Donor dads

Make me a mum. That’s the title of what critics were calling “the sickest ever reality show”, which in 2002 was being planned for British television. Make Me a Mum was a sperm race. A woman would take fertility drugs to produce eggs and 1000 men would compete to have their sperm selected for a competition to create a baby. The race would be between two finalists – a man selected for his sex appeal, personality, wealth and fitness by the mum-to-be, and a man selected by scientists for the quality of his sperm. At the end of the six-part series, viewers would have seen which sperm wriggled its way first into the egg, which would then be implanted in the woman’s womb.

Crazy stuff, eh? The idea, which luckily never came to fruition, rightly brought the ethics boffins out in force, condemning the creation of children as TV fodder. British productive ethics expert Josephine Quintavalle was disgusted: “My first thoughts go to the child who will be created – what is he or she going to be told about how they were conceived?”

There are children being created in Australia today who are also destined to discover disturbing truths about how they were conceived. All over the country, hundreds of men are lining up to offer their sperm to strangers – sperm to produce children they may never know and who may never find out whose sperm won the race to the mother’s egg.

These are the children conceived via the internet, chosen by mothers who scan donors’ ads for the biological father for their child. “I have a very high sperm count and motility,” boasts one donor advertising on an Australian site. “Great dad quality here!” Claims another. “Sperm donor with high IQ,” says a third.

At the time this article was written some 112 donors were offering their semen on a single South Australian web site. Lesbian couple Sally Ryan and Jenny Mann set up the Australian Sperm Donor Registry to help other same-sex couples but almost two-thirds of the donors and a third of the recipients were heterosexual. The men were not paid while the recipients paid $50 for access to each donor plus a $50 registration fee. Most of the men claimed to be driven by altruism: “I detest needles so donating blood is out of the question. This is a way I can do something to help,” wrote one on his donor profile.

They all talked about wanting to help women have children. For some, it was an act of defiance, deliberately helping lesbian women conceive because they objected to governments at the time denying them access to IVF clinics. And it is something they could do without too much bother.

“If I have something and am able to help someone else and it’s not going to cost me, then I’ll do it,” said 46-year-old Melbourne project manager Eric, heterosexual and divorced with no children from his marriage. His hunch was that there was something like 20 to 30 kids somewhere in Australia born as a result of his 18 years of sperm donation. He started donating in clinics after meeting infertile couples during investigations of his former wife’s infertility. Then he branched out to the internet, donating mainly to lesbian couples.

Private donation involves the delivery of semen in a specimen jar (although the sites do attract the odd crank keen on delivery “the natural way”). There’s about a two-hour window for delivery of the fresh sample, organised for when the woman is ovulating.

And the turkey baster once fashionable for lesbian self-insemination has been replaced by syringes (without needles) which waste less of the precious fluid. The worry is the “fresh” semen hasn’t been tested and found disease-free – as is the case with frozen semen used by clinics. Some making private arrangements organise these tests, but not all. “Often the women just want the sperm and don’t seem to care about quality or anything else at all,” said Eric.

For Eric, internet donation led to a real novelty: he became involved in the lives of some of the children. Not too involved, mind you. “There are about eight kids I do run into occasionally. Some mothers want to catch up on the child’s birthdays, others don’t want to know me at all.” Eric happily supplied semen anonymously (his early donations via the clinics were anonymous): “Some women didn’t want any of my contact details, didn’t even want my surname. We did it all on just a first-name basis and I’ve never heard from them since.”

He was fine with this but did acknowledge that not being able to trace a parent would be a problem. “I would not want to have someone live their life wondering where they came from, what dad looked like,” he says, seemingly unconcerned about the inconsistencies in his position.

He realised some children may want to contact him at adulthood, but he was quite happy to leave it to their mothers to decide whether they will ever have his contact details. But those kids shouldn’t expect too much from the meeting. “I don’t want children landing on my doorstep. I don’t want to be involved with them. I don’t want to be a father. I’ve got no fathering instincts at all.”

