making funding available for same-sex couples.
Gwenda Burns, Fertility Network UK
Gwenda Burns, chief executive of Fertility Network UK, stresses the importance of the in-clinic screening process before someone receives a donation. "If you’re not doing any health screenings for medical conditions – for infectious diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis, or taking into consideration any family medical history to identify any heritable diseases – then you really are putting yourself and the health of your baby at risk," she says.
Gwenda points out that even if a Facebook donor says they’ve been to a sexual health clinic, that doesn’t tell the recipient anything from a genetics standpoint. On top of this, "some diseases may not show up positive in a test for a period after the donor has been infected." (At a licensed clinic, sperm is normally frozen and quarantined for 180 days and the donor retested after that period to prevent this from happening.)
Health risks aside, sexual harassment is also rife in these groups. It’s become common for some donors to insist on NI (natural insemination, meaning sexual intercourse between a sperm donor and his recipient) over artificial insemination (AI). This can happen even in groups that specifically state that they are for AI donations only.
Katie, a 24-year-old from Scotland, was horrified when her donor, Roger, started sending sexually explicit messages pressuring her into NI and asking to see explicit photos of her in exchange for a donation. She’d already received three AI donations from him, two of which had taken place in her home. On the third attempt, Katie miscarried and decided to take a break from trying for a baby. This made Roger’s messages – which she received out of the blue a few months after the miscarriage – feel particularly callous.
"I was angry and felt very unsafe because we had let this man into our home," Katie says. "It hurt us more because we went through the miscarriage. We thought we trusted him and to find out we were wrong about him was hard."
Innes* moderates a group set up to give references for UK sperm donors and recipients on Facebook. She says the fact that a number of donors, like the one Zara used, are admins on sperm donor Facebook groups raises serious problems. "Often they don’t allow free AI sperm donors in their groups so recipients end up with the choice of buying their sperm or using [free] NI donors," she says. "It’s Hobson’s choice."
Another woman Refinery29 spoke with says that a discussion with a donor she was talking to on Facebook quickly escalated when he started asking for marriage and about co-parenting. "This was despite me stating that I was not looking to co-parent," she says. This points to another problem that can arise with these types of donations. Isabelle James, a family solicitor from Osbornes Law, says that without a properly drawn-up legal agreement, a donor could attempt to seek a role in the child’s life even if that was not agreed upon over Facebook.
"Sometimes people think [Facebook] is an easier and cheaper option but actually the future can turn out to be much more expensive and difficult," she says, pointing to the costs should there be a legal battle over the child’s parentage. There are of course risks for the donor as well, such as the mother demanding support money from the donor, or waiving their pre-agreed anonymity.
What is driving these donors? In 2013 a journal article by the Donor Sibling Registry identified three main motives for average donors: money, generosity and the desire to pass along their DNA. Zara believes that for her donor, along with most of the other serial donors she’s encountered on Facebook, the third motive is the overriding one.
In the UK, sperm donations from a single donor may be used to create a maximum of 10 families. However, through these unregulated groups, some men are fathering literally hundreds of children. This has worrying implications, including a heightened chance that two siblings might meet unwittingly and have children of their own – children with a greater risk of carrying hereditary defects.
Zara believes that the fact that donors can father an unlimited number of children has fostered a competitive atmosphere, with donors often boasting about how many women they’ve gotten pregnant. She says that getting a woman pregnant the first time around is incredibly important to them for this reason. "[Donors] really try to have dominance over a woman’s cycle so they’ll pressure you to track your cycle," says Zara, "because they really, really want it to work." Innes makes a similar point, believing a lot of these donors are motivated by "pure narcissism".
Of course, not every sperm donor on Facebook has bad intentions and there are plenty of positive stories to come out of this type of donation. But clearly something needs to change so that people aren’t forced to take such a serious gamble with their own, and their future child’s, wellbeing.
"There has to be fair and equitable funding across the UK," says Gwenda. "There's no equitable service in England that exists at the moment and that includes making funding available for same-sex couples to access those DIs [donor insemination treatment] or IUI [intrauterine insemination] cycles." She adds that the UK should move to become more like Scotland, where the government currently funds three cycles of NHS IVF treatment for eligible couples trying to start a family (in England and Wales, some CCGs only offer one cycle or only offer NHS-funded IVF in exceptional circumstances).
Parenthood should not be a privilege reserved for the most wealthy, and the fact that LGBTQ+ families have to face additional hidden costs should inspire outrage. A fairer, more equal system is needed urgently. Until then, the demand for these unsafe groups will only continue to grow.
A spokesperson for Meta (the company formerly known as Facebook Inc.) said: “We know that Facebook can be a place where people talk about a variety of personal and medical issues, which we allow. This can include communities discussing issues related to fertility. However, we have explicit rules against harassment and sexual solicitation to help keep people safe. We remove this content when we find it and encourage people to report it to us if they see it.’’
*Name changed to protect anonymity