|Australian Article on Sperm Donation
||[Apr. 23rd, 2008|06:50 pm]
I'm not sure when it's coming out, but given the photographer was here today, it's close. Also, Sian Powell, the journalist responsible, has sent me the text for my ok. There were a couple of minor facts wrong, but I haven't bothered to correct them as they aren't crucial to the thrust of the piece. I'm popping it up here, but I'll keep it friend's locked until sometime after the article has had a proper release, of course.
EDIT - Well, it's a couple of years later (almost exactly) so I've finally unlocked this. Here is a link to the original article by Sian Powell in the Australian.
It was a scorching Canberra day and the suburban street was quietly
shimmering in the heat. After a minute or so, Danny came to the door of
his modest, dark brick house, and smiled engagingly.
He was an abbatoir worker for much of his working life, and he caught
leptospirosis from an infected beast. He fell ill two years ago, with a
migraine headache which lasted for a fortnight. As it faded, so did his
balance. ``It was a like a slow motion stroke,'' he says. ``It took them
a year to find out what was wrong.'' Now, as well as the balance
problems, he has trouble concentrating, and he can't read or write for
long. Yet he manages to make a living from home, trading on the
Danny and his wife Sharon have lived in this quiet district of Canberra
for about two years. The streets are tree-lined and there are few cars.
Sharon sees sheep and sometimes kangaroos on the way to work. Originally
from Melbourne, they like the quiet pace of Canberra, the lack of
traffic, the absence of smog, the abundance of stars in the night sky.
They think it's a nice place to bring up children - both theirs and the
children Danny's sperm might produce.
Danny had explained it all on the phone: how he had wanted to donate
sperm for altruistic reasons. How he thought it was important to help
the desperate and despairing childless women of Australia, and how he
was concerned by the shortage of men willing to make an effort. Now here
he was, a smallish and spritely 40-year-old with glasses and curling
dark hair down to his shoulders, smiling. And leaning on a walking
stick. He is one of perhaps only fifty active sperm donors in Australia
- no-one had kept a strict tally, but everyone in the field knows donors
are an endangered species.
The American fertility clinic websites paint a gleaming picture of
squadrons of tall and supremely healthy sperm donors; god-like young men
with limitless genetic potential. Yet that's America, birthplace of
advertising, where men mostly get paid for sperm donations and who no
doubt exaggerate their physical and mental attractions.
Here in Australia, it's against regulations for men to get paid more
than nominal expenses for sperm donation: a six-month procedure which
always includes a gruelling series of medical tests and counselling
sessions. Not only that, here the donors have to be willing to meet
their potential offspring when the kids turn 18.
Little wonder, then, that fertility clinics across Australia are
desperate for sperm donations to keep up with the ever-increasing demand
from women who want babies. Since the National Health and Medical
Research Council guidelines stipulated in 2004 that donors have to sign
away their anonymity, the number of potential donors fronting up to
clinics has fallen off a cliff. Some clinics have even closed their
The shortage of donor sperm is so acute, in fact, that a number of
clinics have not only begun a subtle donor recruitment publicity drive,
they have also begun to import sperm from overseas, specifically from
the US. Others clinics, though, are nervous about the murky legal
implications of buying in foreign genetic material.
So Danny decided to step up, a genetically healthy man despite the
legacy of a debilitating disease which has left him with a limp. He lost
his balance and lost his job. Yet he remains an equable and thoughtful
man, one who refuses to rail against fate. He has even been jogging with
his walking stick.
He first fronted up at the Canberra Fertility Centre early last year,
prepared for the rigours of the process. Twenty-five years ago, medical
students breezed into a hospital, answered a few questions about their
genetic history, grabbed a container and sauntered into a private room
for a few minutes and that was the end of it. They did no proper medical
tests, they signed no agreement that the future offspring could contact
them on reaching adulthood, nor did most of them think twice about where
their children may end up, or what they may feel about it.
