Donor sperm: the facts, the reality

There are times when I love that I had my daughters by anonymous sperm donation. I love that being single at 40 didn’t mean I would have to miss out on motherhood. As selfish as it sounds, sometimes I love that there is no partner or ex- partner – the girls are mine, all mine. And I really love the fun of watching the combination of discomfort and curiosity on the faces of people when I tell them I have never met the girls’ father.

Although, my situation is becoming increasingly common.

In the last three years the number of single women choosing to become mothers with the assistance of donor sperm has jumped by around 10 per cent in Victoria where, until 2010, it was illegal for single women to undergo IVF if they weren’t medically infertile. To date, Monash IVF has performed IVF cycles for almost 500 single women. Including me.

The use of anonymous sperm (or clinic-recruited donor, as the experts like to call them – donors must consent to identifying information being made available to the child once they turn 18) made my dreams of motherhood come true, and since then several friends and acquaintances have pulled me aside wanting details about how to go down that road too. There are also people who are curious about the legal and moral issues around sperm donation. And of course, everyone wants to know: how do you conceive a child without ever meeting the father?

So if you’re a single woman considering accessing the donor sperm program – or if you’re just curious – here’s what you need to know.

Who is allowed to access donor sperm?

“Any woman who cannot become pregnant through her own personal circumstances,” says Louise Johnson, CEO of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA), the organisation responsible for providing public education about assisted reproduction in Victoria. That now includes lesbians and single women. The exception is South Australia, where infertility is still a requirement for having access to donor sperm.

Laws governing the process vary from state to state. In Victoria, for example, sperm donor recipients must arrange to have a Police Record check and a Child Protection Order check, prior to IVF treatment. Don’t get me started on that. Fertile women are not required to get these checks before they conceive.

Counselling for donors and donor recipients prior to treatment is recommended under national guidelines and in Victoria it’s mandatory.

Is the donor the child’s ‘parent’?

There is a big difference between having a father who’s not around, and actually not having a father at all. When a woman conceives a child using sperm from a clinic, the donor is not considered to be a ‘parent’. If the woman is single, the space for ‘father’ is left blank on the birth certificate.

“Donors do not have any legal responsibility for people born as a result of their donation,” explains Johnson. This means they are not required to pay child support, and their signatures are not required on passport applications, medical forms or any other consent forms.

What information do you get when choosing a donor?

“While there are slight differences, all clinics provide extensive information,” says Johnson.

The clinic I used provided physical details, like colouring and height, as well as education level and job, but a friend of mine who also had her child using anonymous sperm, attended a different clinic that offered women the option of receiving a letter from the donor for the child, sharing a little about himself and his reasons for donating.

“The letter said have a go at life,” she says. “Have a good crack, you’ll never know unless you have a good go at the things that are important to you. He seemed quite easy going. He donated as a service to the community – he already has children.”

How do you choose a donor?

At first, I thought the prospect of choosing a donor was pretty exciting. In a bizarre way it was kind of like shopping for my baby’s father. There is no right or wrong way to choose a donor – your selection criteria really depend on what you consider to be important qualities.

At first I stuck with the physical. I decided I would choose a donor who looked like me. If mother and child looked similar it was be almost as if no father existed, I figured.

But then I began thinking about how it might play out if, after they turn 18, my daughters decide they want to meet the man who biologically fathered them. What would it be like when they came face-to-face? So I decided that to avoid my children finding themselves in a position where they have nothing in common with the man who helped create them, I would choose one based on shared values like education and career.

Why do men donate?

There have been no conclusive studies about why men donate sperm, but anecdotally they seem to fall broadly into two categories. There are those who do not want children or are in a relationship with someone who does not want children, but like the idea of leaving behind some genetic material. And there are those who have had some experience with infertility – a relative or close friend, or perhaps they have gone through treatment themselves and have some sperm left over – and who want to help others.

Could there be millions of diblings running around?

No, your child won’t have a million diblings (that’s insiders-speak for donor siblings) running around. By law a donor can only contribute to the formation of 10 families, including his own, although there may be multiple kids in the one family.

What if the child wants to know more about their donor, or meet them?

American research has shown that 82 per cent of donor-conceived people wanted to be in contact with their donor ‘some day’.

Before a man consents to becoming a sperm donor he must agree to identifying information about himself becoming available to the child once they turn 18.

In Victoria, the mother can request identifying information on behalf of the child before they reach 18, but the consent of the donor is required. NSW law does not provide parents with the same rights to apply for information on behalf of their child, unless there is an exceptional reason, such as the child’s health.

Who are the gatekeepers of this information?

In Victoria, the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages operates a Central Register, to manage and protect the information about sperm donors, donor recipients and donor-conceived children, and processes all requests for information. There are also donor registers in Western Australia and New South Wales. South Australia is in the process of setting up donor registers. There are no donor registers in other states and if those involved with donor conception want information, they must seek it from their clinic.

By Margaret Ambrose