Who's Your Daddy: Confessions of a Sperm Donor
Confessions of a Sperm Donor
In late 2018 I was listening to a podcast in which the hosts we joking about becoming sperm donors. Interspersed with adds for website building tools and shaving supplies the two produced a show which whiled away my walk to the gym. There must have been something to their banter though since the next day I started to wonder whether it may be something to consider. By the next week, I had decided to look into the process and now in July 2019, I am holding a photocopy of a birth certificate. The certificate is that of a child who directly shares my DNA but I may never meet and if I do, it will be at least eighteen years from now. By 2037 I will be 49 and have a minimum of 9 more children whom I may not ever see. Over the last nine months, I have travelled around 2,500 miles and sired ten children. The experience has been interesting, weird and strangely un-profound. I am still unclear as to why I decided to do this but the outcome is ten new happy families and hopefully a story worth telling.
When I decided to become a sperm donor I did so in part with the selfish idea of making money. It wasn't my primary motivation but I would be lying if I did not admit to this less than noble incentive as early on as possible. As a self-employed writer, it is amazing the lengths I will go to to avoid real work. I once took part in a humiliating week-long dating show just because it seemed better than temp work. In retrospect, I should have stacked some shelves. I reasoned that I could be forgiven for this mercenary way of thinking since the majority of clinics that were advertising for sperm donors did so with banner adds declaring things like “make MONEY now!” Of course like all banner adds they were not exactly accurate. After some internet searching, I chose to approach a clinic and quickly learned that what they meant is that they would pay £30 to cover the cost of travel. This quickly put my ridiculous ideas of paying off student loans with cups of semen into context. One chap I spoke to told me that he passed the clinic on his commute to work and is subsidised his ever-rising travel costs. Certainly not the craziest thing someone has done to afford the London lifestyle. Another donor joked that he paid for his gym membership in handjobs. As it was, I very quickly accepted that if I was going to do this, then it wouldn’t be for the money.
Very sensibly there are lots of hoops to jump through before becoming a donor and with my financial dreams crushed my curiosity took over. Before being considered, candidates have to undergo a medical exam, STI screening and blood tests. Depending on the results candidates are then invited to provide sperm samples. Only those candidates in the top 5% of fertility are then asked to go through psychological examination and acceptance into the program. The whole process takes several weeks and it certainly feels good for the ego to be told you are in the top 5% of anything.
Most of the tests where no different from a visit to the GP but one test did stand out as a little bit different from an average check-up. In theory, we all know how sperm samples are collected and that as sensible adults we can normalise anything. However, the first time I was ushered into that beige room I can’t deny that I was a little uneasy. The room was the size of a disabled toilet and seemed overly large for its purpose. In one corner was a TV and opposite that a grey vinyl chair next to sink. The very helpful assistant explained that when I was done I should bag the sample pot in one of the plastic bags provided and put it in the mail shoot. They then closed the door and I was left holding a sterile cup and assessing the practicalities of my situation. As medically clean as the room was I wasn’t keen to sit on the chair. The shiny wipe clean surface looked comfortable enough but was surrounded in my mind by the ghosts of too many previous occupants. The TV was mounted high on the wall forcing me to look up like some kind of pleading lab mouse and foolishly I had worn jeans. This meant that I needed to either take them off or else fashion impromptu ankle shackles which would only complicate aiming into my rather thin necked receptacle. Naked from the waist down I turned on the TV and discovered that the clinic was not going to be that helpful in providing motivation. There was a Plex account with two titles to choose from. Being heterosexual the first feature didn’t appeal and the second made me ashamed to the British. I don’t know what it is but for some reason, we Brits just can’t make pornography. There seems to be a rather absurd obsession with white vans and taxis and no matter what is happening on screen an editor could easily splice in a Benny Hill soundtrack without it changing the tone one bit. All I can say is thank goodness for 4G.
After a few appointments, my top 5 percentile sperm and I were invited to join the donor program. I was booked in to see a psychiatrist and now I had to decide why I was doing this. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely sure. I had initially thought it would be a nice altruistic thing to do. It didn’t seem like a big deal and I could make some people very happy. I’d then succumb to the temptation of monitory gain and the last few weeks had mostly been motivated by curiosity and egotism. I was enjoying being told I was generous and kind and I was interested in finding out how this previously unknown world worked. None of this seemed like much of an answer but I had gotten this far and so with a little trepidation I shook hands with the clinic’s psychiatrist.
Having never seen a psychiatrist before I was excited about the experience. I was hoping for a couch and a stern yet warm Frasier Crane type but the woman in the office chair was closer in type to Daphne Moon. With tissues poking out of her sleeves she spoke in a singsong tone, cooing a lot and using phrases like “mummy and baby.” On more than one occasion she hugged herself and squealed when talking about “taking baby home for the first time.” I asked her if she had kids of her own. She didn’t. I asked if she was single. She was.