These days a typical Australian donor has to attest he has never had a
sexually transmitted disease. He has to have a blood and urine test to
ensure he doesn't have AIDS, hepatitis B or C, cystic fibrosis, or any
of a number of other complications. A sample of his sperm is frozen to
ensure it can survive the thaw. He is asked to provide a full personal
and family medical history. He and his spouse are counselled to ensure
they understand and consent to all the ramifications of donor
conception, including the prospect of adult offspring knocking on the
door in a couple of decades time.
Then, six months after providing sperm for freezing, the donor has to do
all the medical tests again. As one doctor says, donors are really put
through the wringer. ``But I'm not too fussed what happens, as long as
it ends up helping people,'' Danny says.
While he is happy to talk about sperm donation, the clinic warned him to
keep his surname and some details of his identity under wraps to avoid
an almost certain deluge of phone calls from women who want to check
whether he could be the father of their children.
He leads the way into his house, where boxes and papers are perched on
the couch, and a laptop is open on the coffee table. Danny and his wife
Sharon are getting ready for a big conference in Perth, and they're
heading over there by train - the train tickets were a present from
Danny limps over to the couch and sits down, a friendly man who has
dealt with huge difficulties in his own life and yet remains willing to
go out of his way to help others.
``I've always loved kids, right from the get-go,'' he says, adding that
he is a regular Santa Claus volunteer. ``To be able to help people who
want kids is terrific.'' He is aware there might be a knock on the door
in 20 years time, from someone who is emotionally a stranger but
biologically his child, and he doesn't have an issue with it. Other
donors worry that donor offspring might become an emotional burden, and
might somehow impinge on their own families. Not Danny. ``As long as
they don't try and push themselves into my life,'' he says. ``Unless it
was a bad time in my life, if there was a huge disaster, or a problem
with my own kids, I'd be happy to talk to anyone.''
He leans over to put his arm around his wife's shoulders. A serene woman
with long straight hair and an easy smile, Sharon is pregnant for the
second time, after she miscarried her first baby last year, and she is
slightly concerned about the train journey to Perth. Maybe, she says,
she can get some sick bags from somewhere, just in case.
Danny was adopted as a baby, and his sympathy with his parents' earlier
childlessness has in a large part motivated him to donate sperm. He was
told he was adopted when he was four years old, and he never thought it
was a problem. He has since met his biological mother, and his
biological father has daughter from another woman out there somewhere.
``It was one of those things; I was kind of aware of the whole adoption
thing,'' he says.
He has thought about the whole conundrum of sperm donation quite deeply.
``There are so many guys out there who are happy to have unprotected
sex, and assume the woman is disease-free and assume she's on the pill.
But they wouldn't donate. Guys, have you really thought this through?''
Danny has not only thought it through, he's joined in with some
enthusiasm, even down to the form-filling. Women seeking donor sperm are
given a little information about Australian sperm donors (very little
compared with the deluge of donor information on US websites). ``There's
a sheet that I filled out; all my basic traits, the colour of my hair,
colour of my eyes, height, weight, race,'' Danny says. ``There's a
couple of sections where I can write about myself, by background, my
interests. I like to travel, I like to take photos, that I'm
inquisitive, I have a reasonable intelligence - that sort of thing.''
Danny took some care with his essay, and now almost wishes he could go
back and change a few things. ``My friend in Melbourne who's been
through IVF, she had a choice of eight donors. The thing that sold her
was she really liked the letter he wrote.''
Married for nearly 10 years, and together for 14, Danny and Sharon are
an extremely affectionate pair and constantly touch and caress one
another. Sharon rests her hand gently on Danny's arm. Danny rubs
Sharon's shoulder. At 39 and 40, they are in the older range of would-be
parents, and they are among the lucky ones. Sharon has fallen pregnant
twice, with remarkable rapidity and ease - at least in comparison with
the unfortunate women who they now want to help.
She was pregnant with her first baby when she went to the Canberra
fertility clinic last year to reassure the staff she had no problems
with Danny donating his sperm. After the session at the clinic they were
both profoundly moved by the plight of the patiently waiting childless
women. ``We were both almost in tears in the car,'' Danny says. ``We we
lucky, from almost our first try, Sharon was pregnant.'' After the
counselling, Danny dropped Sharon off at work in Canberra, and within
half an hour he got an urgent call telling him she was miscarrying.
