Over the years, I have learned about incidents similar to those discussed in this article. So while I am not surprised (sadly, nothing seems to surprise me these days), it certainly begs the question about how much longer we can allow these types of arrangements to continue without some regulation to, at a minimum, protect the health and safety of the participants and the resulting children:
For months, Beth Gardner and her wife, Nicole, had been looking for someone to help them conceive. They began with sperm banks, which have donors of almost every background, searchable by religion, ancestry, even the celebrity they most resemble. But the couple balked at the prices—at least $2,000 for the sperm alone—and the fact that most donors were anonymous; they wanted their child to have the option to one day know his or her father. So in the summer of 2010, at home with their two dogs and three cats, Beth and Nicole typed these words into a search engine: “free sperm donor.”
A few clicks later, the couple slid into an online underground, a mishmash of personal ads, open forums, and members-only websites for women seeking sperm—and men giving it away. Most donors pledge to verify their health and relinquish parental rights, much like regular sperm-bank donors. But unlike their mainstream counterparts, these men don’t get paid. They’re also willing to reveal their identities and allow any future offspring to contact them. Many of the men say they do it out of altruism, but some also talk unabashedly of kinky sex and spreading their gene pool.
Curious, Beth and Nicole posted to a Yahoo Group, and within days they had more than a dozen suitors. “We got some weirdos,” says Beth, a 35-year-old tech professional near San Diego. But most of the donors were “very nice and obviously well educated.” After careful vetting—consisting of a homemade questionnaire, interviews, reference checks, and STD tests—the couple settled on a 30-something professional and arranged the donation.
Like most women in search of free sperm, Beth and Nicole asked for artificial insemination, or AI. As opposed to natural insemination (code for actual sex), AI typically involves injecting fresh sperm into the vagina, or loading it into a latex cup that fits on the cervix. Beth and Nicole had to work around three people’s schedules and an ovulation calendar, so the venues at which they met their donor had a saucy impromptu feel: a hotel, the back of the couple’s SUV, a camper trailer, a Starbucks bathroom. At Starbucks, the donor ejaculated in the bathroom in private, exited, and handed the sperm-filled latex cup to Nicole, who in turn entered the bathroom and attached the cup to her cervix. As nature took its course, the three sat down for coffee together. “It wasn’t my highest moment,” says Beth. They didn’t conceive.
The couple is trying again with a new donor—and Beth has become a fervent believer in the strategy. In January, she launched the Free Sperm Donor Registry (FSDR), a sleek, user-friendly portal that works kind of like a dating site, only the women are listed as “recipients” and men as “donors.” The homepage quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only gift is a portion of thyself.” Six months in, FSDR has more than 2,000 members, including about 400 donors, and claims a dozen pregnancies. The first live birth is expected this fall.
Reproductive medicine is as close to miracle work as humans can muster: it has supplemented the stork with the syringe, creating thousands of new lives annually where none seemed possible. But in lifting the fog around infertility, doctors have moved nature’s most intimate act deeper into the lab, and created a population of prospective parents—straight, gay, single, and married—who crave a more human connection. That need is now being met by sites like FSDR, which joins a global boom in the exchange of free, fresh sperm between strangers.
At least six Yahoo Groups, three Google sites, and about a dozen fee-based websites are dedicated to the cause. Most of them are in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, where sperm banks have seen donations drop in the wake of recent laws that limit fees and, in some cases, forbid anonymity. The donor pool is still large in the U.S., where college kids can make as much as $12,000 a year from sperm banks for anonymous twice-weekly donations.
But sperm banks, though regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, carry risk. In recent years sperm with a host of serious diseases and disorders has been sold to hundreds of women, according to medical journals and other published reports. Earlier this year ABC News identified at least 24 donor-children whose father had a rare aorta defect that could potentially kill his offspring at any minute. And in September, The New York Times reported on sperm banks’ creating 100-kid clusters around a single donor, raising questions about not only disease, but accidental incest.
Cost is also a concern. In many states, insurance won’t cover donor insemination unless a woman can show that she hasn’t been able to get pregnant. This makes it hard for lesbian couples and single women who don’t have male partners. And all couples face insurance caps that can mean thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket pay.
Many women also believe their donor-conceived children have a right to know their fathers, something most sperm banks have resisted, fearing such openness would scare off potential donors. Even banks that do reveal dads’ identities will do so only when a child turns 18.
As the first generation of donor-kids come of age, a growing number are expressing frustration at this closed-door policy. Confessions of a Cryokid and Anonymous Us are among the websites where they come to vent, airing unhappiness at feeling “half-adopted” and aching at the thought that their fathers could be anyone. “The system is severely broken,” says Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, a website that unites kids who have the same donor-fathers.
Of course, the market for free sperm raises its own set of questions. What if a donor sues for custody? What if he lies about an STD? Is he a potential threat to public health? What if his real motive is sex—and would that even matter? Just who are these guys anyway?
To find out, I registered at FSDR as a “just looking” member and spent two months following forum discussions, participating in chats, surfing through profiles, and interviewing more than a dozen donors and recipients. I also contacted donors who have set up personal websites or advertised on other sites. What I found was a universe that’s often more lascivious than a Nicholson Baker novel, but somehow less bizarre and more relatable. Far from being overrun by sex-crazed “sperminators” and “desperate girls,” the way British tabloids have portrayed the business, most of what I found was mundanely human.
Many of the women want to reproduce on their own terms, while they still can. Some have had miscarriages; others are widowed; still others, divorced. Some say they got pregnant when they were much younger and gave up the baby or aborted it, and now want another chance. Others have been busy with careers. Hope, a single 43-year-old zoologist, echoes most FSDR searchers when she says, “I really want to have a child, and I want to give that child the best shot at having a good life, which is why I chose this route.”
As with traditional sperm banks, most of FSDR’s users are lesbian couples or would-be single mothers. But the site does have an active cohort of straight pairs and married women, like a 37-year-old homemaker near Columbus, Ohio, who gave her name as Wendy. She says on a forum post that her husband—whose sperm count was diminished by a childhood case of the mumps—interviewed prospective donors with her. His one condition: AI only. “It seems more ‘our’ baby if sex is not involved,” she recalls him saying. Their son is due in January.
Donors on FSDR are a bawdier mix of high intentions and caveman dreams. One donor, whom Carissa, a 38-year-old divorcée in Fargo, N.D., was about to invite over for a “natural insemination” session, spooked her. “He wanted me to yell, ‘Make me pregnant!’?” during sex, she says.
It’s a telling detail. Many donors say they are motivated not by sex so much as a desire to spawn as many children as possible. “I actually have little interest in even a stone-cold fox if she isn’t going to get pregnant,” says Ray, a 38-year-old who declined to give his real name. Ray, who already had two kids with his wife and claims to have two more via one-night stands, started donating sperm in 2009. He prefers to donate the natural way, which he says has a higher chance of success than AI (it doesn’t), and he boasts of six births and six current pregnancies in attempts with about 40 different women. “I guess in some ways, helping lesbians, I am like an astronaut of inner space,” he says, “going where no man has gone before.”
With a new study out indicating that caffeine does not reduce sperm count, I guess Starbucks is as good of a place as any to get inseminated while you wait for your java chip frappucino. I will re-visit this story later this week when time permits with some other thoughts about this entire process of “natural insemination”, the legal pitfalls and the effect it will have upon a child’s birth story.