Page last updated at 10:43 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 11:43 UK

Secret world of sperm donations

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One man's story of sharing sperm via the internet - his voice has been replaced by an actor

By Samantha Washington
Donal MacIntyre show, BBC Radio 5 live

"What are you going to do on a Sunday afternoon? You could watch the football or you could change someone's life. I'd rather do this than sit in and watch EastEnders."

Meet "John". His weekend hobby is not typical charity work; he is describing donating sperm to women he meets online.

In John's double life, he fits in appointments around his job, and talks in code over the phone. He is single, and friends and colleagues are oblivious to his secret. His mother knows nothing of her grandchildren.

He meets women online or through classified ads. He strikes up electronic relationships with potential recipients, sharing details about his selling points, but never his name.

I've never put myself forward as a father - I'm not a dad, I'm just a donor
'John'

If they decide to proceed, he delivers a fresh sample to the woman's home or a pre-arranged hotel room. Sometimes they have sex.

John is not paid but does occasionally claim his travel costs.

There are about 60 UK fertility clinics which are licensed to supply sperm, both NHS and private. So why does the unregulated market exist?

Put simply, there is not enough sperm.

'Grey market'

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) figures show that while the number of registered sperm donors has risen slightly in the past year, it is lower than 15 years ago.

There were 384 sperm donors in 2008, whereas one conservative estimate suggests 500 are needed.

Making up the difference is difficult.

Before becoming an official donor, a man must pass rigorous health checks and have so-called "super sperm", which can endure freezing and defrosting.

A screengrab from the Feelingbroody.com website
Nobody should be denied the chance of having a child due to lack of money or discrimination about their sexuality or lifestyle choices
Seyi Joseph, Feelingbroody.com

As long as websites do not "procure, test, process or distribute" sperm themselves, they are not doing anything illegal by charging to put willing donors in touch with willing recipients.

The HFEA is aware of these "grey market" sites but does not endorse them. Its website recommends that people donate or receive sperm "only through the UK's licensed clinics".

However, some women told the BBC they fear official clinics will not treat them because of their age, marital status or sexuality. Others said treatment was too costly.

One new unregulated website, Feelingbroody.com signed up 100 women in two days.

"Nobody should be denied the chance of having a child due to lack of money or discrimination about their sexuality or lifestyle choices," said founder Seyi Joseph.

"Sally" is 22. Desperate for a child, but single after some difficult relationships, she felt sperm donation was the best route for her. But her youth and lack of partner undermined her chances of NHS treatment. And the prohibitive cost of going private sent her online.

"You can pretty much just Google a donor, and find one within five minutes."

She has tried to conceive with two donors. She questioned the men via e-mail and telephone calls for months, but admits it is dangerous.

"I do know of a case where a donor produced a sexually transmitted disease test certificate which was later proved to be false. I don't think there's any real guarantee," she said.

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John insists he is meticulous about his health but says some other donors - and recipients - are less reliable.

With informal arrangements, the donor and recipient can discuss what role - if any - the donor will have in the child's life.

If you donate sperm through a registered clinic, you are not the legal parent and must not attempt contact. Children have the right to learn the donor's identity when they turn 18, but the donor never has legal or financial responsibility.

Perversely, unregulated sperm donation carries more responsibility. Impregnation through intercourse - or where there is no consenting civil partner or spouse - makes the donor the legal father.

No voluntary contract can overrule this. In one recent case the Child Support Agency (CSA) forced a donor to pay maintenance when a civil partnership subsequently broke down.

Legal limit

This is why John is so secretive about his identity: "The consequences for donors are absolutely catastrophic.

"If you get found out, you can lose your house, your livelihood. I've never put myself forward as a father - I'm not a dad, I'm just a donor."

Initially John donated through official clinics, but soon reached the legal limit which states you cannot provide sperm to more than 10 families. This is to reduce the risk of the biologically-related offspring meeting and reproducing.

He then went down the informal route, and estimates he has now fathered about 30 children in total. He questions the scientific basis for the UK limit.

"If you were to take the Dutch limit and apply it to the UK population," he argues, "assuming that there's a fairly even spread around the UK, then [it] would convert to 100 children."

Satisfaction

The government-funded National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT) admits raising the limit might counter the grey market.

"In light of the current shortage of sperm we shouldn't just be looking at increasing the number of donors, but also how we can make most effective use of the sperm available," said NGDT chairman Laura Witjens.

"We should therefore review the legal limit of 10 families per donor, an arbitrary figure not backed up by research or even anecdotal evidence."

John denies accusations of megalomania but admits he takes great satisfaction from his offspring.

"I hope that they make a contribution to society. Am I proud that they are my biological children? Too right I am."

Donal MacIntyre will be broadcast on 5 live on Sunday, 20 September, 2009 at 1900 BST. Download the free podcast.



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