Eighteen months ago, an anonymous couple posted on Reddit’s New Zealand forum with an unusual request: they wanted sperm, any sperm. Joel McManus tracked them down to ask them why.
This article was originally published in Critic Te Arohi, the Otago University magazine.
In February of 2016, a post on the Reddit forum r/newzealand entitled “Are You My Future Baby Daddy?” caused something of a stir. Rather than an inelegant attempt at internet dating, it told the story of a young couple looking for someone, anyone, who was willing to meet up in Wellington and give them some healthy sperm so they could start a family. Quickly upvoted to the top of the page, it was then suddenly deleted, only to appear a few hours later. The poster took questions from curious commenters, but then deleted their account without warning.
The post spurred hundreds of comments, intense discussions, and inside jokes for weeks afterwards as punters speculated about whether a meme site had really brought a child into the world. I tracked down the couple behind the post to discover just what it is which drives someone to look to a look to get pregnant from a bunch of anonymous internet strangers, and find out whether their strange quest was eventually successful.
James and Lexi* (Not their real names) are a pretty normal couple. They’re financially stable; she’s a midwife and he’s a security consultant, they own their own home, and they are in a long term, stable, loving relationship. They’re young and healthy, and looking ahead to a bright future together. While she feels no urgent rush, Lexi says she is a “pretty impatient person”, which is why three years ago they decided they were ready to have a baby.
But what should have been an exciting time soon became a painful reality, as a year of trying and failing led to the heartbreaking discovery that James was sterile. That’s where things got hard, as they mounted an increasingly futile search for a sperm donor. Their quest to have a child together saw them encounter difficult family issues, the incredible backlog of New Zealand’s undersupplied sperm banks, dodgy online “sperm dealers”, and legal controversies. It truly put their relationship to the test.
For many couples seeking a sperm donor, the first port of call is family members, so that the child can still share some of the father’s DNA. Unfortunately, one of James’ brothers revealed he had had a vasectomy, and a personal falling out between Lexi and the wife of James’s other brother eliminated the other option. Lexi considered asking her friends, but ultimately decided against it. “It’s an awkward situation,” she says. “Most are married and I wouldn’t want to put their wives in that position. As much as it is a male’s seed, I also have to take into consideration the partner’s feelings about it.” Seeking a donor through a sperm bank was their next move, which proved to be almost as fruitless as the last. Fertility Associates, the organisation responsible for sperm banking and IVF treatment in New Zealand, is facing a massive shortage of donors while demand is at historic heights, meaning wait times for women seeking IVF treatment just keep on growing.
According to Fertility Associates spokesperson Alannah Hunter, wait times have now blown out to between 12 and 24 months, depending on the procedure and the amount of sperm needed. The sperm bank currently has just 50 active donors in the entire country, and regulations specify that each donor’s sperm can only be used to impregnate a maximum of five women, meaning there is a rather limited supply. An additional 150 donors a year would be needed just to keep up with those already waiting.
The biggest recent change putting a strain on the system is by far the booming population of single women in their late thirties seeking to have children on their own, now the largest demographic of applicants, surpassing infertile couples. Many donors choose to restrict who their sperm is donated to on an age basis for health reasons, which only puts more pressure on the wait lists.
James and Lexi were originally hoping for a good looking Island/Māori donor to reflect James’ appearance, and while Fertility Associates does make it a priority to provide that sperm of the same ethnicity of the family be made available if requested, this has become more and more difficult due to the ongoing sperm shortage. The bank currently holds just one sample from a Māori donor, and none of Pasifika origin, making it nigh on impossible for some women to find an ethnic match. James and Lexi now say they just want anyone who is “genuine and healthy and willing to help us out”.
All these factors combined mean that committing to IVF treatment has become a difficult, stretched out process. One woman in her thirties who I spoke to claimed she had been on the wait list for 12 months, only to be given the option of three donors, all of whom were in their forties. Fearing the risk of birth defects from older sperm, and aware that she may only have one chance at pregnancy, she rejected all three options and opted to put herself on the waiting list once again and wait another year.
Between the horror stories of wait list times, and a price tag of up to $10,000, James and Lexi baulked and decided to look elsewhere.
James made an effort to look online, at ‘sperm dealer’ sites such as privatesperm.com, where potential donors post biographies and information about themselves. He says he emailed “seven or eight” of them, but decided not to pursue that avenue because he found some of them to be “super creepy dudes”, and many of the site’s users attempted to solicit payment, which is illegal in New Zealand under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technologies (HART) Act 2004.
