Long Reads

Men reveal what it’s really like to be a sperm donor

Posted by
Rhiane Kirkby
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The UK now has so much sperm we’re exporting it to other countries. Stylist speaks to the men behind the surge

“I’ve got two mummies.”

“I live with both of my dads.”

“A kind man gave mummy some seeds so she could have me.”

The modern family now looks very different from the way it did even just 40 years ago. Gay and lesbian couples, single parents and anyone who wants – or indeed needs – to do things differently have become the norm. As a result, there’s been a big increase in fertility clinics operating within the UK, alongside a growth in demand for sperm and egg donations.

Despite all the odds, the sperm industry is in a relatively good state of health (in contrast, egg donors are currently in short supply in the UK).

“Go back 10 years and we were importing vast amounts of sperm from the US and Scandinavia,” explains Dr Kamal Ahuja, scientific and managing director of JD Healthcare, the owner of The London Sperm Bank. “Now, we have 42,000 vials in storage – that’s enough to meet the nation’s demand three times over. And we’re even starting to export sperm to Italy, Germany, France, Israel and Vietnam.” 

The UK now exports sperm all over the world, to countries including Italy, Germany, France, Israel and Vietnam

This is impressive, especially when you take into account that back in 2005 there was a change in the law that some predicted would have a catastrophic impact on the industry. The government ruled that people donating sperm and eggs would no longer have the right to remain anonymous, meaning that children conceived in this way would be able to identify their genetic parents once they reached the age of 18. It will be 2023 before we know how many children decide to exercise this right.

“My guess”, says Dr Ahuja, “is that on 1 April 2023 the regulator shouldn’t employ more people to answer their phones. It’ll be a slow burner. Society’s now much more relaxed, more mature and more willing to participate. I don’t think many 18 year olds will be thinking about this – it’s not really a huge concern for donors or recipients.”

But clearly the possibility of having 20 biological children contact you in 18 years time did have an impact on some men. (Each donor is allowed to supply 10 different families with sperm and if families want to have a sibling they will usually try to use the same donor sperm to conceive. So, if 10 families have two children, donors could father 20 children. Although in reality, it’s likely to be fewer than that.) 

When the 2005 law was announced there was a huge drop in donors, but since then numbers of men coming forward has gone up year after year. No one really knows the exact reasons why but it’s thought that increased awareness of the need for sperm – for same sex couples and couples dealing with fertility issues – has had a big part to play. There’s also been a big shift in the profile of those donating a very precious resource.

“Pre-2005, men were slightly younger…. lots of students and people more motivated by money,” explains Dr Ahuja. “The modern sperm donor is compassionate, successful and very family orientated. They’re good Samaritans, wanting to do something good for someone else and, from my personal observations, they seem to be generally very happy people.”

Anthony certainly fits this description. He’s very open and upbeat and, aged 33, was motivated to donate after seeing his best friend go through the heartbreak of infertility. “We’re at that stage in our lives where our Facebook feeds are filled with babies, marriages and houses. That’s all people talk about. If you can’t have what you really want, it’s devastating. Really, really heartbreaking. I understand that now and just want to help.”

It may surprise you to know that Anthony is married and comes from a very traditional family background. “My parents grew up in Communist China and left because of the One Child Policy. For them it would be devastating if I didn’t have my own kids. They questioned why I wanted to help someone else, when I didn’t have my own family.”

But Anthony was firm in his response: “Why wouldn’t I help? It’s my body, my decision.” He also had the backing of his wife, who he describes as “very liberal”. Neither of them worry about children contacting them in years to come, as they’ve “just not really thought that far into the future”.  

As of 2005, children conceived by sperm donor are able to identify their genetic parents once they reach the age of 18

Dr Ahuja credits his company with securing the success of the UK sperm donor industry, by identifying that it wasn’t the money, but the way men were treated, that really mattered. “A decade ago the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (the body that regulates fertility treatment and research in the UK) consulted on what we needed to do to increase our sperm stock. Their solution was to pay more to donors and/or increase the number of pregnancies that sperm could be used for. What they didn’t recognise was that it was the quality of the engagement with donors that really counted.”

The London Sperm bank revamped their facilities, brought in staff who were trained in customer care and used technology to reach out to people. Gone were the glaring adverts on the tube and in the Evening Standard. In their place came targeted Facebook campaigns and a softer approach. It worked.

“The staff are incredibly friendly,” says Anthony. “I look forward to seeing them before work and having a good old chat before I head into the office.” The way he talks gives the impression that donating sperm is as easy as buying your morning latte, but surely that can’t be the case?

“I go in the morning to get it out of the way,” he explains, “but it’s actually quite busy then. It’s interesting looking around the room at the other people waiting. There’s a really broad mix – students, professionals – lots of different types of people.”

Researchers used tech to boost the number of sperm donors in the UK

And as for the ‘process’ itself? “It’s a bit embarrassing. There are three rooms and the walls are quite thin, so you can actually hear what’s going on. I try to time leaving as you have to put your vials in a pipe and sign out which takes about a minute and you’re just hoping you don’t bump into anyone else. You just want to get out of there, eyes down, as fast as you can.”