``It was one of those bits of absolutely foul timing,'' he remembers.
``It really tore us up. We had the double dose of horrors with it.''
When the hospital doctors examined Sharon, they found her waters had
broken, but the baby was still alive. In a tiny number of cases, a
woman's membranes can repair themselves, and the baby can be saved. But
after an excruciating wait, Sharon and Danny's baby died, and, shocked
and despairing, the couple went into mourning. Sperm donation was set
aside for a time.
``After the miscarriage I said, `are you still fine with it?','' he
remembers. ``We didn't start trying for a few months, we weren't really
up to it. We were pretty lucky, it happened first time. But after we
lost Tracy it was a couple of months before I was okay to donate
Now again pregnant again, Sharon is being treated as a high risk
patient, because she miscarried last year - but so far so good. The baby
is expected in mid-August, and they are both quietly thrilled.
And all systems are go for Danny's sperm - he can ring the clinic any
time to find out if it has been used in any successful pregnancies. He
seems unworried about it, he might ring later, at some point. Or not.
John Brain sees Danny and his sperm donor brothers as local heroes.
Brain owns the clinic Fertility East in Sydney's Bondi Junction, sister
clinic to the Canberra Fertility Centre, where Danny donated sperm.
Fertility East is set high in a shopping centre skyscraper, a
pastel-toned suite of offices with surprising extras. There's liquid
nitrogen vats storing embryos and sperm in one room and, past the
technical equipment, a little room furnished with pornographic magazines
and a separate exit.
Brain says there is a critical shortage of available sperm in Australia.
The restrictions in the NSW laws which will come effect at the end of
this year - including a regulation further limiting a sperm donor to
providing sperm to a maximum of five families - will put increased
strain on the supply, including the crucial supply from overseas.
Fertility East uses sperm from the Fairfax Cryobank in the US, a clinic
with a website permitting clients to browse over donors' physical and
intellectual characteristics, perhaps purchase potential donors'
childhood photos or audio files, and perhaps finally add them to their
Fertility East has access to the sperm of about 27 Fairfax donors (all
of whom have waived anonymity) to backstop its Australian donors.
``There's very little (Australian sperm) at the moment, but there's some
coming on,'' Brain says. ``The choice is very limited, we probably only
have about three donors''. Brain sees the open provision of assisted
reproduction services as central to a reasonable society. ``Nobody
should have control over a woman's fertility,'' he says. ``If you want
to have a child, we should assist in any way that we can.''
Yet in his recently-published book `Children on Demand', Anglican
ethicist Tom Frame sounds a note of caution. He writes the legal
position of donors is complicated. ``It is generally accepted that
unknown donors have neither parental rights nor responsibilities,'' he
writes. ``But what should happen if the donor-conceived child needs a
transfusion, or transplant of compatible bodily fluids or organs? What
if the child's `social parents' become completely incapacitated or
The engineering aspects of gamete donation also concern him: ``Should
some members of society - those with less intelligence, of a particular
ethnicity, with a history of mental illness or a disability - be banned
or at least discouraged from donating reproductive material? ... Should
donors or recipients be able to make decisions about donations or
transfers based on skin colour or complexion? Should a couple be allowed
to insist, for instance, that the donor be of a specific sexual
orientation, or profess a particular religion?''
Francesca began thinking that she wanted a second child about the time
she turned 40. Divorced, with a young son, she knew time was running out
and she couldn't wait until she found another husband or partner.
``I looked around at my friends, my gay friends etc, because I wanted a
known donor,'' she says. ``But in the end that didn't work out.'' Then
she decided to use donated sperm. ``I initially went on the Web and
surfed to find overseas sperm,'' says the Sydney-sider, who has now
turned 45. ``There's a massive selection in the US, you can pick the
skin colour, the eye colour. There's a whole lot of information on the
donors: in-depth medical histories, personality traits and so on. And I
really wanted to make sure the donor was willing for the child to make
contact later on.''
