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Sowing the Seed

Edited version published: Men's Style #35 (Autumn 2010)

Greg Walters makes his way through the hotel lobby with a satisfied grin on his face. It’s four in the morning, and less than an hour since he arrived and headed for room 101, where two women who checked in the previous evening awaited him. The guy behind the desk is looking at him sideways, but Walters doesn’t care. He’s used to it.

Walters, a butcher, has been coming and going from Melbourne’s hotels at odd times of the day and night for the past few years. He’s not a male escort, or a pimp, or a pervert; he’s a sperm donor.

He’s what’s termed a ‘known donor’, a man who donates to a mate or family member who’s found out he’s infertile, a single woman friend at the mercy of the man shortage, or, as is the case for the ladies in room 101, lesbian couples wanting to conceive, but lacking the obvious ingredient.

Ah yes, the obvious ingredient: spunk, man milk, squirt, jism. Call it what you like, donating sperm is nothing new. Australian sperm banks have been taking generous men’s, er, deposits since the early eighties, and thousands of donor-conceived kids have been born.

Initially conceived of as a solution to the childless woes of infertile couples, it was a case of wham bam thank you private cubicle, soft porn magazine selection and sample cup. The option of lifelong donor anonymity was a given.

But when Australia’s first generation of donor-conceived children came of age, they weren’t happy.  A handful of facts about one half of their heritage just didn’t cut it, and it’s now acknowledged that donor identification is the way to go.

Victoria led the trend with a compulsory donor register in 1984, enabling kids to contact their donor dads via a third party when they turn 18. A similar, prospective system has operated in New Zealand since 2004, and one has just been rolled out in New South Wales. Elsewhere in Australia, registration is voluntary.

In July 2008, Joel Bernstein of Sydney’s Fertility East told the ABC that lack of anonymity is the number one factor putting young men off donating. In fact clinics like Bernstein’s, which recruits its own donors, are experiencing such a chronic sperm shortage that they’ve been forced to start importing man juice from the US of A, where they have it by the bucket load. 

This drop off in wannabe donors, coupled with the emergence of new consumers - lesbian couples and single women (even Jennifer Aniston is rumoured to be on the look out) - onto the market, means that men like Walters, who are willing, and able, to provide quality baby batter in a known capacity, are in demand.

Dr Mark Bowman is the Medical Director of Sydney IVF, an assisted conception unit for people who are having trouble getting pregnant on their own. They’ve been dealing in client-recruited donors for nearly a decade.

”We made the decision some years ago that it was in the interests of the child to work in non-anonymous circumstances,” he says. “Our recipients need to find their own donors. It’s what we call client-recruited donation, not clinic-recruited donation [à la Fertility East].”

“There are sound reasons why there’s a social and clinical shift going on in who are sperm donors. The child has a right to know its biological origins; we all agree that’s appropriate,” continues Dr Bowman. “It’s not just rolling up and leaving it at a bank anymore – not in Australia anyway. It’s about proactive, prospective relationships between donors and recipients.”

Clinically assisted conception is still common, and most people will conceive within 4-6 attempts, if they’re going to be successful. But at $300-$2000 a pop, depending on the level of intervention is required, private arrangements are becoming increasingly widespread. Just enter ‘sperm donor’ into Google, or raise the issue with thirty something friends and it becomes clear: baby hungry women are everywhere.

Men too. The results of a recently completed study indicate that it’s not just women who have a biological clock; men are also at the mercy of their inner reproductive urges. Dr Bowman and his team at Sydney IVF assessed the DNA of sperm collected over a four-year period, and discovered that men aged 35+ are often packing damaged goods.

“Drops in fertility from the age of 35 have traditionally been thought of as a fact of life for women, but our study shows the same is true of men. This means that even if a man produces the average of 40 million sperm per ejaculation, many of those sperm will not be able to fertilise an egg normally,” explains Dr Bowman. “He’ll have lower fertility potential, and be less likely to father a child.”

In fact, one-in-six heterosexual couples in Australia face infertility. “Some 40% of couples receiving assisted reproductive treatments do so to treat male infertility,” reports Dr Bowman. Great Scott! It’s a miracle that men like Walters, who has three times the average sperm count, feel safe leaving the house.

Walters has four donor children, and is currently donating to three couples. “You don’t want to sit too close to me!” he laughs. But seriously, it’s not as much fun as everyone thinks.”

In fact, it’s a bit of a pain in the arse. Walters donates three days in a row during the recipient mother’s fertile period, and it often takes four or five attempts before conception occurs. Walters must get regular screening for STIs, and doesn’t drink much. He and his wife must abstain from sex for four days before he donates.

Wife? Walters is married, and while his wife, Hope, has a daughter from a previous relationship, the couple don’t have any biological children of their own. And nor will they; 39 year-old Hope is under medical advice not to have another child. It was Hope who talked her hubby into becoming a donor, figuring he’d value knowing he has biological children out there. 