Eric didn’t like questions about the fall-out for these children of never being able to trace their biological father or tracking him down only to be brushed off. Does he feel any responsibility for them? “No, I don’t,” he said curtly, adding in a peevish tone: “You’re causing me a lot of bother. I don’t know why I rang you.”

Eric’s fecundity pales next to the American donor in email correspondence with an Australian Donor Insemination (DI) support group who claims to have more than 600 children, the last 100 through the internet. Meeting them all, he says, would be “taxing”.

Of 16 Australian sperm donors interviewed for this article, many made it clear they weren’t keen on these questions. They simply weren’t interested in the repercussions for the children; they focused only on the rights of the mothers. The most thoughtful tend to be the gay donors who seek to create some sort of family. Many hear a clock ticking: in their late 30s or 40s, they are sad to have missed out on having children.

Noel Posus, 37, a gay Sydney life coach has just put his name down on a donor site. His motivation: “I have quite a lot of love to give.” Love without strings, and while he’d prefer to have contact, it is not essential: “I’m happy to be in a father-like role. If I could support the family in any way, emotionally, financially, I would.”

He’d prefer the children eventually had his contact details but he’ll leave that to the lesbian couple. “They are the parents and I’d want them to make that call.” He doesn’t put much store in biological origins partly due to his own background. Born the 13th child in an American family, he was given up for adoption to friends. Raised in a happy family, Posus discovered his true origins at 13 and says the knowledge didn’t have a huge impact on his life; he is sure that if he chooses the right couple, the children will do fine.

The belief that mothers know best was one of the most striking themes to emerge from donor interviews. Most were happy to leave decision-making in the hands of the women: “I’m a small link in the chain,” said Adam, 42, a Sydney sales manager. “The upbringing is the couple’s affair. I just provide the sperm and off they go.” He was married at the time of our interview, trying for his own family and had just started offering his sperm on the net.

Adam was happy if his seed was spread as far is it will go: “Thirty, fifty. If the people kept coming and I can keep going, that’s fine by me.” Most of the women he’d met don’t want involvement and he sees no reason why the children need a father: “Two mothers are just as good as a mother and father. That old traditional John Howard mother-father thing, I don’t think that’s important in today’s society.” And what should the kids be told about their origins? “They may tell them they had a one-night stand, that’s up to them.”

Then there was Hugh, 44, a heterosexual Sydney pharmacist. He’d sired four children in the previous eight months, all to lesbian women via the net. Two single women in their mid-40s were also trying to conceive using his sperm. He’d been willing to do it anonymously, although he’d preferred the kids one day knew who he was. He would not say “no” to anyone wanting his semen (except perhaps “druggies”): “Who am I to say who should or should not be a parent? I don’t feel there needs to be a father for a happy family.”

So, there they were – man after man- all convinced males are irrelevant to children’s upbringing. Justin, a donor who worked in IT at a Melbourne university, already had one child and his partner was pregnant. He donated sperm to one lesbian couple, producing a daughter, and he was about to donate sperm to another, both via the internet. So which child would he rather be: the child to be born to his partner or the one about to be conceived by the lesbian couple? He was emphatic neither child would have an advantage: “Historically, children have been brought up in all sorts of families. Diversity appeals to me.”

All this was happening at a time in history when fatherhood was receiving unprecedented attention. New fatherhood books were appearing constantly; there was talk of “father hunger”, of young men lamenting the lack of closer relationships with their fathers. And decades of public debate about the impact on children of losing contact with their fathers after divorce had largely concluded it was not in the children’s interests. So why were so many men virtually deciding the opposite is true?

Adrienne Burgess is a fathering expert, an adviser to the British government on fatherhood policy and author of the ground-breaking Fatherhood Reclaimed. To someone who’s been working for decades to promote positive, involved fathering, did the attitudes of these donors suggest she’s fighting a losing battle?