She eventually selected a blue-eyed blonde donor with olive skin (for
the Australian climate). But she failed to get pregnant, and then her
clinic decided to halt all use of overseas sperm.
Left with no real alternative, she decided to try an Australian donor -
and IVF Australia gave her a couple of choices: a short blond, or a tall
and balding redhead. She had almost no other information on the donors,
and after some deliberation she chose the blond. But by that stage her
eggs were no longer viable, and she was fortunate to have a friend who
was willing to give her an egg.
The friend was a known quantity. The sperm donor was not.
``I don't know his medical history, I don't know if he had teeth
problems, or eye problems, or if he had asthma,'' she says. ``Of course
I'm concerned. That's why I chose an egg donor I knew.''
The process worked, and now Francesca has an eleven-month old daughter,
a baby sister for her eight-year-old son. ``She's divine. And of course
now I'm massively curious about her father,'' Francesca says. ``I'm
still all for knowing as much as I can, but at the same time I
understand why young men are worried about children turning up on their
Francesca recently found out that she can write a letter to the donor.
She has decided to make contact with him and enclose a photo of her
daughter, in the hopes he will respond with some information about his
medical history. ``As a single mother, I didn't take the decision to
have a second child lightly,'' she says. ``My daughter will not grow up
with a biological father but she has a right to her genetic heritage''.
Francesca endured three miscarriages and a number of expensive
artificial procedures to conceive a child who would not be genetically
related to her. ``It's amazing - the desire,'' she says. ``For some
women it supercedes all that.''
Melbourne baker Michael Linden believes the desire should be superceded
by the rights of the child. He donated sperm in 1977 - and after a
determined search two of the resulting children found him. While Linden
and his donor-conceived daughter Myfanwy Walker have been happy to get
to know one another since their first meeting in 2001, both now oppose
the practice of donor conception. ``Ultimately the idea of bringing
children into the world merely to satisfy the wishes of adults is
unacceptable,'' Linden says. ``I don't even think that known donation
(where the sperm donor is known to the woman) is such a good idea
Children, Linden and his daughter say, have the right to be brought up
by their genetic parents. He says his own experience has taught him that
donor conception is less than ideal: ``It's had it's angsty moments,
Some 650 kilometres north, and 30 years later, Danny decided to follow
in Linden's footsteps, despite the manifest difficulties of modern sperm
donation, and despite the obstacles life has thrown up.
Perching on one end of a cluttered couch, Danny leans forward to make a
point about the importance of giving. Australians are not very good are
donating, he says, not very good at donating blood, organs or genetic
material. ``It's one of those things, everyone thinks someone else is
doing it. There's probably not many more than 50 active donors in
Australia. They're having to import a huge amount of semen from
overseas. Australian boys aren't doing the job.''
Danny started thinking about donating sperm in his 20s. ``I was meaning
to do it, meaning to do it, and then hell, I'm nearly 40, the cut-off
date is now. Sharon was fine about it.''
Sharon sympathised with the women who were waiting to have a child,
watching the calendar and knowing that their opportunities were
shrinking fast. ``The waiting lists are appalling,'' she says. ``There
were 150 people or families on the waiting list at Albury. They wait
three years, five years, it's phenomenal.''
Danny knows his sperm might be used by single women or lesbians, and he
has no problem with it. ``I do think that kids benefit from having more
than one parent, but it doesn't have to be one of each sex,'' he says.
Neither his real mother nor his biological mother object to Danny
donating sperm. No-one else from the extended family has expressed any
reservations. ``If they have, tough,'' Danny says with brio, ``it's our
For now it's a waiting game for Danny and Sharon and the children to
come. Soon the little house in Canberra will echo to the yells of a new
baby, and soon, too, other families across the region will welcome home
the babies that Danny helped make. And, perhaps, 18 or 20 years down the
line, there will be a knock on the door, and on the step there will be a
young woman or a young man with curly hair and an engaging smile.