29 February 2016
ByAppeared in BioNews 841
BBC1, Monday 22 February 2016
Presented by Natalie Graham
I am not sure what the lighter side of sperm donation is, particularly having attended the Fertility Show for five years with the Progress Educational Trust (PET), but this programme sets out to explore the 'darker side of sperm donation'. In the show, presenter Natalie Graham seems keen to stress the process of sperm donation is unregulated. The programme states that selling of sperm is illegal but advertising and soliciting for donations is not, but I don't think they made it clear that, in fact, the process of sperm donation via fertility clinics is heavily regulated by the HFEA.
The show follows the experience of lesbian couple of Sarah and Reenu, who could not get treatment on the NHS as Sarah has had children from a previous relationship. The couple explain how they could not afford the cost of private clinics, which can be £1000-2000, so they signed up for four sperm donation websites. The couple were shocked by the offers by donors who wanted to donate through 'natural insemination' (i.e. sex). Once they found a donor they liked, even he started to drop hints about natural insemination, which disgusted Reenu as a happily married lesbian.
To get some more insight into this murky world, presenter Natalie signs herself up to four websites, stating that she is 29 years old, straight and wanting to get pregnant. She received over 50 messages in two weeks, most offering donation through natural means. She too was shocked about the various terminology used: AI – artificial insemination, NI – natural Insemination, PI – partial insemination, and AI+ - artificial insemination with a sexual act. I am not quite sure what AI+ actually involves, and for the avoidance of nightmares have not researched it further.
Natalie then meets with the usually unflappable Laura Witjens, Chief Executive of the National Gamete Donation Trust. Laura describes how she was sent a video of a man masturbating and has been shocked by the content of many of the messages she has seen. But, giving credit to Laura, in her opening remarks she makes a strong statement about the many donors who have altruistic motives.
Next we meet a donor who has exhausted the ten-child limit on donations through fertility clinics (once a donor has conceived ten children they are barred from making further donations in order to assure diversity of the gene pool). He remains anonymous, but is fairly well known to many in this area. He talks about he started donating when he was down on his luck and wanted to do something positive. He is very clear that he doesn't consider himself a father but he is unable to say how many children he has sired. He talks about being willing to donate via natural insemination, which he says people crudely call 'sex'. Now, I don't like to be crass or crude, but let's be clear – that is exactly what natural insemination is. To make matters worse, the donor seems to further de-sexualise the act by comparing it to a chore like taking out the bins (what a charmer!).
Then we hear from sociologist Claire McQuoid, who set up the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation, who agrees that the terminology is effectively used to de-sexualise the act. Where I disagree is with the idea that the donors are seen as altruistic and selfless, and that women are too naive and trusting in them, leaving them open to being taken advantage of. I have to say that, from PET events and even a cursory glance of the social media on fertility clinics, my sense is that members of the public don't see these unregulated sperm donors as at all altruistic, and instead view them with a large dose of caution.
The documentary has a real fear-mongering vibe, with discussion of risk of sexually transmitted infections and genetically inherited diseases. There is then further discussion of the risk of women being sexually assaulted by potential donors, which Claire McQuoid says is rife without offering any substantive evidence. But surely, regardless of whether you're using a known sperm donor or conceiving naturally, it is sensible to know the person who is going to father your children and make an informed decision?
In the end, Reenu wanted the security of going through a private clinic, and the programme goes to show that unregulated arrangements are not for everyone. People considering sperm donation should explore their options and then decide what is best for them.