Which led them to the idea of Reddit. Not a typical semen repository, r/newzealand exists mainly to discuss politics, new Whittakers flavours, and attempt to convince wayward Americans that our government has banned gardens. The comments on James and Lexi’s post go a long way in demonstrating just why Fertility Associates has had so much trouble in attracting donors: New Zealanders just aren’t aware of the issue. While American films have normalised the role of the sperm donor (Mark Walhberg in Ted, Vince Vaughn in Delivery Man), James’ request was treated with mystification by many.
Commenters were for the most part unaware of the need for donors in NZ, and many were bewildered at the basic mechanics of it (Lexi says she was planning to use the “turkey baster method”, except with a needle-less syringe).
James and Lexi say they had “a few bites”, and four which they considered “legitimate requests”, which they say exceeded their expectations, but they were not successful in the end, as the potential donors all backed out after an initial meeting. Lexi says she “[doesn’t] blame them. It is a big ask and the risks obviously outweighed the benefits for them.” Several of those they talked to expressed concerns over legal issues, something which was no doubt compounded by the comments on the original post discussing horror stories about sperm donors in other countries who had been forced to pay child support, and the misinterpretation of a NZ Law Commission report.
Otago University professor of family law Mark Henaghan says these concerns are unwarranted, explaining that the law makes it very clear that sperm donors for children conceived through artificial methods are not in “any way whatsoever” the father of the child. This applies equally to donations through sperm banks and at home.
In the end, the search proved unsuccessful. Lexi says that while James had always been enthusiastic about the prospect of fathering a child from a sperm donor, the stress of the search combined with meeting potential donors in person had manifested an unease at the situation. The pressure started to take a toll on their relationship, and they ended up taking a “mutual break” for a short while. Since then, they have largely abandoned their search and settled on the idea of adoption. As a result, Lexi says they are “doing much better”.
So is there any hope of improvement for the system that has so far let them down? Politically, probably not. The two features of the HART Act most attributed to the low rate of donors are the provisions which ban compensation for donors, and which require donors to provide identity information to the HART Register, which can be revealed to the child upon request.
I contacted the health spokespersons for every major parliamentary party to ask their thoughts on the matter, and while all of them acknowledged that there were serious issues with the current system, there is little consensus about what to do and apparently little motivation to do it.
While Fertility Associates has no desire to amend rules around donor identity, which they feel are essential in giving children the right to know their genetic origin/whakapapa, they are currently lobbying to be allowed pay donors a bulk sum of $500 for the entire process, which involves making around 10-15 ‘donations’. Minister of health Jonathan Coleman would not comment on the matter, though Alison Douglass, who chairs the ministry’s advisory committee on assisted reproductive technology, said she was supportive of measures to allow donors to be compensated for “reasonable expenses incurred in the process”.
ACT leader David Seymour endorses the proposal, saying his party is “slowly relaxing our attitude to people being compensated for medical procedures”, drawing a parallel between paying sperm donors and National MP Chris Bishop’s proposed Financial Assistance for Live Organ Donors Bill. However, Bishop was quick to dismiss the idea, simply saying “This isn’t something we’re considering as a government”. NZ First’s Barbara Stewart outlined a plan to establish both an open and closed register of donors to allow men the option to stay anonymous, something which is not backed up by expert advice and does not appear in any NZ First policy documents, suggesting her team may have made it up on the spot. Green party spokesman Kevin Hague takes the opposing view, arguing that the identity register should be less anonymous, and wants to see sperm donors listed on a child’s birth certificate as a third parent. Annette King of Labour opposes any change on either issue, but declined to provide any reasoning or offer any alternative proposals.
It is unclear just how deeply held these positions are, and Seymour claims he is “not aware” of any particularly intense partisan disagreement on the issue, speculating that it is simply not a priority issue for the minister or parliament as a whole.
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For their part, Fertility Associates is hoping to influence the public opinion of sperm donors going forward, and is pushing the idea of donating sperm as an honourable altruistic gesture. Their newly launched ad campaign titled ‘Heroes Wanted’ features a comic book superhero complete with an ‘S’ shaped sperm insignia and promotes the idea that sperm donors are “real life heroes for a family in need”. After everything James and Lexi have been through, they couldn’t agree more.
Any male aged between 18 and 45 can be a sperm donor with Fertility Associates. Anyone interested can contact them on 0800 10 28 28 or visit spermdonor.co.nz
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