It doesn’t really surprise me that the UK is facing a major donated sperm shortage and many clinics are relying in imported sperm to keep up with demand.
I was a prolific sperm donor when I was a young medical student, keen to help couples who couldn’t conceive and happy to receive the beer money that was bestowed by way of compensation.
But I wouldn’t do it now following the implementation of a ‘right to know’ law that any child conceived by my sperm could have the right to know my name and last known address when they turned 18. What about my right to privacy?
I was twenty-one when I first became a sperm donor. I went to lectures with all the rest of my year group, most of the lectures were pretty boring, but one struck home. The lecturer was a flamboyant and successful gynaecologist, and this week his subject was fertility. Watching the slides flick by I was amazed to see up on the screen the technical guts of a process that usually happened, in my experience, in the back of my Ford Escort. It was surprising when you saw all the complications that the avid little sperms ever met the eggs they were destined for. But for some people that wondrous encounter never happened. Our lecturer painted a picture for us of some of his most distressed patients, women who longed for babies, but whose partners were sub-fertile. Some men, I learned, produce no sperm at all, or sperm so defective that it was impossible for them ever to fertilise an egg. At this point the lecturer looked over his glasses at the rows of students taking notes obediently. We put down our biros. “Which is why there is always a need for sperm donors,” he told us. “If any of you are interested, please let me know after the lecture.”
At the end of the lecture, students flocked around him like pigeons in Trafalgar Square. I hesitated at the back of the crowd, listening to them as they questioned him. They were enthusiastically collecting more and more information, but none of them had responded, as I had, to the need he had described so movingly. Eventually my turn came. But how could I broach the subject? I chose my moment as he was leaving the lecture hall, when I could catch him alone in the corridor. He looked me up and down, like the Oliver Reed character in Gladiator assessing a new specimen. Then,“Yes, yes” he said, “Come to my office on Saturday morning, so we can check things out.”
I came. The checks were satisfactory. He opened his diary, “Can you do next Tuesday, five o’clock? Payment in advance if you wish.” He took out his wallet and handed me five pounds, useful for a medical student, but not my motive. I’d met some nurses who confided in me their fertility problems, and I’d found them appealing and sympathetic. Maybe my genetic material was about to merge with theirs.
Tuesday arrived, at five o’clock I was given a small plastic container and shown the loo. No erotic magazines or videos then, just my imagination. Fortunately I had had sex with my girl friend the night before, and the morning, so there were memories to draw on. I drew on them. I’m not sure what went wrong. Maybe the container slipped, maybe my eyes were shut and I misjudged the distance or the velocity, but the precious glupe hit the floor tiles having completed an unscheduled aeronautic phase. It probably wasn’t etiquette to try and scrape it into the container, and who knew what floor cleaner residue would be scraped up with it if I tried, which wouldn’t do much for the lady who was arriving for her appointment with my DNA in ten minutes time.
I was used to exams, and deadlines but this one was tight. I managed to produce a fresh sample, but I came out of the cubicle red-faced and gasping as if I’d just set a new 100 meter record.
For some idiotic reason I confided the experience to a close friend, who swore he would keep my confidence. Like hell he did, it was round the whole year in a matter of minutes, and the jokes at my expense went on for months, (“a pull on the pud pays for the food”, not sophisticated stuff). Still I persevered, and my efforts paid for me to run my car, though I never worked out how many miles it achieved to the sperm. My more mercenary girl friends tried to calculate ways they should share in the profits. “Maybe if you used a sterile condom I could take it to the sperm bank and get the fee.”
After I graduated, occasionally I had to collect similar samples from patients. It was a difficult subject to broach, so I followed the accepted practice and avoided eye contact, attempting to multitask, write up my notes, while instructing the patient, “now we just need a sample in here” and with my free hand placing a sterile container on my desk. Once I had just finished writing a sentence when I looked up, saying, “Any problems?” only to find the patient prepared and poised to launch his sample into the receptacle on my desk. “Not in here,” I yelled, feeling like William Tell’s son with an apple balanced on his head. My own aim had been erratic, what would his be like? And I was in his line of fire.
Now all of us sperm donors have dried up, literally.
As a happily married father of two, I am relieved that I donated before 2005 and children conceived using my donated sperm do not have the right to know their parentage. After all, only a minority of them, a discontented minority, feel all their problems in life would be resolved if only they knew who their father was. The majority are perfectly happy with the man they call Daddy, to whom they are not biologically linked, but who loves them as a father. In any case they are not unique, as the cliché has it, it’s a wise child who knows his own father, studies have shown that at least 20 per cent of children are not actually sired by the man named on their birth certificates. Maternity, they say, is a matter of fact, paternity a matter of opinion.
As a former sperm donor, I would be frankly horrified if some angst-ridden twenty-year-old turned up on my doorstep asking to meet his half-sisters. It might sound lacking in compassion on my part, but my deal was done to help a desperate couple have a baby. In Sweden, where they passed a similar law allowing donors to be identified, the result was a considerable drop in donors. In the UK, numbers of donors fell steeply after the law was changed. Certainly for my part, if that had been the deal, all bets would have been off, and my glupe would have stayed safely in my testicles to fight another day. Justice for a few has meant fewer donors, and less chance of happiness for the many.