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On the recently launched Sperm Donors Australia website (www.spermdonorsaustralia.com.au), an image of a beaming young man thrusts a confident thumbs-up towards the camera, accompanied by the words “Sperm donation: More fun than giving blood.”
He’s happy, website visitors might assume, because he’s giving the gift of life to at least one of those one-in-eight infertile couples that the website says need to rely on a sperm donor to “fulfill their dream of becoming a parent”.
He’s no doubt already clicked on the section aimed at men much like himself – men who might feel some connection with one of the 13 testimonials excerpts offered in answer to the heading: “Why donate?”.
Perhaps he saw the value in the altruistic message that sperm donation is “a way for me to help those in need”. Maybe he liked another reason. Maybe he felt the overwhelming urge to “leave at least a footprint on the earth when I pass away”.
Want to be a sperm donor? There’s a shortage of registered donors in Australia at the moment – what those in need would describe as a crisis, of sorts.
You can see evidence of it in the chat forums on the nation’s most popular parenting sites – internet pleas from people who are desirous of what seems like such a basic need. A right. The right to be a parent.
According to TangledWebs, a self-described “action group, challenging donor conception practices in Australia and internationally”, no one has the right to a child. To claim that right, the group says, “is to treat that child, another human being, as an end to satisfying one’s own desires, as an object and not as a person”.
When the findings of the Australian Senate inquiry into in vitro fertilisation donor-conception practices in Australia was handed down on February 10, among the issues addressing the rights of donor-conceived children was the recommendation that any nationally consistent legislation should include, at a minimum: A prohibition on donor anonymity; A limit on the number of families a donor is able to?assist; Rights of access by donor-conceived individuals to identifying and non-identifying information about their donor and siblings; and Protection for the welfare and interests of donor-conceived children.
When Melbourne IVF launched an online advertising campaign to encourage more men to donate sperm in early 2010, the tagline was: “A donation to us won’t save a life; hopefully it will create one”.
At the time, Dr John McBain, fertility specialist at Melbourne IVF and head of reproductive services at the Royal Women’s Hospital, said the decline in donors (in 2007 there were 2458 donor cycles; in 2008 there were 2390 donor cycles, which are the latest figures) was apparent, with the flow-on effects “devastating” for those wanting to become parents.
With current laws allowing single women and same-sex couples the right to fertility treatment, the demand for sperm in Australia is at an all-time high. But with many potential donors put off by the ramifications of contact with an 18-year old searching for their roots, lengthy waiting lists at fertility clinics across the country have inspired a growth industry in assisted population growth. In response, a new industry has been born.
Gold Coast mother Emma Hartnell-Baker has trademarked herself as The Child Listener and has Facebook fans and a steady stream of Twitter followers to her DIY Baby site that grew from an online community of “sperm donors worldwide”.
Think of it as a kind of dating site where egg can meet sperm – without the hassle of romance.
Following the Senate inquiry findings, just how much longer Hartnell-Baker will be able to operate in this way is unclear. At the moment, though, the business that is not technically called a business is booming and the site boasts of more than 2000 successful conceptions.
It is illegal, under current Australian law, for sperm donors to be paid for their offerings. At DIY Baby, while sperm donations are “free”, subscribers pay an initial monthly fee of $50, followed by ongoing monthly payments of $37.
The membership fee gives access to what the site claims is currently more than 3000 international donors, with more than 360 in Australia.
Arrangements are then made privately, helped along, perhaps, with the purchase of the handy “home self-insemination kit” for $135 (plus postage).
Sperm donation is, the site says, “the perfect gift”.
In a 2002 article, sex therapist and social commentator Bettina Arndt explored the notion that, lurking behind such a gift is a profound (and neglected) question: what value do we attach to fatherhood?
“If it’s just for producing sperm,” she wrote, “then men may be sowing the seeds of their own irrelevance.”
Across the country, a growing number of donor-conceived adults are turning to support groups to discuss their own feelings around that question … and?more.
Although it started life as a support service for those affected by adoption, Vanish (www.vanish.org.au) offers advice along with individual and group support to those affected by issues around donor conception. And, according to the experts at the heart of these gatherings – typically people with some personal understanding of what it is to lack the basic biological connection experienced by “traditional” families – the issues are, essentially, the same. Without that basic knowledge of genetic background, people raised by “social” parents, as opposed to “biological” ones, are left lacking, unable to relate their own personality idiosyncrasies, or physical appearance, or health concerns, to any historical link.
On one popular parenting website, posts from desperately infertile couples, same-sex couples and single women appeal to men to donate sperm. One, who says she is “not in a relationship”, gives her age as 23. Another, who says time is running out, says she is 28 and yet to find the right person.
“I am after a willing sperm donor with no strings attached,” she writes.
And I wonder if that’s what she will actually find.