I’ve always found it so strange that people talk about having children in such a childish manner. When she asked me about my views on parenting I reasoned that people often don’t consider that when they conceive they are not just having a baby. They are also having a 40-year-old man or a 25-year-old woman. They are having a pensioner and a toddler and everything in between. Parents are signing up to be part of every stage in another humans life and yet we often don't look past a newly painted nursery. More importantly, however, I gently reminded her that I was signing up to be a donor and not a father. With any luck, my entire involvement would take around ten minutes and I would never be seen or heard from again. She made a little scribble on a form and the next day I was told to arrange my first official donation.
In total, I only made five donations to the clinic. After several weeks of testing and interviews, I had been in the waiting room quite a few times. This meant I got talking to couples and other donors and I started to see another side to things. Beyond the thousands of pounds couples where spending for treatment and the measly reimbursement to donors, once accepted we all saw a dramatic change in the staff. The smiling happy greetings were replaced with sullen receptionists grunting from behind their phones and the couples I spoke to talked about missed appointments and dismissive doctors as standard. Sperm banks are one of the few elements of British health care that is privatised and though you might think this gives them more reason to present themselves well all it means is that they hold a monopoly. The turning point for me was when a couple I had gotten to know left in tears. Over a few chats, they told me how many thousands they were spending and that after a miscarriage and several failed attempts they where nearing the end of their funds and their emotional stamina. They had been seeing the same doctor for over a year and after a second miscarriage a few days earlier that same doctor had greeted them by asking whether they were new to the surgery. She had performed every procedure the couple had undergone, sat with them two days earlier in a councillors office as they came to terms with miscarrying for a second time and after all that didn’t even recognise them. I didn’t want to be part of a system that could treat people in this way and so I walked out and didn’t look back.
I went to the pub next door and ordered a pint. I was angry and feeling more than a little stupid. I have a habit of going along with ideas just to see where they go and this time I’d ended up becoming a tourist in other peoples misery. I had approached people’s life-changing decisions as curios for my entertainment. Granted I wasn’t personally sending couples away in tears but by unthinkingly signing up as a donor I had never once consider whether this was, in fact, the way I should be going about things? My passing interest had snowballed and though I couldn’t in good conscience go back to the clinic I was now in a unique position. I was a viable, fertile donor with a clean bill of health and if I was willing to put in a little effort then I may yet be able to help people who otherwise would be turned away in tears.
While going through the selection process for the clinic I had been repeatedly told that private donation was illegal in the UK. I had taken this to be true but a cursory google informed me otherwise. There are several websites facilitating peer to peer donations in the UK. It's like Uber for sperm. The sites are similar to dating apps matching people to potential donors. It felt like the wild west but it put control and responsibility into the hands of the parties directly involved rather than the clinics.
The main fear for most donors, myself included is the idea that down the line you will be stung for child maintenance or that suddenly a child will just turn up at your door and become your responsibility. It sounds dramatic but without the legitimacy of a clinic as protection, my mind went to the worst possible scenario. Thankfully there are some very simply rules that prevent this from happening. First there must be no sexual contact between the donor and the recipient, second the recipient must be married/civil partnered and their spouse must consent to the proceedings and third upon the birth of a child both the recipient and their spouse must be named on the birth certificate thereby extinguishing any connection of the donor to the child. A conversation with a solicitor friend confirmed this and they recommended drawing up a preconception agreement which could be signed by all three parties. This could then be lodged with their firm protecting all parties from future uncertainty. A solid plan with only the minor issue that lawyers are never cheap.
The response was almost instant. So much so that I had to quickly create a copy-paste introduction and FAQ list. The shortage of donors meant that I was receiving up to forty new messages a day from all over the world. I had decided to only donate to lesbian couples. On the face of it, this seems a little arbitrary but it made sense to me. A straight couple can at least try to conceive naturally before exploring other options but a lesbian couple has no choice.
The first couple I met lived in London. Toni worked as a university administrator and Martha was a classics professor. We met in a pub and awkwardly shook hands as if we were commencing some form of an illicit drug deal. We gulped at our drinks and rode out a few overly long minutes of silence. This was new territory for all three of us. The best approach seemed to be to keep things as business-like at possible. They asked questions about my family, my life, likes and dislikes. I fielded the questions as well as I could and marvelled at our shared misunderstanding of genetics. As far as I was concerned I was offering the chance for no detectable genetic conditions, blue eyes and a possible height of around 5’10. Genes don’t control the toys a child will prefer or the way they will talk or the opinions they will eventually hold as adults and yet somehow by questioning me, Toni and Martha were attempting to catch a glimpse of their future offspring. I was a trailer for a film that as of yet had not even begun pre-production.
