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4 Men 175 Babies4th June 2018 Family Law
For lesbian couples, single women and couples experiencing fertility problems, building a family may involve achieving pregnancy using donated sperm. Within the 'official' world of UK fertility clinics, regulation is tight and information about donors and the children conceived is carefully maintained to protect the health and wellbeing of all those involved. Although there is some NHS provision for fertility treatment, access can be limited. For single women and lesbian couples who do not have an identified fertility issue, donor insemination has to be funded privately. According to NHS figures, this can cost between £800 and £1,300 per cycle, with costs varying between clinics and depending upon whether an anonymous donation has to be sourced.
Like all things today, there is an online alternative, and Channel 4 has recently introduced us to the (at times pretty controversial) world of 'online super-donors'. As the title of the programme suggests, the documentary follows four men who estimate they have helped women achieve over 175 successful pregnancies. They do not charge a fee. The practice is legal and, listening to the men involved, they do appear to be motivated by genuine altruism and a desire to help women get pregnant. However, this is an entirely unregulated sector and the strict controls you would find in a fertility clinic are simply not there. Even an informal donation from a friend or relative outside a clinic setting is a very different prospect from dealing with a complete stranger.
To begin with, there is no limit on the number of donations a donor you might find online can make. In the UK a donor to a regulated sperm bank is restricted to donating to 10 families. There are also no controls on the geographical spread of the sperm's recipients. It is therefore entirely possible that genetic half-siblings may find themselves unwittingly entering into intimate relationships with all the risks this brings. One donor featured reckoned he was making around 14 donations per month within an 80-mile radius of his home.
Whereas donors in a licensed setting must be aged between 18 and 40, online donors offer their services regardless of their age. The increasing age of a child's biological father has been linked with increases in miscarriage rates and the prevalence of other health conditions. Of course, intended parents can 'self-screen' when it comes to donor age. However, this is not an option when assessing other risk factors such as the possibility of passing on genetic diseases or sexually transmitted infections. In the end, it comes down to trust, which may not always provide sufficiently rigorous safeguards, even where the individuals concerned are well-intentioned.
As well as the lack of screening and other controls, stepping into this unregulated online world can be a step into an unpleasant sphere where the crossover between sperm donation and sexual exploitation starts to reveal itself. One of the female participants in the programme illustrated how her search for a sperm donor online had quickly made her the target of men offering 'natural' sperm donation i.e. sex.
There can also be unintended legal consequences for those participating in informal arrangements. There can be ambiguities over the legal status of the donor and, in some cases, he may be classed as the child's legal father and bear financial responsibilities for them. Currently, donor conceived individuals can trace their biological parents when they reach the age of 18 through a system regulated by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Informal arrangements between strangers are based on trust and there is no requirement for sperm donors to remain traceable or even to provide their true identity, which may make it impossible for their biological child to trace them in future.
For many, the desire to have a biological child is a basic and incredibly strong motivator. With sperm donation in a clinic setting whether using a known or anonymous donor being out of reach for many on financial grounds, the existence of an online alternative feels inevitable.
Could this alternative be better regulated? Even if it could, would enhanced regulation drive donors and recipients even further underground, resulting in heightened risks for donors, intended parents and children? Like so many challenges emanating from the ultra-connected online world, the ability to make new kinds of connections comes long before the social and ethical issues it raises have been properly considered.