“Yes and no. No in the sense that research shows real progress, incontrovertible evidence, that dads in intact families are increasingly close to their children,” said Burgess, an Australian who has spent most of her adult life in London. “But this is undermined by this widespread notion, so clear in the responses of the men you’ve interviewed, that dads don’t matter at all. This is complete rubbish if you look at it from the child’s point of view, which hardly anyone ever does. The truth is that an absent or detached father is a serious stressor, which, when combined with other stressors, can have a massively negative impact on a child’s life chances.”

Burgess wasn’t surprised the men who were close to their own fathers were more likely to insist on contact when offering sperm and to refuse to donate anonymously. “My relationship with my father was something I couldn’t have missed … I wouldn’t be who I am today without him in my life,” says Paul Cortissos, 32, a gay Melbourne nurse who had just started offering his sperm on the net. He was determined there would be contact: “The child will have a sense they’ve got a father or at least a male figure in their lives.”

Andrew Barrett’s parents were both teachers and he spent a lot of school holiday time with his dad. Barrett, a divorced 38-year-old working for a truck manufacturing company, was considering his first sperm donation via a Melbourne clinic and he said he’d want the children to know who he is. “I certainly wouldn’t be rejecting a child. If they wanted me to be involved in their lives I would be.”

In contrast, the donors who wished to remain anonymous or have no contact were more likely to be from family backgrounds involving an absent dad, either through divorce or simply hard work. Chris, 39, a heterosexual Melbourne-based articled clerk, was the son of a politician. “My father was very much the absent father,” says Chris, who was organising to donate to a lesbian neighbour and is also advertising on the net. He said he’d be willing to meet the children but wanted no involvement. He was convinced that two lesbian parents, both coming home at night to share the parenting, would do a better job than many traditional families. “Fathers don’t offer anything unique.”

Richard Fletcher, director of the Engaging Fathers project at Newcastle University, suggested males who grew up with absent dads face an interesting dilemma. Confronted with the societal message that father involvement is critical, “they are forced to either conclude they must themselves be damaged or else to decide it doesn’t matter”. Rather than judging themselves poorly, they conclude dads simply don’t rate and are happy to conceive children who may never know them.

Many of their children will face that fate since no official records are kept of donors using the internet. (This also raises real concerns of inter-breeding, where internet offspring unknowingly mate with half-siblings.)

Unlike donor insemination children born to heterosexual couples, those raised by lesbians or single women know there must have been a donor. How will they feel about their mothers using anonymous donors? Or a donor who was only willing to meet them provided there was no “involvement”?

Intentionality is the key issue here. Many of these children are being deliberately conceived in circumstances where they will grow up to have to deal with the harrowing truth about the irresponsible way they were conceived. Unlike 30 or 40 years ago, when infertile couples were advised to keep secret the circumstances of the child’s creation, these children will know there was a donor; many, perhaps most, will want to get to know that donor. And many will be doomed to disappointment.

It is finally being recognised that DI offspring have a right to know their biological origins, many years after we enshrined that right for adopted children. In 2002, Democrat senators Andrew Murray and Aden Ridgeway pushed through an amendment to a bill on embryos, declaring DI children had right to identifying information about their biological parents1.

Australian Health Ethics Committee collaborated with the NHMRC to establish a series of Ethical Guidelines for Assisted Reproductive Technology. Within these guidelines is clear support for the right of DI offspring to such information, banning the use of anonymous sperm and requiring clinics to remind potential donors of “the significance of the biological connection they will have with the persons conceived”2.Anonymous sperm is still being used in a number of Sydney clinics and in the states that have not banned its use.  Nevertheless, most DI children are unlikely to be informed about their origins because they are being raised by couples who will keep it a secret. A survey by the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney indicated less than 10% of couples using its clinic tell their offspring the truth.

Yet the push is on, led by a generation of DI young adults actively lobbying for less secrecy. Most of them were conceived using anonymous sperm and face the immense frustration of probably never tracing their biological fathers. Victoria established a voluntary register for donors who previously gave anonymously but were now willing to be contacted. However, only 58 of the hundreds of donors have come forward3.

