As an embryologist working in a fertility clinic, I frequently use donor sperm to help individuals and couples become parents. In my little fertility clinic bubble, sperm donation is a highly regulated process. Potential donors undergo rigorous physical and genetic screening and they receive counselling to determine whether they are prepared on an emotional level to become a sperm donor.
The welfare of the children that could be born from treatment using donated sperm is carefully considered. Donor-conceived children must be able to access identifying information about their donor should they wish to do so after they turn 18.
This is not so out of the context of a fertility clinic. The use of unregulated donors is rising within the UK. After watching the recent Channel 4 documentary, 'Four Men, 175 Babies: Britain's Super Sperm Donors', my concept of what sperm donation entails has been well and truly shattered.
In this one-off documentary, four unregulated UK sperm donors are followed over a 12-month period. These men all donate their sperm for free to individuals and couples who want to start a family without the involvement of a fertility clinic. They operate online using specialised websites and Facebook groups such as 'Free Sperm Donors UK'.
All of the donors in the programme state their motivation is to 'help people'. Yet worryingly, none of them seem to grasp the serious negative consequences that could result from creating so many children in a small geographic area.
Clive, a 61-year-old retired teacher, has been donating sperm for four years and has helped to make 45 children (with 16 more on the way). Of all the donors, Clive seems the most earnest and believes that 'being a sperm donor is being a Samaritan'. He gleefully exclaims: 'I see the happiness it brings and that's enough payment in itself.'
In contrast, Mark, an unregulated donor for five years, comes across as slightly more sinister. This could be attributed, in part, to the voice distortion that is used to protect his identity. But it is more likely due to that fact that he wishes to 'reproduce with as many women as possible'. Mark has 54 donor children and nine ongoing pregnancies yet has no intention of telling his wife that he is a sperm donor. 'I'll take it to the grave with me,' he says.
Mitch, a 34-year old donor from Aberdeen, is unique in that fact that he is single and puts sperm donation before his love life. He has had relationships that have ended because of his need to abstain from sex periodically to boost his sperm concentration prior to donation. 'Why would you put a few seconds of pleasure above someone's chance of having a family?' he asks.
The tone of the documentary seems to be almost comedic. Clive laughingly tells the camera that his wife calls his van his 'Wanker Van' because he has customised it with some curtains to allow him to produce his samples in the back of the vehicle rather than using the homes of the women he is donating to.
There is also something both humorous and worrying about watching these men who, despite not having any medical training, give their clients solemn advice about how to handle the sperm sample and how to perform the insemination. Mitch gives all of his clients a 'welcome gift' of a speculum and a head torch (so they can locate the opening of the cervix). Mitch is also very serious about maintaining his semen quality though taking supplements and assures the viewers that his actions are 'all based on peer-reviewed research'. Yet, despite the light-hearted editing, there are some serious negative undertones that run throughout the documentary.
One of the most concerning aspects of unregulated sperm donation is the potential for women who are seeking a sperm donor to be coerced into sex. Claire McQuoid, Director and Founder of the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation, deftly exposes some of the manipulative and abusive interactions that can happen when searching for an independent sperm donor online. It takes just 15 minutes after logging onto a donor sperm website and posing as a potential recipient for Claire to receive her first unsolicited offer of sex.
It was at this point in the documentary that I became so angry I started shouting at my TV. But as McQuoid points out: 'Men hold the power, simply because men hold the sperm.' Donors can coerce women into sex simply because they control who they donate to. Due to the unregulated nature of these donations, there is nothing that can be done from a legal standpoint to protect these women.
Unregulated sperm donation creates countless ethical and legal conundrums, yet many of these issues were not formally addressed or simply skirted over during the documentary. The risks that these women are taking in terms of their sexual health are largely ignored. In addition, UK fertility clinics do not recruit donors that are older than 41 years, because there is evidence that children born to older fathers have a higher incidence of health issues. Many unregulated sperm donors are older than 41.
Natalie Gamble, a fertility lawyer, briefly makes an appearance in the documentary to inform viewers that unregulated donation could result in some difficult legal disputes, should the mother request that the sperm donor make child maintenance payments or if the donor requests custody of the child.
The lack of consideration shown for the well-being of the children born from unregulated sperm donation was particularly heart-breaking. A regulated UK sperm donor can create a maximum of 10 families, whereas unregulated sperm donors do not have to adhere to any rules. What would it be like to find out that you had 50 or more half brothers and sisters? The lack of regulation also means that there are no records documenting which children have been born to each donor. This could result in unintended incest between half-siblings in the future and also increase the frequency of rare genetic mutations within the general population.
The documentary really makes for fascinating viewing. It has clearly been produced to appeal to the average Channel 4 viewer, in that it focuses more on the quirks of the sperm donors and the awkwardness of handing over a sperm sample to a stranger than the ethical dilemmas that unregulated sperm donation raises. However, it definitely makes you think about the potential problems with finding a sperm donor online. This is an important first step in addressing the question, is there anything we can do to make sperm donation safer?
The programme is a thoroughly interesting hour of TV, one that I would recommend watching with a friend. Once you've seen it you will desperately need to discuss what you've just witnessed.