Picture: Mark Jackson: ‘I was proud of doing something responsible and useful, and was honest with friends and colleagues about it.’ Photograph: Christopher Thomond Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
I was in my 30s when I first thought of donating sperm. Although I was single and didn’t want children myself, I’d begun to feel differently about parenthood after I watched news coverage of the tsunami in 2004. I was affected by the idea that everything could be so unpredictable, and this made me feel I wanted to do something worthwhile. That same evening, I saw a story about anonymity being lifted for sperm and egg donors. It also mentioned donor shortages and rising demand for fertility treatment. I wasn’t worried at the thought of donor-conceived children contacting their biological parents. I was sure these children would grow up in loving homes without needing an extra parent, and if they did find their donor, it could be a positive thing.
I contacted the National Gamete Donation Trust, who explained that sperm donation isn’t something you can do on a whim; it’s a long process. The nearest licensed clinic was a 152-mile round trip away. After producing a semen sample in a clinical room, with a drawer marked “magazines” for company, I bantered with the staff at the front desk. I didn’t think I’d see them again since only 4% of donors are actually accepted – 85% have sperm that cannot survive the freezing process; others either have sexually transmitted infections or genetic problems.
Phoning for my results two weeks later was unexpectedly nerve-racking. What if I had genetic problems? Or was infertile? As a carefree thirtysomething, such fears had never crossed my mind. Hearing that my sperm could be used was a big surprise; knowing how rare it was to be accepted as a donor, I felt compelled to help. There was no real financial incentive; I’d get £15 plus travel expenses for each usable donation, and six months later, after further tests, £25 per donation.
I made 10 trips to the clinic, and the eight donations I’d produced could be used to help 10 families. UK donors are limited to helping 10 families each, mainly due to concerns over half siblings unwittingly meeting and starting relationships.
Although donating wasn’t a big deal to me, it was for other people. After telling prospective girlfriends, they’d often make excuses and end the relationship; they didn’t like the idea of a potential partner fathering children in other families. Yet I was proud of doing something responsible and useful, and was honest with friends and colleagues about it.
After the donation process, I was invited to a fertility conference in London. I spoke to encourage other men to donate. After my speech, women with donor children personally thanked me and the significance of what I’d done really hit home.
I’m now 41 and my circumstances have changed radically. I met my partner through friends, and seven months ago became a father myself. Holding my boy for the first time, I realised how much it means to create a life and have your own family. It didn’t make me want to find my donor children, but I do want to donate again. My partner has mixed feelings, but having met people who have experienced infertility, we’ve agreed it is the right thing to do.
Anonymity hasn’t impacted the number of sperm donors in the UK, but there’s still a desperate shortage. Only one family benefited from my original donations – there were other pregnancies, but unsuccessful ones. Having experienced the joys of parenthood, it seems a shame not to try and help the 10 families I’m allowed to. Based on my experience, the likelihood of a man fathering hundreds of children is slim because fertility treatment doesn’t always work. I’d be happy to help as many families as possible.
I do wonder how it will affect my son to have half siblings in other families. I’d like to be honest with him as he grows up, so it’s not a shock. There was more stigma five years ago, and if attitudes keep changing, it will become normal to have donor siblings in an extended family. It would be pointless to think about every scenario that could play out, but I do know that I’m prepared to be contacted. I’ll take it a day at a time, if it happens.
Staff at the clinic say I’ve got “super sperm”, but I don’t do this for personal gratification or because I have a God complex. I stumbled into sperm donation, but discovering how rare it is to be a donor gave me a sense of responsibility for the first time in my life. That’s something I’ll never regret.