We made a plan to track Toni’s ovulation cycle and were very clear as to what would happen when the ovulation spiked. I would receive a phone call from them letting me know it was time, I would drive to their house, we would sign the paperwork, I would go to the bathroom, they would go to the bedroom and I would let myself out after handing the sample pot around the bedroom door. What they did from there was not my concern. There was to be no confusion and no sexual contact. I even considered filming the whole process just in case. Masturbating in a strangers house even with their consent could certainly be seen as behaviour to be avoided. I opted for screen grabbing every email and text message and filing them away just to be sure. When I arrived Toni and Martha had laid out the paperwork on the coffee table and I decided to be polite but direct. I refused cups of tea and assured them that they didn’t need to ask about my day or talk about the weather. We signed the paperwork and we were in separate rooms of their basement flat within a few minutes.
I’ve lived in lots of different places in my life, including four months camping in a Fiat Panda but I have never lived in a basement flat. I thought I had been over prepared to bring headphones but the words “no signal” staring back from my phone screen put a spike of fear into me. In that basement bathroom, I was not exactly in the mood and being a child of dial-up I hadn’t had to use my imagination in years. I was also working on a deadline. Frantically I jabbed at the screen flicking aeroplane mode on and off in impotent hope and scrolling through my camera roll to find even the slightest stimulation. The closest I found was a screenshot I’d taken of a BBC good food recipe for banana bread. The smiling model in the corner was at least holding a banana. I was panicked and slightly ashamed at what porn hub had reduced me to. I was very aware of the cold toilet seat and the humming of the extractor fan and the fact that two people where across the hallway waiting expectantly. I took a couple of deep breaths and I am proud to say I thought of my partner Mel. I handed the pot around the bedroom door and let myself out vowing that from now on I would cue up videos in the car beforehand.
Mel is a very understanding partner and was on board with my decision from day one. In her own words, “she loves love.” I’m not sure she was worried about the couples or even the legal side of things. She is kind and generous and like me saw the chance to make some people happy. She was concerned about us starting a family of our own and the strain this could put on us through expectation. The idea of my providing sperm and siring children to other women was a weird thought, especially when I was no longer going to be anonymous. She asked me to explain how I was going to separate my emotions and I explained that in my opinion, men meet their children rather than have them. I couldn’t expect her to feel the same but we were able to establish the logical difference and agreed that I would stop any time she asked without question or hesitation. She was to know where I was but we agreed that she would not meet couples I donated to. She did on one occasion wait in the car outside since a fertility window fell as we were driving back from Ikea.
After the first couple, things became easier. I streamlined the conversations and started to suggest initial meetings over Skype. Not only did this not eat into Mel’s and my time as much but it maintained a healthy distance for the couples while still allowing them to ask the questions they wanted to. I had my medical report from the clinic and some people sent through home STI testing kits for their piece of mind. It meant that for the nine other couples on the list the first and only time we met was for the donation. Some took multiple attempts while most were one-hit wonders. Each time we followed the same plan; after a quick phone call I would get in the car and head off to either their home or a hotel of their choosing.
I worked on a first come first serve basis and travelled across the country like a sperm Santa. Under the law, donors can donate to a maximum of ten couples. This minimises the possibility of accidental incest amongst donor born kids. A situation I had never even thought of. And for this same reason donors are encouraged to donate across a wide geographical area. I made sure to be as impartial as possible when it came to the people I donated to. Whoever met the legal criteria was ok by me and so I drove to Leister and a white bedroom decorated in a style that would make princess Diana proud. Mel and I spent a weekend at a comedy festival in Bristol where I disappeared to a B&B with two Harley Davidson choppers parked out front. I went walking in Yorkshire and saw shows in London. It was an excuse to see the country and make people happy. It was uncomplicated and thankfully uneventful. Couples were pleasant and from all walks of life. Every so often I would get a WhatsApp message or email confirming a positive pregnancy test and we would arrange for a photocopy of the birth certificate to be sent on when it was available. After a few months, I had ten confirmed hits and I was done. Amongst the six hundred and eighty thousand or so births that would happen in the UK between 2019 and 2020, ten of them would share an additional 0.1 per cent of their DNA with me.
One of those births has now been registered and I am holding a photocopy of their birth certificate. This was the last moment of the unknown that I was both dreading and looking forward to. I was worried that upon holding this piece of paper everything would suddenly, somehow become more real. It hasn’t. I was also hoping that I may feel a sense of accomplishment or pleasure in having done something good or charitable but I don’t. In truth, I still don’t know why I started doing this. It just seemed like an easy way of making a few peoples lives easier and more joyful. Most of us in England are related to Henry the fourth. Enough generations have passed that like rice multiplying on a chessboard we all have more ancestors then than the population of mainland Europe at the time. We are so much more than our starting hand of genes. All that has happened is that ten more people are in the world. I’ve enjoyed the ride and it made me think and it has made me feel useful to people. The most I can hope for is that those ten people will eventually feel the same way.