26 January 2015
ByAppeared in BioNews 787
BBC Radio 4, Monday 19 January 2015
Presented by Jolyon Jenkins
The world of unregulated sperm donation is a murky place. In this episode of 'Out of the Ordinary' it is revealed as an underground market of desperation, exploitation and remarkable characters, fuelled by the high cost and low stock of sperm from regulated fertility clinics.
Hosted by Jolyon Jenkins, the programme interviews two major players in underground sperm donation, who, according to themselves, are both in the 'top 3 of the donation league table', as well as 'Annie' who is currently in the process of trying for pregnancy with another donor. The motivations for Annie, and other women and couples looking for donors in this way seem clear: a desperate desire for pregnancy combined with an inability to pay the fees asked by Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority-approved clinics.
But the motivation of donors is more varied and problematic. For some it is a simple question of sexual gratification, by offering 'natural insemination' (i.e. sexual intercourse) as a means of donation. Others accept a cash payment, which is illegal, of anywhere between £50 and £120. The experiences of Claire McQuoid, a sociologist who has posed as a woman seeking a sperm donor as part of her research for a book, were worrying. She explains how she has been propositioned for sex many times, with one donor attempting to force the issue by not allowing her to leave a hotel room. The potential for sexual exploitation, assault and rape appears to be very high.
Interviews with two donors, a 30-something calling himself 'Upton North' and an anonymous 60-year-old married man who tells women he is 51, were jaw dropping and bizarre. Both men see themselves as providing a public good. Upton North attempts to police the various online forums for bad donors. Unlike regulated donors, there are no limits to the number of children each man could father. And, with the Upton North claiming to have had 17 "successes" since beginning donating last year and the anonymous man admitting to fathering two children who live in neighbouring streets, the possibility of half-siblings entering into unknowing relationships becomes very real.
Neither man says that they accept payment or request sex for their donations. Although they both begin by saying the opportunity to help women in need is motivation enough, it soon becomes clear that both have extreme desires to pass on their own genes. The unnamed older man speaks of wanting 'lots of mini-me's all over the world'. It is a natural desire to have children, passing on your genes for future generations. However, the opinions of these two donors and the wider community could be said to border on eugenics; some donors explicitly aim to father as many children of their own race as possible.
Laura Witjens of the National Gamete Donation Trust is interviewed and highlights the safety and quality issues of unregulated donation. However, I have to agree with Jenkins in suggesting that there are currently few solutions to the issue from official sources. While Witjens insists that the money for regulated donation is worth it, it is clear that, unfortunately, there are many people who are simply unable to raise these funds.
The programme was one of the most captivating I have heard in some time. Injecting both humour and a more serious tone at different points, Jenkins presented a story that was impossible to turn off. In particular, he managed to expose the equally fascinating and concerning personalities of the donors skilfully, allowing them to tell the story.
The persistence of the dangerous and unethical underground sperm donation market should be unacceptable to the authorities. Regulation in this area is particularly difficult to get right. Suggestions that a sperm donor shortage is due to new laws allowing children to contact their donor when they reach 18, if correct, highlight a difficult balancing act between protecting the rights of donor children and preventing people turning to dangerous, unregulated routes. What is clear is that more must be done to enforce existing laws. The fear and sadness at what Annie believed she had to do to become pregnant were palpable. Vulnerable women and couples should not be exposed to this murky underground trade.
Correction: This story was corrected on 30th January 2015 to reflect that it was the anonymous donor who fathered children in neighbouring streets and not Upton North as previously stated, and that at the time of the programme recording no children conceived via donation by Upton North had been born.