At the time this article was being written, I talked to Narelle Grech, then a 21-year-old Melbourne social work student, about her terrible frustration over talking to the doctor at the clinic where she was conceived, knowing he had the information in front of him and was unable to give it to her. He had written to her anonymous donor asking if he’d meet Narelle but received no reply. “I have so much frustration and anger toward the doctor but I know he’s legally bound not to tell me,” she says. Having recently discovered she has four half-sisters and three half-brothers, she wanted to know them, too.

Grech was a member of TangledWebs (tangled-webs_cdc@yahoo.com.au), an Australian group concerned about some of the hidden complexities surrounding donor insemination. Members have all been involved in DI and include donors, DI offspring and their families. TangledWebs was started by Michael Linden and his partner Lia Vandersant after Linden discovered through a newspaper story that a daughter conceived from sperm he’d donated 18 years before was looking for him. He immediately recognised Myfanwy Walker as his daughter; they met and photographs of the two – both fair-haired, blue-eyed and remarkably similar – were splashed across the media as the happy end to Myfanwy’s painful search. TangledWebs is one of a growing community of online support groups for those struggling with the complexities of donor conception. An international directory of support groups that can be found via the infertility network4.

But for the families, this was only the beginning of years of stressful interaction as Vandersant and her son, Liam, coped with the initial infatuation between Linden and his new daughter then helped Myfanwy’s brother Michael (also Linden’s son) find a place in the family. “I really love Michael’s kids but it was such an invasion … the initial feelings between Michael and Myfanwy were so intense that the rest of us felt abandoned, rejected, redundant,” said Vandersant who acknowledged it was a very rocky period in their marriage. She says there are real issues in meeting the woman who has had her partner’s children – it is not uncommon for such reunions to ignite sparks between donors and the mothers of the children. (In the US, a similar reunion led to the mother of the DI offspring falling in love with the donor and she subsequently moved with her daughter to live near him – not much fun for the donor’s wife.)

Michael Linden became very close to his new children but donating sperm, he has decided, is “an act of stupidity”. It is grossly irresponsible for men “to intentionally create a situation where a child is never going to know who their biological father is, or if they do find him, may never be able to establish a good relationship with him”. TangledWebs wants a parliamentary inquiry into DI and argues the procedures may ultimately need to be outlawed, a stance that attracts great hostility. Myfanwy Walker and another young DI woman appeared on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes, then the following week were criticised by journalist Peter Harvey: “These two young women have been given life … How dare they seek to deny it to others?”

Surely it is only those who have personal experience who are in a position to warn of the pitfalls. Linden points out that the emphasis on children being able to trace the donor won’t solve the problems – in fact, it’s “where many of the problems begin”.

Like young people discovering their fathers don’t want to meet them (even with identified sperm, the donor retains the right to refuse contact), or will meet just the once, or donors enthusiastic over meeting their first DI offspring but then the novelty wears off. In the US, 13-year-old Ryan Kramer and his mother Wendy set up a website, Donor Sibling Registry, for DI offspring connection. Ryan said he hoped that if he does find his father, he’s the first rather than the 20th.

Reunions can be plain sailing or, even better, joyous events. Peter Browne, 53, met his daughter Danielle Heath, 22, at a Donor Conception Support Group. She guessed he was her father when she saw him, DNA tests confirmed it and the two lived together for a period in Brisbane. Peter, who never had children, was thrilled: “It’s gone a long way towards validating my whole existence.” The two were trying to trace Danielle’s brother, another product of Browne’s sperm.

Given that decades of research have underlined the difficulties many stepfamilies face in blending members from different families, it’s hardly surprising others are running into trouble. Often it is the donor’s partner who foresees the problems. Nancy, the partner of Justin, the Melbourne IT guy who was donating to two lesbian families, was pregnant with their second child and had major misgivings: “I think it will be harder on me than on him. I’m prepared if there’s a person to embrace into our lives but I see it as so many unknowns.”

