The Confusing, Expensive World Of Donor Sperm

Photo by Ashley Armitage.
Despite what you might have seen in any number of 'hilarious' comedy movies, the path to accessing sperm for conceiving a child can be complicated. In the UK, it is especially so.
The reasons for conception via sperm donation are many and varied. From the single person keen to go parenthood alone to the couple without the means to produce it themselves, sperm donation contributes to around 2,500 babies each year in the UK. How you get hold of it is largely determined by the relationship you have, or want to have, with the sperm donor.
Sperm falls broadly into two categories: known sperm (donated by a friend, family or loved one) and unknown sperm, which can be found via a clinic. Due to a law change in 2005, full anonymity is not possible for sperm donors in the UK and their identifiable information can be accessed by the child, if they wish, at 18.
As with all fertility treatments, the route you go down is complicated by finances. The NHS does pay for sperm if you are eligible for NHS-funded fertility treatment but waiting lists are long and UK sperm is scarce. There is also a postcode lottery at play – some areas will only fund sperm if there is a diagnosed fertility problem, which rules out same-sex couples and single people unless they can prove otherwise. This means that before you even consider what is right for your relationship and right for your future child, you have to take into account how much you can spend, from sourcing the sperm to how you inseminate.
Every route is deeply personal, with the final decision depending on answers to various logistical, financial and legal questions. To unpack this complicated issue and find out how best to go about it, we spoke to Jade Quirke, an associate solicitor specialising in family law; Tracey Sainsbury, senior fertility counsellor at the London Egg Bank and the London Sperm Bank; and three women who are forming families with the help of donor sperm.
Poppy, 33, and Cassie, 34, live in south Wales. They have one baby born in 2019, had a miscarriage in 2020 and Poppy is currently pregnant with their second child, who is due to be born in December 2021.
The couple's original plan was to conceive with donor sperm through the NHS but they got caught up on a long waiting list. "About 18 months down the line it got to the stage that we were choosing sperm with them and they kept coming back and telling us that donor was no longer an option," Poppy tells R29. "We were then told that there was a delay and that we would be waiting about five months for the sperm instead of the usual three."
"At that point an old friend offered us his sperm, which we accepted."
Poppy and Cassie elected to carry out an at-home insemination using a £10 kit. "Our donor went and had a full STD screening prior to our first at-home insemination but that was basically it. We also had a few chats about expectations and boundaries once the child was born, which have been adhered to."
Poppy continues: "As Cassie and and I were already married and the insemination was artificial (not sex), Cassie automatically became the legal parent to our children and is on the birth certificate."
Although known sperm donation was not their first choice, the couple are glad they went down this route. "It was really great that when our first insemination didn’t work we were able to immediately try again the following month."
Stats on the number of people conceiving with known sperm is limited as many, like Cassie and Poppy, bypass the fertility clinic. However, this route is not without its limitations.
"Many prefer using a known donor because they have pre-existing relationships and if not, they have the opportunity to build those through meeting their donor online or in person," explains solicitor Jade Quirke.
"Knowing your donor also gives everyone the opportunity to talk about the future arrangements once the child is born and what, if any, involvement the donor will have in the child’s life, which may or may not be important to you." For example, she says, it may be important to the birth parent that the child is able to contact the donor at any age while the donor may prefer for this to be more managed. It is important, she stresses, when planning a known donor arrangement, to have "early and honest discussions to help ensure everyone is aligned at the outset". She also highlights the importance of recording any and every agreement in writing.

