It’s the sort of post you might find on a dating site: ‘I’m 35, have brown hair, blue eyes and am 6ft 3in. I weigh 80kg, am a keen runner and consider myself fit and healthy. I have a good job in marketing and a master’s degree. I’d love to hear from you,’ it concludes. ‘So please feel free to get in touch.’
An attractive prospect? But not merely as a candidate for a romantic hook-up. What this man is offering is neither a relationship nor even simple friendship. Rather, he is offering his sperm and his advert is targeted at British women desperate to conceive a baby.
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Clive Jones, a retired 65-year-old maths teacher from Derby, claims he has fathered 116 children acting as a sperm donor over the past eight years
With loneliness at record levels and opportunities to meet the opposite sex at a minimum, the market for DIY babies is booming – despite the accompanying risks of genetic problems, fraud and long-term issues. But as one woman, a primary school teacher, told The Mail on Sunday last week, she has spent years trying to find the right man and now has had enough of waiting. While some women she knows are resorting to private ‘arrangements’, through friends or friends of friends, others, like herself, are turning to the online world.
‘I’m 35. The clock is ticking for me to get pregnant. I’m single and I’ve lost hope of meeting someone I like enough to start a family with,’ she says. ‘But why should that mean I lose my chance at becoming a mother?’
So she has ventured on to Facebook. ‘I don’t know what to expect. Obviously, I want to be safe, and won’t rush into anything. But I’m so desperate to have a baby I’m willing to take more risks. How different can it be to having a one-night stand?’
The number of women seeking to ‘go it alone’ and conceive without a man in their lives is soaring.
Although there are no official figures, it is some indication that, according to the regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), Britain has seen close to a 400 per cent increase in IVF attempts using frozen sperm from a sperm bank in just a decade.
Aimy Frost, far left, from Stoke on Trent, and wife Alix with donor baby Rinoa, also pictured, used Facebook to find a sperm donor as she was not eligible for NHS-funded IVF treatment
Even before Covid-19, Britain’s sperm banks had been short of donors. By law, there is a limit of £35 in expenses that can be paid to a donor. Also, any child born as a result has the right to track down their genetic father at 18.
It’s one of the reasons few British men have signed up because they don’t want an unexpected knock on the door years later.
British women have long relied on sperm imports from America (where donors can be paid) and Denmark (where attitudes towards meeting future children seem more relaxed). The two countries boast large, well-respected clinics which – unlike some British operators – offer a wide choice of potential fathers. The UK imports at least 7,000 sperm samples a year, with a single vial, or ‘straw’, costing an average of £800.
To guard against failure, since not every attempt succeeds, it is advised to import two vials, which come in nitrogen-cooled containers. Additional costs include transportation: a single transaction can be £1,500 to £2,000, while a round of IVF at a regulated clinic can cost a further £3,000.
That is why many hundreds of women, perhaps thousands, are exploring the unregulated alternatives, whether that involves a good friend or pot luck on the internet.
The Mail on Sunday counted more than 70 specialist Facebook groups with names such as ‘Free sperm donors London UK’ and ‘Get pregnant for free with sperm donors in the UK’. There are groups for every ethnicity and part of the country.
Ms Frost said she met a local man through Facebook who provided sperm donations for three months until she fell pregnant. Under her agreement, she agreed to tell the man the gender of the baby but there would be no contact
Although they’re notionally private, anyone can become a member with little more than the click of a mouse. The women asking for help come from a wide range of backgrounds – from well-paid professionals aware of their ticking body clock to lesbian couples who fear their options are limited. But the majority seem to be older women who see an internet donor as their last chance at motherhood.
Lily from Chester, for example, explains on Facebook that she has been looking for about a year. She has no preference on eye colour but prefers a man with dark brown or black hair.
Maria from London says she and her wife are in stable jobs and ready to add a ‘bundle of joy’ to complete their family.
Lucy, 25, has just broken up with her boyfriend and sounds anxious. She has polycystic ovary syndrome (a common condition which can mean the ovaries do not regularly release eggs) and says that the sooner she gets pregnant, the more chance she has.
She says: ‘I have a supportive network of family and friends, my own home and am financially stable. If you would be interested, please just message me and I can answer any questions.’
The process is – to put it gently – without frills.
Donor and recipient reach agreement online and then, when the woman is ovulating, the man will make a ‘delivery’ to her front door, often in a thermos flask or similar.
The would-be mother will use a ‘home insemination kit’ (ie a cheap plastic syringe). It is not surprising there is growing alarm among experts not just at the near collapse of the conventional IVF system but at the dangers of self-insemination using the internet.
‘There are potentially life-threatening consequences,’ says Professor Charles Kingsland, from CARE Fertility, the country’s leading fertility clinic group for IVF treatments. ‘Sperm is a carrier of all sorts of infections readily transmitted to females.
‘And that is before you’ve even considered the genes your child may be inheriting as the male may unknowingly be a carrier of a gene disorder.