“Helping someone who really wants to have a child achieve their goal, seeing them happy, and helping bring a child into a loving environment, that’s my buzz,” says Walters. “And I don’t have to change any nappies!”

“I don’t feel any fatherly urges towards the kids,” Walters continues. “I do my thing, and that’s my part. All we ask is a photo when the child is born and another on their first birthday. Seeing them is a bonus, but we never call the parents; they contact us.”

Walters prefers hotel rooms to home visits. “I don’t really feel comfortable going into someone’s house and doing that! It’s a little more clinical in a hotel room. It sounds a seedy, but they’re nice hotels. It gives the girls a chance to inseminate themselves without any interruptions; it gives everyone a fair dinkum crack.”

But not all donors are happy to play the role of sperm machine. In fact, as one woman seeking a donor told me, “the majority of the time, you’ll have someone wanting to have sex with you, or wanting to co-parent. It’s really hard to get someone that will be selfless about it.”

Thirty-five year old Tom Barrett, a Brisbane-based lawyer and competitive athlete, is one such keen co-parent. Attractive, non-smoking and non-drinking, with good old fashioned manners and an IQ of 149, Barrett is a great candidate for parenthood. There’s just one catch: he’s gay.

Barrett has been with women in the past – he was even engaged once – but has been out for 12 years, and says he has no attraction to women. His last gay relationship ended because he was interested in parenting, while his partner simply wasn’t. He’s a good, solid bloke, and he’s got the baby-bug.

“I’ve always wanted to be a Dad,” he tells me. “I’ve tried to adopt, but a single guy can’t adopt [in Queensland]. As a single gay person, it’s even harder.”

“I love the thought of a little girl or boy out there that’s part mine, but it’s impossible to find a woman to carry a child for me; it’s hard enough for a woman to find a donor, let alone the other way around. I’m limited in the options that I have.”

So Barrett is doing the next best thing: he’s donating sperm in the hopes that it will lead to a co-parenting arrangement. He’s trialing the time-worn turkey baster method with a lesbian couple he met through the classifieds, and he’s giving it a go the natural way with a single, bi-sexual woman friend - a process Barrett admits he’s finding challenging.

He’s taking his lead from the ladies, and like many lesbian couples, his gay recipients want their donor to have limited involvement. “They’ve got their own family, but they want to have children with someone who they can physically meet and know. The child will know who I am; I’m happy to have limited involvement there,” he explains.

“But there’s a possibility I’ll have more of an active role with my single friend,” he goes on. “I’m pretty excited; I watch my brother with his son, and I’d like that. Exactly how it’s all going to work isn’t something we’ve had a lot of time to discuss,” says Barrett.

“The baby hasn’t even been conceived yet! I haven’t gone through the experience, so I just don’t know how it’s going to feel. We’ll have to see how things are when the baby is born.”

One thing Barrett is certain about is that he doesn’t want to be liable for child support. Walters feels the same way. “It’s not about money,” he says. “If I was in a relationship with someone and had a child, that’d be different, but these women have careers and houses; they’re financially independent.”

Walters and his wife arrange legal paperwork with each of their recipients, clarifying they have no rights to, or responsibilities for, the children. Barrett plans to do the same. It’s a wise move: disaster stories from Australia and abroad abound.

Take the case of a New York man who took the concept of collegiality to new heights when he donated sperm to a lesbian co-worker and her partner in the early eighties. They had a verbal agreement that he would not be involved in the child’s rearing, but over the years, he sent presents and cards signed ‘From Daddy.’ In May 2007, a judge decided that the gift giving constituted parental intent, and deemed him eligible for child support.

Closer to home, liability hinges on the notions of ‘father’ and ‘parent’. While a ‘father’ is a child’s biological progenitor, its nurture, not nature, that ultimately defines a ‘parent’. And it’s parenting that carries the potential cost. Show me the baby love? Show me the money.

In the eyes of the Family Law Act (1975) and Child Support Assessment Act (1989), a man is a parent if he fathers the child through sexual intercourse, or if he and his partner conceive via clinically-enabled artificial conception.

“But if he’s a sperm donor who is not in a married or de facto relationship with the person he’s donating to, then he’s not deemed to be a parent,” advises Kimberly Hunter, a Director at Melbourne’s Clancy and Triado Lawyers, and an accredited family law specialist.

The birth certificate is the clincher. “There’s a presumption that if your name is on the birth certificate, then you’re a parent, because a donor can’t be put on the birth certificate without consent,” says Hunter. “So thinking about the potential ramifications of being named on the birth certificate is important.”

The simple solution is for a donor not to have his name on the birth certificate. This way, there are no financial repercussions – but also no legal recognition of the donor’s role. Any contact with the child is a matter of good will between donor and recipients.

