In their suburban home in Finchley, North London, Stuart and Mary Townsend, a young, professional couple in their 30s, are hovering over a laptop, adding to a spreadsheet labeled “donors.” The eight column sheet lists almost every detail about potential sperm donors, ranging from their height and weight to snippets of family history. “One person we interviewed claimed his great-great grandfather was a descendent of King Charles VI,” Mary says, while sitting in her magnolia painted study, lined with books on surrogate pregnancy and guides to sperm donation and in-vitro fertilization (IVF). “But we haven’t been able to prove it.” Over the past year, the couple has spent several nights a week interviewing seemingly fertile men over Skype or on the phone; in some cases, they’ve even hosted them for dinner.
Unable to conceive after two years of trying, the Townsends considered IVF treatment at a U.K. clinic — a process whereby an egg is fertilized by sperm inside a lab and then implanted surgically. Though Britain’s National Health Service offers IVF for free, wait lists for the treatment are long, ranging from between four months to two years depending upon your location and medical history. Having been stuck on the waitlist for more than a year, the Townsends looked into going private, only to find it too expensive: IVF can cost anywhere from $3,500 to $6,000 per cycle, of which there are typically three, making Britain among the most expensive countries in the world to get fertility treatment.
The high cost is partly due to the country’s sperm shortage. Since 2016, when the government shut down its first National Sperm Bank because it wasn’t collecting enough sperm, only eight successful donations have been made across the entire country. The lack of donations was partly blamed on the U.K.’s unique stance on donor anonymity. Unlike in the U.S., where donors can remain anonymous indefinitely, any child conceived through IVF in the U.K. after 2005 has a legal right to access the identity of their donor at the age of 18. (Another alleged cause: British clinics don’t pay donors for their sperm, encouraging people to donate out of their own goodwill.)
The shortage of British sperm meant that last month, the Department of Health faced a crisis when upon reviewing papers detailing possible scenarios of a “no-deal” British exit from the European Union, they discovered that more than 3,000 Danish sperm samples would face delays at the border due to increased trade rules, something that the U.K. hadn’t had to consider when they were part of the legal mandate that allows the free flow of goods across EU countries. (A large quantity of sperm used in IVF tends to come from either the U.S. or Denmark.)
This, though, doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of British men willing to supply their sperm to families like the Townsends. If anything, the Townsends say there have been “an abundance of people” they’ve found online who have been interested. But those men would rather donate through social media networks that operate outside of the clinical system — what some experts refer to as a “black market” for British sperm.
When the Townsends first decided to seek out their own donor early last year, they were inundated with messages on websites like Pride Angel, which matches donors with infertile individuals and couples. Describing themselves as a “young, hard working and loving couple wanting to bring a child into their lives,” they posted a picture of themselves hugging each other while on a beach in Barcelona. Stuart describes the post as similar to a classified ad. “It felt like we trying to buy a car!” he says. “We didn’t expect to hear back, but hours later, I received emails from men who were willing to donate — some, for free. They claimed to have helped other people before. One said he’d helped father more than 10 children in the space of a few years.”
The Townsends then found their way to the wider social media community of donors — e.g., Facebook groups like U.K. Sperm Donors, which has more than 1,000 members, and “Free Sperm Donors U.K.,” a group of more than 3,000 that matches couples with men willing to donate for free. Donors on these forums sometimes offer to provide their sperm in the form of sexual intercourse (“natural insemination”), but more commonly, they hand over fresh sperm either voluntarily or for a fee (paying for sperm is illegal in the U.K., so this would be done through the black market). These sperm samples are usually stored in syringes, typically purchased from fertility companies like Cyros, and then used for at-home insemination with kits that can easily be bought online.
A basic at-home insemination kit can cost as little as $30 on Amazon, while Boots, the Walgreens of the U.K., offers one-time insemination kits for less than $200. And with plenty of how-to guides on YouTube, it’s no surprise that Brits who are infertile or find it difficult to conceive are trying such methods. “Social media makes it easier than ever for aspiring mothers and men willing to provide sperm to connect, without the help of regulated third parties or medical intervention,” writes Natalie Gamble, a U.K.-based attorney specializing in fertility law, for the Huffington Post.