‘And how do you know the sperm is even fertile? In addition to the potential medical issues, the legal implications of having a child by this method could be longer-lasting and life-changing.’
He stresses: ‘If donor insemination is what you want or need, acquiring sperm from a stranger would not be my starting point.’
Meanwhile, there are risks for the donors. Whereas men who donate through regulated organisations have no legal responsibility for children born from their sperm, this protection does not apply to donors on Facebook, warns the HFEA.
‘You cannot opt out of being the legal father of the child, even if the mother agrees,’ says a spokeswoman. ‘Any agreement drawn up to that effect has no legal standing. We recommend independent legal advice is sought before you donate.’
Due to Covid-19, professional IVF clinics have ‘virtually collapsed’ to stop the spread of the virus
Clive Jones, a retired 65-year-old maths teacher from Derby, seems unfazed by such concerns. Married with a family of three children of his own, he has donated sperm for eight years and has fathered 116 children this way. He says he is driven by an overwhelming urge to keep producing babies.
As official sperm banks have an upper donor age limit of 45, he turned to the unregulated world of Facebook – where he found an overwhelming demand.
When he started, he was 58. ‘I didn’t think anyone would get in contact with me because of my age but they did, straight away. The first donation resulted in success.
‘More than anything, I do this because I want to help. How awful for these women, with no men around. I feel that morally I have to do it.
‘Sometimes it’s the only choice they have and they’re desperate for a baby. I’ve got something that means nothing to me but means everything to them.’ His wife took a different view and they are now separated, although still friends.
Now he spends much of his time driving his van to deliver his sperm to recipients’ houses. ‘It’s a nice feeling, seeing the happiness you bring,’ says Clive. ‘It’s addictive.’
He has met about ten children he has fathered this way, explaining: ‘I just want to know if the sperm has been successful and that’s it.’
There have been problems, though. Some women have expressed concern that he’s brought so many half-siblings into the world – or as he crudely puts it, they ‘feel their child is one batch out of more than 100’.
Experts warn that unregulated sperm donations could be dangerous
He adds: ‘A lot of the mothers want their children to have siblings from me.’ The mothers’ concern is understandable. Donors to regulated sperm banks are limited to working with ten families in total, partly to minimise the chances of relationships between people who are genetically related.
Facebook, though, has no such limits. Clive makes four or five donations a week on average, saying that about one in eight ‘catches’, or leads to a pregnancy.
‘It’s been very busy since the pandemic. I don’t need to advertise any more. Women come to me.’
While he knows of some donors who charge £150 for expenses, he says the most he ever asks for is £30. Clive says: ‘Women could spend thousands at a sperm bank but on Facebook it’s free. Facebook sperm donation is a huge thing now. You can see why a lot of people are turning to it.’
Aimy Frost is among them. The 28-year-old from Stoke-on-Trent resorted to Facebook because her wife Alix has a child from a previous relationship and that means the couple are ineligible for taxpayer-funded IVF. ‘I’d wanted to be a mother for so long. We’d asked friends and people in the local area if they’d be our donor and they’d all said no. At the beginning, I was very nervous of using Facebook,’ she says. ‘There are a lot of risks. Not only sexually transmitted diseases but you don’t know who these men are – they might be lying.’
After months of searching, she found ‘the one’ on a Facebook group. He lived close and seemed genuine. ‘I had a gut instinct,’ she continues. They chatted online and made a verbal agreement: if she became pregnant, she’d let him know the gender and that the child was born healthy. But then all contact would cease.
After three months of regular donations, Aimy was pregnant.
She’s well aware of the dangers of sperm donation, which include men who bully vulnerable women into unprotected sex, claiming, for example, that they will only offer sperm if the process is ‘natural’.
‘They just want sex,’ says Aimy. ‘That was never going to work for me. I’m a lesbian and married. I was bombarded with messages like that, though. It made me think I was never going to find anyone.’
But for her it worked out.
Many fear that we are heading the way of the America, where unregulated freelance sperm donation is widespread and where problems are becoming very clear.
America’s Food and Drug Administration, which regulates donation, has launched an investigation into online sites. Some men have been sent legally binding ‘cease and desist’ letters.
Angelo Allard, of the Seattle Sperm Bank, one of America’s biggest suppliers, says: ‘A legitimate sperm donor facility does physical exams, background checks, criminal history checks, sexually transmitted diseases screening, genetic testing. There is also a comprehensive legal document outlining parental rights.’
However, a Beverly Hills fertility doctor who preferred to remain anonymous said he had heard horror stories from people using sperm via online sites. He described a lesbian couple who had twins born with severe genetic abnormalities.
‘This was something that would have been picked up through rudimentary blood testing,’ he says.
He says he heard of another case where a woman decided to get impregnated the natural way, by a total stranger, but he became violent during sex.
‘I understand the desperation, particularly during Covid with a shortage of donated sperm, but women need to realise this is their future they are gambling with and the future life of that child. When “shopping” for sperm, there are no rules and safeguards. It’s a dangerous game of human roulette.’
Additional reporting: Sharon Churcher
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