The doctor who performed my egg collection was a Nigerian man with a round face and a cheeky grin. I liked him immediately. Now he was waving a piece of paper in my face. On it was a description of the sperm donor I’d chosen; I needed to confirm the details before any fertilisation process could begin. Clad in nothing but a hospital gown, I dutifully looked it over, signed, and handed it back to him.
"Good. If your baby comes out ginger, don’t blame me."
When you’re having a baby conceived via IVF using sperm from an anonymous donor, there are few guarantees. I know the man’s height and weight, hair and eye colour, and complexion, but I have no idea what he actually looks like. I’ve never even seen a photo.
The movies — and some slick, state-of-the-art American clinics that must be more advanced than the one I went to on London's Harley Street — make the process of selecting a sperm donor seem like poring over a fat, glossy shopping catalogue or picking a designer outfit from Cher Horowitz’s wardrobe. In the surrogacy comedy Baby Mama, Tina Fey gets to see a digital composite of what her future baby with each potential donor would look like. In The Switch, Jennifer Aniston’s hunky donor even rocks up to her insemination party. Everything feels transparent, and the options seem endless. The world — or at least some swimmers that have been carefully screened — is your oyster.
In reality, the process feels more like searching for flights on easyJet; plug in a couple of non-negotiables, and the filtered results dwindle dramatically. Dither over the decision too long and, just like that budget seat bound for Pisa, your guy is suddenly fully booked. Each donor’s supply is limited to a set number of families; once it’s gone, it’s gone.
Once I’d registered with the sperm bank affiliated with my IVF clinic, I was free to start searching through its online — and photo-free — database of potential donors. And it didn’t take me long to realise that my options were not so endless after all.
This was partially due to personal circumstances and preferences on my end, but also what I felt to be a surprisingly small pool of donors to choose from. The sperm bank I used happened to be partnered with another clinic in the US, which means that certain men are marked as an "export-only resident donor" available only to international clients. The upside is that British "shoppers" have access to all these shiny American donors, which would be great if a) I weren’t also American, and, more crucially, b) in possession of a handful of male relatives living in the very city where the US sperm bank is located. Rather than subject my family members to an awkward grilling about what they would or would not do for some extra cash — or risk giving birth to a three-eyed baby — I decided to eliminate all Yanks (no pun intended) from my search.
The sperm bank’s site lets users filter the remaining pool of donors by a number of factors: hair colour, eye colour, race, height, education, occupation, skin tone, nationality and religion. If you’re keen to have a freckly baby, or want your child’s bio dad to have an artistic streak, here’s your chance.
My approach: Keep it simple. I looked for donors with colouring similar to my own, figuring that if I was going to be the one carrying and raising this kid on my own, I should get a few familiar physical features out of the deal. University degree: Ideal. Occupation: Not really fussed. Religion: Tricky. Would I be obliged to pass on the traditions of a faith steeped in cultural identity without truly understanding its nuances? And if I gave birth to a kid fathered by the male model who practised paganism, would his or her first word be "Saturnalia"? Again, I chose the path of least resistance.
The only thing I wouldn’t budge on was height. As the shortest person in my family, I felt like the universe had finally given me an opportunity to reclaim some inches. Unfortunately, even after a decade of living in London, the metric system remains a complete mystery. Twice I had to rule out really great-seeming guys after hastily googling a centimetres-to-inches conversion chart. I didn’t need Peter Crouch, but I didn’t want Ronnie Corbett, either.
While I don’t feel like I was overly picky, once it came down to it, there were only a couple of candidates who fit the bill. And that was a privilege in itself. Out of curiosity, I filtered by race and found just three black donors available; the numbers of Asian and mixed-race men are similarly low. With a pool that small, a woman doesn’t really have the luxury of indulging her preferences on height or education.
In addition to this basic information and pertinent medical details, each donor profile includes a description written by a sperm bank employee that sheds more light on his background, character and interests. Sometimes the staffer will throw you a bone and put in an overt descriptor like "ruggedly handsome" or "great sense of humour". More often, you’re left scrutinising the subtext of every vague adjective like it’s the last text someone sent before they ghosted you. You’ll cling to every scrap of information, and wonder about all the things left unsaid. Who cares if he likes rugby, you’ll mutter in frustration. Did he vote for Brexit? Is he rude to waiters? Does he find Michael McIntyre funny, and could he be convinced otherwise?
Finally, you can also request a pen sketch, a letter written by the donor himself. This gives him the chance to tell you, in his own words and handwriting, more about himself and his motivations for being a donor. You may be moved. You may be put off. You may contemplate hiring a handwriting analyst.
But a decision must be made, and then it’s time to add your selection to your virtual shopping cart. Some paperwork and £950 later, he’s all yours.
Now that the deed has been done and my due date is within reach, I don’t think about my mystery guy much at all. His job is over; it’s now on me to do the parenting, including raising my child with an understanding of what it took to bring him or her here. That’s hard for some people to understand. Most folks who know about my IVF journey are fixated on the donor. I just see him as the means to an end; they treat him like some sexy stranger I hooked up with on holiday.
Some people think what I’ve done is empowering or fascinating; others just think it’s weird. Clueless acquaintances have joked in my presence about how they think sperm donation is gross. Tears have been shed. Silly me — I’ve been in this baby bubble so long, I almost forgot that there’s still a huge stigma surrounding unconventional fertility options.
I can only hope that my kid’s generation is more open-minded, because the truth is that sperm donations aren’t merely a godsend for single straight women like myself; they’re also invaluable for the LGBTQ community and, yes, even straight cis married couples who struggle with fertility. The process isn’t perfect, but I wouldn’t be an expectant mum without it.
And besides: Liking Michael McIntyre can’t be a genetic condition — right?