Gamble argues that although it’s nearly impossible to prevent a black market for sperm, it can be dangerous. “Although the health risks of conceiving with unscreened sperm are obvious, it’s not just the women who are at risk. Unless a donor donates artificially to a consenting married couple, he will be the legal father of the child. Unlike registered sperm donors at licensed clinics, that means he is vulnerable to financial claims for regular child maintenance, capital lump sums and inheritance,” she writes. “How will these donor-conceived people feel about their donor’s lack of personal investment in them, about being one of a hundred or more offspring? In an age of DNA ancestry searches and Google, the donors are naive if they think no one will come looking for them. And if their offspring are curious to find them, what quality of response will they get from a donor who could have more than a hundred people knocking on his door?”
For British health authorities, the more pressing concern is the growth of people opting to undergo at-home artificial insemination without the screening and testing associated with established clinics. The Human Fertilisation and Embyrology Authority (HFEA), a part of the Department of Health that regulates fertility treatment, warns that while at-home insemination isn’t illegal, it’s riskier because the safety of sperm can’t be guaranteed. Even in cases where donors can show their medical records and STD tests, HFEA warns that a thorough analysis of familial health — which would reveal potential genetic deficiencies in offspring — can’t be conducted outside of a clinic.
“I always recommend people go to clinics that are licensed and follow HFEA guidelines,” says Gili Bland, the manager of the London Sperm Bank, a private fertility clinic based in the U.K. “While the process might be longer, the quality is better and the treatment received at a clinic will also improve the chances of pregnancy.” Bland adds that patients can also have multiple attempts at pregnancy using the same [sperm] sample at licensed clinics. “I don’t know much about other methods, but as a woman,” Bland says, “I’d rather know what was happening to my body was safe.”
The Townsends, however, don’t necessarily agree. “Going to clinics is expensive and restrictive,” Mary tells me. “We found that within [fertility] clinics, there wasn’t that many donors to choose from. That’s a big deal when you consider you’re bringing a child into the world.”
“By finding a donor ourselves, we can build personal relationships, and we can get a feel of what the donor is like,” Stuart adds. “You can’t get that in clinics. In fact, most clinics don’t even reveal a lot of detail about their donor, so you don’t know what you’re getting. We’d openly talk to potential donors about the kind of relationship we’d have with them during and after the pregnancy,” he says, explaining how the couple wanted their donor to be U.K.-based so they’d have an active role in their child’s life. “You can’t guarantee that [with] other [methods], where doctors end up being arbiters of the child’s future. We believe that should be down to the future parents.”
“The desire for control continues to make the U.K.’s underground sperm market attractive for prospective parents,” writes Ingrid Holme, a researcher at University College Dublin, in her 2016 paper for the journal Sex, Gender and Policy. She argues that more research needs to be done on the motivations of individuals donating their sperm outside of the state-registered clinical system. “Recognizing that a person may seek to sell their material and consider it as their own resource, which can function without the involvement of medical doctors or laboratory equipment, challenges the medical governance of reproduction. In the formal structure, there is an emphasis upon knowing who, in social, psychological and biological terms, the donor is, so that the medical staff may judge his worth as a sperm donor. … Online classified advertisements, posted by near anonymous people, offer a challenge to the state’s demanding need to be able to identify biological fathers, and hold them accountable, both socially and financially, for their child.”
While Holme recognizes that there are problems with the sperm black market — the quality of sperm, the legal issues with non-contractual arrangements between donors and recipients, etc. — she argues that overcoming them requires more than just legislative change. Rather, she thinks widening access to high-quality IVF treatment might help deter people from pursuing cheaper methods. More importantly, Holmes suggests a broader cultural change to incentivize British men to donate — framing sperm donation as an act similar to blood donation as opposed to one with “excessive, controlled regulation.”
As for the Townsends, they’ve now interviewed a total of 60 potential donors, with a few more interviews scheduled this week. They still aren’t sure if they’ve found the right person, but they believe the time they’ve spent doing so is a testament to the validity of their method. “We could have just said yes to the first person who messaged us,” Stuart says. “But the fact that we’re looking around, speaking to more people, finding out more things — it’s made us grow as people, too. Obviously we want to have a child that’s healthy, but we also want someone who would want to be part of our child’s life when they grow older.”
To that end, they have another Skype interview in 10 minutes with an artist based in Nottingham who’s already been a successful donor for another family. “He seems like a nice, very down-to-earth person,” Mary says. She does admit, though: “He hasn’t told us he’s related to any medieval kings. Not yet, anyway!”