And sometimes things turn sour. A case from 2002, Re Patrick, set a precedent when the Family Court rejected attempts by the mother of a two-year-old child and her lesbian partner to restrict the child’s contact with his biological father, a gay man who agreed to be a sperm donor. The mothers initially agreed he could see the child fortnightly, but changed their tune and allowed him just six hours a year.

Hunter acted for the father at the hearing, and was able to argue that even though he was not deemed a parent under the Family Law Act, his fatherhood, in combination with the initial agreement between the parties, was enough to warrant ongoing contact. The Court agreed, and ruled it was in the child’s best interests for his father to have fortnightly contact.

She advises all those considering donating sperm, whatever the circumstances, to seek legal advice. At the very least, initiate clear, open communication about your expectations around financial support, decision making and contact with the child. Write what you’ve agreed to down, and sign it.

“Even though the document won’t be binding, it shows what your intentions were, and can be useful as evidence of those intentions. It can solve a lot of headaches after the child is born,” says Hunter.

Kate Bourne, a former donor linking counselor has seen and heard it all: men, gay or straight, married or single, donating to old school friends, to lesbian couples, to the girl next door. She’s seen father donate to son, brother donate to brother.

“I’d see the woman, or women, and talk about how they saw things panning out. And then I’d talk to the guy, and his view was often quite different. While the women were thinking his contact would be quite limited, he might be thinking about contributing to school fees and having a room in his house for weekends.”

“It’s hard for anyone to imagine what it’s going to be like to be a parent,” Bourne goes on. “But people in this situation need to be specific. Will they be at the birth? Will they visit in the first few days? Will they have any input into naming the child? Into his or her schooling? Religion? Do they want to be financially supportive?”

Bourne reckons the commonly portrayed picture of the disinterested donor who produces the goods and walks away is a myth. “I’ve seen many men, gay and straight, who’d love to have a partner and children of their own, but it hasn’t happened.”

“Donating sperm might seem like the next best thing, so they’re often delighted when the parents contact them and ask if they’d like to be involved in some way. But there’s no etiquette book on how to conduct yourself with the recipients of your sperm, and with your biological child who you have no legal rights over!”

For men who donate, it’s often when they actually see the child that the notion of being a baby-daddy kicks in. “When the baby arrives it becomes a real person, and it can become very emotional for the father.”

It can be tricky for donors and recipients to strike the right balance. Bourne recalls one case, where a donor and recipient who had conceived clinically got in touch via the registry. They started emailing then moved quickly to meeting in person. Coincidentally, he had the same first name as the child – a beautiful little boy - and they looked very similar.

The bloke was thrilled. His mother was also excited, and wanted to meet her grandson, so he suggested meeting monthly. The boy’s mother agreed, but soon realised she wasn’t comfortable with it, and pulled back to yearly contact. He was shattered, says Bourne.

Like Hunter, Bourne advocates putting pen to paper, and wants potential donors to think very, very carefully. “If you’re not comfortable with it, don’t do it. I think men have to give this a great deal of thought. What are the child’s needs with this? That’s important.”

The child; that bundle of gurgling, burping, pooping joy that will one day – sooner that you might imagine – grow up and start asking questions. “Are they going to thank you for it?” asks Bourne. “Or are they going to say, what the hell were you thinking?”

“When you make a child, it’s a lifelong commitment. It connects you and your family with another family, or families, forever. You’re not just giving sperm. You have to get on with that child’s parents for the rest of that child’s life. You have to be an adult about it.”

If you do go through with it, be up front. Everyone - the donor’s partner, the families of the recipients and the donors, and, in the long run, the child, need to be in the know. “I’ve seen arrangements where it’s not open,” says Bourne. “Perhaps the guy’s brother or father donates, and it’s all got to be hush-hush in the family. I think, eventually, the secret will come out, and it’s going to end in tears.”

Both Barrett and Walters are open about their extra-curricular activities. Walters has even let his workmates in on his unusual gifting. “Of course, the first thing the guys want to know is if I’m doing it naturally. I’ll ask them to imagine that they need sperm - would they want the likes of me with their wife? They button up straight away!” Quite.

One thing’s clear: the sitcom friendly, heterosexual two-parent family model of the late twentieth century – think The Waltons, Family Ties, even The Simpsons - is no longer the norm. The future is now, where parents and families come in all shapes and sizes.

Kids get this, reckons Bourne, recalling another case where an interstate donor came to Melbourne to meet with the families he’d helped to create. The recipient families were in touch, so they all met together. “His wife and daughter were there, and were very much involved,” recounts Bourne.

“At the end of the day, one little girl – she was about five - came up to him and said something like ‘I want to thank you for making me.’ Then she said, ‘and I want to thank you for making my little brother too.’ She knew exactly who he was.”