Of course it’s not just a case of going for what Anthony calls “a cheeky session” every few days. It’s a much, much bigger commitment. It starts with a medical consultation and a semen analysis. Men (aged from 18 to 41) are asked to abstain from sex for three days before this, to ensure they produce the best sample possible. Then come the blood and urine tests, as well as a meeting with a doctor and a counsellor.

Once accepted, men are asked to donate once or twice a week for three to six months – each time abstaining from sex or masturbation for three days prior to giving their sample. Around 20 viable samples are needed and these are then put into quarantine. Six months after donating for the final time, men return for a blood and urine test to check their samples are free from infectious diseases. Only then is their sperm released into the bank and their profile added to the database. The clinic pays a flat fee of £35 per donation. Twenty pounds is given up front and the remainder once all samples have been donated.

So it’s a huge commitment for little financial gain. There’s also a good chance, around 98% in fact, that after deciding to become a donor, you won’t be accepted, due to the iron-clad rules and policies that govern this industry. So why do thousands of men choose to do it every year?

Many, like Anthony, have experienced the pain of infertility first hand. “My sister and her husband tried a long time for a baby”, says Alan, a 41-year-old actor. “When she finally did become pregnant, she miscarried. I know what impact childlessness can have. It doesn’t just affect the couple, but ripples out to all the family. So being a sperm donor was one way of helping. I asked myself how I could help; I wanted to help.”

Mike wasn’t sure he wanted to have children himself, but he knew he wanted to help others. “I also wanted to have a health check to make sure everything was OK with me. It was a relief to find out I was fertile and my sperm were very active. I now know that if I want to have a family in later life, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

And for Mark, it was all about that “warm fuzzy feeling… all the children created as a result of sperm donation are wanted, perhaps desperately, and will be loved, no doubt madly. What more is there to say?”

Sperm donation is a huge commitment for little financial gain

So, amongst the hundred or so donors on the database at any one time, how hard is it to select which one should be the biological father of your child?

“It was weird browsing through a catalogue,” admits Lola, “but for me the choice was relatively simple. I wanted someone who had a matching education level and who looked like me as it is hard enough being judged as a single parent, without your child looking different too. I fancy tall guys with blonde hair and blue eyes, so I went for that, thinking that if I meet someone in the future, my child may look like them.”

Thanks to her sperm donor, Lola’s now mum to a “beautiful five week old boy”. Her journey to artificial insemination was unusual, but once again borne out of a desire to help someone suffering from infertility. “Two of my friends had fertility issues, so I thought I’d go down the route of being an egg donor. I went for a fertility check and was immediately rejected because they found my egg stock was low and my right ovary was a third smaller than it should be.”

Lola was 33 at the time and presented with an impossible choice. Wait for a suitable partner and risk not being able to get pregnant, or go it alone. “I had a week long pity party and then thought I’ve always wanted to be a mum, and I’ve struggled with my love life.” She chose her sperm, impregnated herself and hasn’t looked back. So much so, that in two years’ time she’s preparing to do it all again, having ‘banked’ extra supplies of the same sperm. “I grew up with a sibling and I think it’s brilliant. We’re a very small family, so it’ll be great for companionship. Ideally I’d like a little sister for my son.”

Talking of very small families, how does someone mentally prepare themselves to go it alone? “I got all of my ducks in a row,” explains Lola. “I’ve got very supportive family and friends, so that’s good, and I’m part of a solo mums support network which really helps. Parenthood is hard, whichever way you do it. I’m not worried about telling a potential partner – why would I be?”

Lola’s also not concerned about telling her son where he came from and would be “more than happy” for him to contact his father when he reaches 18. “I won’t pressure him either way, it’ll be his choice and his decision to make alone,” she says.

And as for what she’d say to the man who helped her fulfil her dream? “A massive thank you. I always wanted to be a mum and now I am, to a gorgeous little boy. Whatever your reason, it’s amazing that you’ve helped me, and people like me. I’m just so grateful.”

Lola’s gratitude is, no doubt, echoed in homes across the country, as more and more women take on a role they never thought possible. The British Fertility Society estimates that, at present, the UK needs 500 sperm donors each year to meet demand – and experts predict this demand will continue to rise. So while the picture looks rosy right now, the industry can’t afford to rest on its laurels. It says it’s committed to increasing the number of egg donors and won’t stop calling on men to “lend a hand”.

Sperm donation in numbers

Experts predict that demand for sperm donors will continue to rise in the UK

• There is a legal 10 family limit for both sperm and egg donors. A woman will typically supply between one and three families with donated eggs.

Men have to undergo a rigorous screening process to be accepted as sperm donors. This means that:

• 54% fail semen analysis

• 13% fail medical screening

• 6% fail infectious decease screening

• 2% fail genetic screening

• 3% decide not to continue

Ultimately, only around 2% of men go on to become successful donors.

Images: Alessia Armenise, Getty