Every year, thousands of women in the UK find themselves in need of donor sperm. Many are in heterosexual relationships with men and are having fertility issues but a rising number are lesbian couples or women who, not having found the right partner, decide to go it alone.
Take Mika Bishop, for example. She was 43 and single when she conceived her twin boys via artificial insemination with donor sperm. “I’d always assumed I’d have children and when I was much much younger, I imagined having four kids and a busy, lively household,” she says. “As I approached 40, I began to doubt ever having one, let alone four children. So I began to look into ways of having a child by myself. Being able to do so with donor sperm insemination meant the world and more to me.”
For women like Mika, it’s getting harder and harder to obtain the donor sperm they need. The UK is facing a serious shortage of sperm. And to make matters worse, as we reported last year, the country’s National Sperm Bank – the organisation set up to deal with the shortage – closed after just two years, with only seven donors to its name. So where are we getting it from instead? According to the most recent data from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), donations in licensed UK clinics using sperm imported from abroad are on the up, with most coming from the US and Denmark.
For prospective parents looking for donor sperm, this is an issue. Not because there’s anything intrinsically special about UK sperm but because of how rigorous the law is here. The law which is aimed at protecting the health and rights of donors, parents and children born by donation. 32-year-old Kristin's baby daughter was conceived through IVF by implanting her egg and donor sperm in her wife Gabby’s womb; Kristin also donated some of her eggs to a clinic for another couple to use. As she explains: “In the UK they’re much stricter with the medical testing than in some countries.”
What’s more, sperm from one donor can only be used by up to 10 families, Kristin explains. “We wanted to be able to tell my daughter she doesn’t have millions of brothers and sisters. You’d worry about them meeting up at some point without realising. I watched a documentary about half siblings who met at uni and had an attraction to each other because they shared the same genetic bond. It was so difficult for them, they couldn’t get past that.”
Mika had different reasons for choosing a UK donor: “I started searching for sperm in banks in America and Europe but with so much choice I began to think I could be searching for months and months or that I’d never make a decision. It was also partly because I wanted the logistics of the boys meeting the donor – if they choose to when they’re 18 – to be as easy as possible.”
Since 2005, the law says that sperm donors in the UK must agree that any children born from their donations can contact them when they turn 18 – although they don’t provide a photograph. This was another plus for Kristin, who felt this might impact how she and Gabby felt as parents. “If you see a photo, that face implants in your brain and instead of seeing yourself, you’d notice how they looked like the donor. You can’t help it, it’s such an automatic response.”
Sperm in this country doesn’t come cheap, meaning that some women choose to look for alternative ways of obtaining it. Private clinics generally charge between £500 and £1,000 and even the NHS-run National Sperm Bank – before it closed – planned to charge £300 for sperm.
However, other women choose to ask a friend, buy sperm on Facebook, Gumtree or elsewhere online, or use an app such as Just A Baby, which matches people who want to have kids with potential donors, Tinder-style.
The HFEA strongly recommends only using sperm that has come through a licensed UK clinic, partly because, as Kristin mentioned, you’re guaranteed that it’s met certain standards in terms of health checks and quality, but also because going through the approved routes gives you the assurance that the donor isn’t legally the father of your child and can’t claim any paternity rights.
For this reason, licensed donation is particularly important to people starting a family. It also protects donors because it means that they don’t have any responsibility – financial or legal – to children born using their sperm.
So what makes a man decide to become a donor? Recently, I was scrolling through the baby snaps and political rants that populate my Facebook feed and one post caught my eye. “I’m officially a sperm donor now and just wrote a goodwill letter to my future 18-year-old child whom I wouldn’t know #weird” wrote my friend Zak. I asked him why he did it. “I was doing Dry January and I was bored at work so I just applied – it seemed like something interesting to do,” he tells me. “I’d been thinking about it for a while actually – it’s a way to help people.”
Zak certainly wasn’t doing it for the money. In the UK, there’s a limit on how much donors can be paid – £35 per session. Of this, Zak receives half after the session and the rest once he’s completed the full programme of 20-25 sessions and his sperm donations have been cleared for use. That can take up to a year so it’s a big commitment. Kristin believes that the low compensation could be why there are so few donors in this country. “These big companies could afford to pay more for the donation,” she says. “It’s expensive [to buy] – £750 and that’s just for one shot of sperm.”
In the US there are basically no regulations about sperm donation, only guidelines, and no cap on how much money donors can receive. At California Cryobank, for example, donors earn up to $1,500 a month. But as the National Sperm Bank’s then-chief executive Laura Witjens explained in a 2015 interview with The Guardian, treating donation like a job opportunity is risky: “We might get more donors if we paid £50 or £100 per donation. But money corrupts. If you feel you can make £200 a week for four months, you might hide things about your health.”
“Clever advertising and press coverage could also work to encourage more donors,” Mika says. Zak agrees, noting that he’s never seen an advert on public transport for sperm donation, whereas there are tons aimed at women looking to conceive. “Maybe you could market it by appealing to men’s egos?” says Kristin. “When I was chosen as a donor I felt like a superhuman.” This has worked in Denmark, which, despite being a small country boasts a booming sperm industry, which is marketed as a source of pride – an invasion of “Viking babies”.
Zak, now one session in, says, “It appealed to me that you get tested. You go through so many tests – urine, blood, sperm count – and it’s good to monitor all that.” He hasn’t finished his letter yet – he has until he completes the programme – but it’s something he’s thought about a lot. “It’s strange giving advice to someone who hasn’t even been born yet. It will probably end up being a bit like a self-help book, do what you want with your life, that kind of thing.” And what would he say to other men thinking about donating? “Most guys are doing it anyway so you might as well do it for a good cause!”
One thing is clear: we need more Zaks. Like Mika, Kristin always dreamed of being a mum. Going through the process from both sides – as both a parent and a donor – has given her a special perspective: “I think everyone has the right to have a child – that’s why donation is so important. IVF is an emotional rollercoaster – and it’s expensive. I do wonder sometimes about the children who could now be born from my eggs but if the parents are going to these lengths to conceive that child, I know that child is going to a good home, they’re going to be loved.”
Some names have been changed.