No type of arrangement is 'wrong', whether the known donor ends up co-parenting or takes more of a peripheral role. Only the parent(s) and known donor will know what's right for them. It's just important that conversations about the arrangement are had as early as possible. "For example," says Jade, "what will the donor be known as to the child? How often will the donor spend time with the child? What happens if someone has a new partner or wants to relocate with the child? How will any dispute be worked through and resolved?" Considering these options in advance should help to reduce the risk of things going wrong and Jade always recommends putting a legal donor agreement in place. "There's a lot to consider but preparation, professional support and research will help."
When it comes to who is the legal parent of the child, there can be only two legal parents and if you're in a marriage or civil partnership, parenthood is automatically assigned. If you’re not, however, going through a fertility clinic can enable the non-carrying parent (if you’re in a couple) to be treated as the second legal parent.
It is illegal to pay a donor for sperm in the UK so prospective parents can pay a donor no more than £35 per clinic visit for reasonable expenses. Any additional costs depend on the fertility treatment itself – Poppy and Cassie spent £10 on their at-home insemination kit but if you go through a clinic, the costs can be significantly higher.
While it may cost more, Jade acknowledges that unknown sperm from a fertility clinic can give added peace of mind. "Sperm donors who register at a UK licensed fertility clinic and donate to unknown recipients will have no legal responsibility for any child conceived; the law is more complicated if the donor donates to someone he knows." She also explains that the donor will have been through extensive screening processes (required by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)) including health checks, counselling and consent procedures. They are required to provide personal info should the child wish to learn more about them or reach out in future and these donors are limited to a maximum of 10 families.
"For some," Jade says, "the legal protection and screening processes that come with conceiving at a clinic are preferable but this isn’t an option for everyone. It ultimately boils down to your particular circumstances and of course your budget." 
Marjorie, 32, is a teacher in Sussex on the path to single parenthood. At the time of writing she has just had her eggs collected, with her embryo transfer in a few days. Marjorie decided on using unknown donor sperm as she didn’t have anyone in her life she’d want as a known donor for her child. She says: "The various apps and websites that have men offering to be donors didn’t sit right with me. I really wanted the security of going through a clinic and using a sperm bank to have all the health and background checks that go along with that." 
While she was searching for sperm in the UK and in Europe, her requirements limited her options. "As a solo parent I have been really conscious about trying to find a donor that would allow any child I have to feel like they still look like the rest of my family, so I was only really focused on race and height. I want to give my child as few reasons as possible to feel alienated from the rest of my family and I feel looking similar is one way to reduce the risks of that." At 180cm tall, Marjorie struggled to find a UK donor who fit her criteria. "I would keep coming across donor profiles via UK sperm banks I liked the sound of, but they weren’t available to use here in the UK."
In the end she found European sperm that ticked all her boxes and was quick enough to get the number of sperm straws she wanted. "After regular searching, a profile came up for a donor who wasn’t yet available. I spoke to the sperm bank and they said they were just waiting for all his health checks to come through."
"I was really lucky, at the time the sperm bank allowed me to put a deposit on the number of straws I wanted so when he became available I just paid the full amount and they were mine to use, but I know the sperm bank doesn’t do this anymore. My donor sold out within a matter of days."
The costs are unsurprisingly much higher than for a parent(s) dealing with known sperm. "In total I’ve spent over £3,500 on the three straws of donor sperm I ordered and getting it shipped to my clinic," says Marjorie. "My fertility treatment, including my donor sperm, medication and all my various health checks and consultations has cost me over £9,500 to get where I am now. I was saving for over three years to get here so I don’t resent the expense but do recognise how privileged I am to have been able to get here."
According to the latest data from HFEA, the number of UK donors is incredibly low. This is thought, in part, to be to do with the 2005 law change making it illegal to be totally anonymous.
"Under UK law, a sperm donor will not be a legal parent or financially responsible for any child conceived as a result of their donation if they register at a UK licensed clinic and donate to unknown recipients," Jade explains. However, they must provide some personal information to HFEA via the clinic so that the child has the option to access non-identifiable information (at 16) and identifying information when they're 18.
Demand for UK sperm far outweighs the supply, meaning much of the donor sperm is imported, most commonly from the US or Denmark. Even for those like Marjorie who want to use UK sperm, the lack of UK donors means the few donations that are available sell out quickly.
This means that international (especially Danish or US-based) sperm banks are increasingly popular options for British women. However, licensed clinics in the UK are still required to put the sperm, and its donor, through significant screening processes. "In some circumstances this can cause complications, for example when an overseas donor has donated on an anonymous basis," Jade warns.
Ultimately, if sperm donation is crucial to your starting a family, the choice you make hinges not only on what you can do now but also on what you want your family to look like in the future.
"When we're having counselling ahead of fertility treatment in the clinic, we tend to work backwards," Tracey Sainsbury explains. "So we're looking at a well-rounded adult born through donor conception and we work out what can we put in place to get things right for them." More often than not, she says, it starts with the parent or parents feeling comfortable about their pathway to parenthood.
"So much of communication is nonverbal. If the parents are comfortable sharing the narrative, sharing their journey with their child as they grow up through childhood, welcoming the questions as an opportunity to provide clarity of the facts, then it means that the children can grow up with permission to check things out." She recommends anticipating questions like "Why did you choose that donor?" or "Why didn't he want to be my dad if it's a sperm donor?" She says the child might want to call the donor 'dad' – whether that's been decided on or not – in which case it's up to the parents not to collude with a sense of shame but to be comfortable with the child expressing and exploring what being donor-conceived means to them.
"Often parents can see it as a source of panic. So when we talk about it, we explore it and promote their self-care in the future, then things tend to fall into place a bit more, we just look bigger picture and what makes family stronger is open communication."
These days there are a number of different pathways to starting a family which don't involve a married, cisgender heterosexual couple conceiving a child via penetrative sex. However, that's not to say all pathways are equal. The road to parenthood for single people and same-sex couples especially is infinitely more complicated and littered with obstacles, from financial to legal, emotional to mental.
What is clear, though, is that there is help available when it comes to weighing up your options and that by planning, researching and reaching out to communities well-versed in dealing with the issues you may face, you're giving yourself the best chance at success.

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