Amos Production’s new Channel 4 documentary, 4 Men, 175 Babies: Britain’s Super Sperm Donors, delves into the world of online UK sperm donation. It is quite a watch, and probably an uncomfortable one for many and especially for the UK’s fertility regulators who oversee donor conception in the UK. Within the regulated system, donated sperm is medically screened by licensed fertility clinics. The law guarantees protection for donors, limits the numbers of families conceived with each donor, and safeguards the rights of donor-conceived people to access information in the future. But, as the film shows, there are other ways of conceiving with donor sperm in the UK. Social media makes it easier than ever for aspiring mothers and men willing to provide sperm to connect, without the help of regulated third parties or medical intervention. With private fertility treatment costing £1,000 or more and NHS funding limited, it is not surprising there is demand for this kind of unregulated sperm donation.
As a lawyer who supports the sensible set-up of private donation arrangements, my experience is of one-to-one matches and known donors who make on an ongoing commitment to the child they help conceive. We always encourage care, thought and strong foundations. What this extraordinary documentary shows is something else entirely: online-order sperm from donors who donate over and over again to dozens or even hundreds of women, without any apparent intention for direct ongoing involvement with the child.
The potential risks are profound and lifelong. For the women, top of the list is sexual exploitation. Some of the men offer what they euphemistically call donation by ‘natural’ or ‘partial’ insemination - they mean sex. “You just lie there and think of it as a medical procedure” was one of the messages sent to a potential recipient in the programme. For women desperate to get pregnant, this is exploitation at its worst, and hardly the loving start in life you would want for a child. Other donors (including the four followed by the programme) hand over their sperm on doorsteps or at hotel room doors for artificial insemination.
Although the health risks of conceiving with unscreened sperm are obvious, it’s not just the women who are at risk. Unless a donor donates artificially to a consenting married couple, he will be the legal father of the child. Unlike registered sperm donors at licensed clinics, that means he is vulnerable to financial claims for regular child maintenance, capital lump sums and inheritance. The donors in the programme were confident that the women would never betray them but the risks are very real. We have handled more than a few cases in which private sperm donors have been pursued financially, sometimes many years after the donation. The fact that someone was ‘just acting as a donor’ is no defence in law.
But the biggest concern about this kind of sperm donation is the problems stored up for the future. With so many children conceived by the same donor in the same geographic area (for one donor featured in the programme this was dictated by how far he was prepared to drive his van), there is, of course, the obvious risk that genetic siblings may later enter into relationships with each other inadvertently. But it isn’t just that. How will these donor-conceived people feel about their donor’s lack of personal investment in them, about being one of a hundred or more offspring? In an age of DNA ancestry searches and Google, the donors are naive if they think no one will come looking for them. And if their offspring are curious to find them, what quality of response will they get from a donor who could have more than a hundred people knocking on his door? And what about the donor’s own families (who, astonishingly, opposed or did not know about these men’s donation activities)? For donor-conceived people, parents, donors and their families, it feels like a ticking time-bomb of heartache.
Realistically it’s impossible to see how the law could stop people connecting with each other online and deciding to conceive children together. But we can educate both donors and potential parents about the risks and long term implications of conceiving in this way, and signpost them to affordable counsellors and organisation who can help them think things through. Careful thought and planning is critical for all involved, but most especially the children being brought into the world.
Natalie Gamble is founder of Natalie Gamble associates, the UK’s first fertility law firm
4 Men, 175 Babies: Britain’s Super Sperm Donors, Channel 4, Tue 29 May 10pm