Sperm donation is gross. There’s simply no way around it. Male masturbation is a furtive, mechanical activity, somewhere between peeling a banana and tossing a cocktail shaker. And when one arrives at a donation clinic there’s an awkward utility to everything. The suspiciously, clean couch (that I presume no one has ever sat on), the small television, the hazmat symbols on the plastic bags. Welcome to wank club. The first rule of wank club is please ensure your sample is securely sealed in this plastic container. The second is, for god’s sake, wash your hands.
The innate grossness is the reason I don’t usually disclose in polite conversation that I donate. For one, there’s a chance my mother will read this. And despite being a 31 year old gay man, I retain some discomfort at the idea that she’s aware I masturbate (sorry Mum).
Secondly, sperm donors usually prefer to retain the cloak of anonymity. Indeed it’s long been a hallmark of donation that donors could remain unknown to even their birth children. Recent legislative changes have ensured that at age 18 all children can now access their donor’s records but there’s also been a flurry of interest in the form of documentaries and news stories. Many of these have revealed the complex questions donors and the children conceived through donation are left with when the process isn’t conducted in an atmosphere of openness.
But the straw that brought this camel out of the woodwork, was a quite remarkable story about an English sperm donor, Simon Watson. Watson has been donating sperm for 16 years for $100 a pop. He’s “fathered over 800 children” with women “giving birth to his offspring at least once a week.” Simon advertises his “magic potion” on Facebook and online and is so committed to donation that he preferenced continuing to donate over staying with his first wife.
There’s a lot to unpack there, some of it funny and gross, some of it serious. “Magic potion” is perhaps the creepiest nickname one could use in this context, beaten by a whisker perhaps by “joy juice”. I’m unclear who exactly types “sperm donation” into the search bar on Facebook and expects good outcomes, but apparently hundreds of families.
My reasons for donating are quite personal. As a gay man who’d one day like children my motivations are partially karmic. I’ll ultimately need assistance of some kind, so why not help my fellow humans out now? The idea of gay families also continue to be contested within Australia and overseas and our value and abilities as parents denied by reactionaries. Given most of these arguments are motivated by pure bullshit, the only way to undermine them is to prove them wrong in practice. But above all, I’ve seen the joy that kids bring friends of mine. So part of me feels mildly nauseous reading about good old Simon, who seems to be out to make a buck and to recreate the human race in his own image.
Those numbers, even if they’re spread across the United Kingdom are a problem. In Victoria, donations can be used to create a maximum of 10 families (up to two kids per family) while in NSW it’s 5. Those numbers are capped to avoid creating the risk of donor conceived children hooking up incestuously, and also because it can create psychological issues for donor conceived kids to learn that they have, say, 800 brothers and sisters.
He’s not the only overly enthusiastic donor and if you think these chaps are isolated cases, wait until you start reading about the “natural insemination” movement. There’s also some, limited, research, that men who are part of these movements can use violence and coercion to force women who’ve signed up for artificial insemination into “natural insemination”.
In Delivery Man, Vince Vaughn’s character discovered he was the biological father of 500 donor-conceived children. Post continues below.
There’s a number of reasons why single women, lesbian couples, and infertile couples, might not go through a clinic. They’re expensive, the process can take quite a lot of time, and many clinics, in Australia in particular are desperately short of donors. That’s partly because, unlike the USA, it’s illegal to pay sperm donors (except basic reimbursements for travel etc).
There’s a number of reasons not to do anything like this in Australia. Firstly, the reason why clinics like Melbourne IVF freeze the donations from anonymous donors is because they’re tested thoroughly for STDs. Simon’s “magic potion” could well have uncomfortable and unexpected side effects.
The coverage of Simon doesn’t go into detail about U.K. law or whether he’s ever been hit up for child support or whether his donations have lead to any litigation. But “Known-donor donations” (where the parties are known to one another before the donation), while they can often work out perfectly, have occasionally lead to nightmarish litigation and conflict in the U.K and Australia.
In the U.S.A sperm donors have been held liable for child support, couples have sued because they got babies of “the wrong race”, and donors who have supposedly surrendered their rights have claimed paternity rights. Though, it should be noted that the U.S.A is generally a tangled mess when it comes to state laws.
If you’re contemplating conceiving via a donor there’s substantial benefits to going through a clinic. At the end of each donation at the clinic there’s that agonizing moment where, having packaged what Simon would call the “magic potion” into a plastic container, and placing it in a plastic bag, I hand it to a nurse who handles it carefully with surgical gloves and meticulously notes down the date and time of donation, confirming my name etc. It’s a clinical and clean process, provided you don’t touch that damn couch. While going through an IVF clinic can take time and be expensive what you gain is certainty. Certainty of who has what rights (anonymous sperm donors surrender all their rights and obligations), the safety of knowing that the donation has been frozen, and the safety of not having to deal with weird and potentially dangerous donors. If you are going to use a known donor, make damn sure you approach a family lawyer to carefully delineate everyone’s rights and obligations. And for god’s sake, use Facebook the way it was intended: to share your Farmville scores and videos of cats playing the piano.
The process of creating children has always been messy, but the mechanical side of sperm donation, gross though it might be (sorry mum if you’ve read this far) is the least messy part of it. The love children inspire can send everyone involved a little mad. It’s worth getting it right.