Her concerns increased since their first child: “I had huge reservations a second time.” She was nervous about her children’s relationship with the half-siblings, who “could be in any sort of emotional state” when they turn up. “It’s an innate protective thing concerning my family.” Some of her disquiet may stem from her background: her parents divorced, her father remarried then devoted himself to his new family.

Ken Daniels, professor of social work at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, spent almost three decades studying the social impact of DI and has been instrumental in pushing his country towards increasing openness. In 2004 New Zealand enacted legislation requiring people seeking DI to inform their children about the nature of their conception; at that time New Zealand clinics hadn’t used anonymous sperm for more than 15 years and children were increasingly having contact with donors, even from a young age – all moves which Daniels applauded. But he acknowledged that family dynamics aren’t always easy.In Australia, this was highlighted by the 2002 family law tragedy involving Patrick, a young boy whose lesbian mother killed both herself and the child when his donor father was awarded regular contact.

Melbourne hotel manager Peter Spark, 33, was once in regular contact with the son conceived by a lesbian woman using his sperm six years earlier. But after the first year, the lesbian couple decided “they didn’t want a male in their lives” and Spark hadn’t seen the child since. He had a far more positive experience with two children born to another lesbian couple. The older child, nearly four, had started asking to see Spark more often and he was gradually being allowed more contact.

These are tenuous bonds, easily broken at the whim of adults making decisions about their own lives. It’s a constant risk with DI, especially via the internet. Adults become consumed by their own wishes and desires: infertile couples wanting to pretend the child is all their own; lesbian and single women not wanting a man in their lives; well-meaning donors who don’t give a toss about the children conceived through their benevolence. As Ken Daniels warns: “The interests of children are often forgotten or downplayed in the rush to satisfy one’s own needs.”

To add a few words of update to that 2002 article, three years ago the Justice for Men and Boys organisation in the UK reported that through a Freedom of Information Act request, that the UK Child Support Agency had for many years known of over 500 cases (annually) of paternity fraud that are committed in relation to child support claims 5.

The most famous case in Australia went right to the High Court, which in April 2006 heard Magill vs. Magill, where Liam Magill lodged a case against Meredith Magill whom he had married in 1988, and with whom he thought he had fathered three children. He paid child support for all three children until 1999. In 2000, DNA testing proved he was not the father of the two youngest children. Mr Magill was initially awarded $70,000 in damages however, this was later overturned by the High court. The Court ruled that there is no obligation on the part of a wife to tell the truth about the paternity or possible paternity of any child to whom she gives birth.

The proceedings centred on the fact that Ms Magill gave Mr Magill birth registration forms to sign.  These named Mr Magill as the father – despite Ms Magill having doubts about Mr Magill being the biological father.  Mr Magill claim that this act constituted a false representation by the wife.  It was on this basis he sued Ms Magill for deceit. The High Court concluded that while an action for deceit is available to be pursued against a spouse or former spouse in certain circumstances, it does not apply to false representations made during the course of a marriage about paternity because the Family Law Act is not concerned with fault nor morality.

The Magill case and related concerns around paternity fraud have become a flashpoint of debate within the Men’s Rights movement both nationally and internationally. In relation to the Magill case, there is deeper concern in that both the Federal Government and the state Victorian Government, through the agency of the Victorian Women’s Legal Service, gave partisan, exclusive financial support to Ms Magill in this case whose legal cost must have run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet the same financial support was not extended to Mr Magill, the actual victim in the case.

1 laws have since been passed in Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales that provide varying degrees of access to information. Since 2005 the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) guidelines have recognised that donor-conceived children have an entitlement to information.

3 Tragically Narelle Grech met her biological father six weeks before she passed away of bowel cancer. A bill was introduced into the Victorian parlimenmt to bring register of name and birthdate of donors into law so that donor details could be released to biological children regardless of consent, the bill entered into parliament was named after Narelle.

5 Justice for Men and Boys general election manifesto 2015, Published 28 Dec. 2014. p. 52-54
https://j4mb.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/46/2017/09/141228-V10-General-election-manifesto-RGB.pdf

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