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Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

OPINIONSocietyJune 6, 2023

The case for privatising sperm donation

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Overly tight regulation is hurting hundreds of New Zealanders who want a baby but can’t have one the old-fashioned way, argues Amber Older.

Deafening silence. Awfully good. Bittersweet. Who doesn’t love an oxymoron? Here’s another one: sperm shortage. Come again? Come again, indeed. And again, and again, while you’re at it.

According to the website of Fertility Associates, New Zealand’s largest clinic, the wait time to receive donor sperm is two-and-a-half to three years for in vitro fertilisation (IVF treatment) and intrauterine insemination (IUI). The timeline varies depending on the restrictions that some donors place on who can access their sperm (more on that shortly) and on individual preferences – for example, around ethnicity. The uncertainty of this time frame is compounded by the proviso that Fertility Associates “also cannot predict the demand or availability of donors into the future”.

The 2004 Human Assisted Reproductive Act (HART) makes it illegal for Kiwi sperm donors to be paid or given “valuable consideration” for their services. There is scant publicity or advertising to raise awareness of the desperate need for donations. It’s little wonder, then, that some people are turning to the internet to bypass the clinic waiting list. Last year, the online platform The Gift Of Family was launched. The “registered entity” aims to “connect Sperm Donors, Egg Donors, Embryo Donors and Surrogates with Recipients hoping to fulfil their dreams of parenthood”.

Comedian Tom Sainsbury has spoken about donating sperm to a lesbian couple who wanted to start a family (Photo: Supplied)

I recently listened to comedian Tom Sainsbury share his donor story on a parenting podcast. When asked why he agreed to father two kids to a lesbian couple he (at the time) hardly knew, his answer brought back all the fears and frustration of my own journey to motherhood. Fifteen years ago, I was single, fast approaching 40, and watching from the shore, empty wine glass and broken strappy sandal dangling in hand, as the ship of motherhood set sail without me.

Driven by the primal ache of maternal yearning (how does that ache suddenly become so…urgent?) I set out to explore my options – specifically, my fertility levels. Good news: they were that of a 28, not 38-year-old. I had time on my side! Bad news: the waiting list for the sperm bank was two years minimum and 40-year-olds were too old to make a “withdrawal”. What, then, were my options? Dear reader – this is where things get interesting.

Despite my favourable fertility levels, the specialist advised that the only sperm I could access was the handful (four) of donations flagged by their kindhearted donors for lesbian couples and singletons. To access that sperm, I would need to voluntarily undergo the same hormonal treatment used by women with compromised fertility. The process involved downing a slew of drugs and injecting myself in the stomach every morning to stimulate my egg supply. When the time was right, my eggs would be harvested, mixed with the donor sperm, and an embryo would be transferred back to my womb.

Price tag? North of $15k. Chance of conception? South of 20%.

New Zealand is experiencing a chronic jizz shortage

That was just the physical side. The process would also require two sessions with a counsellor to assess whether I was mentally and emotionally ready to become a mother through the aforementioned process. Once I had passed these tests, the specialist explained, I would be able to “meet” the donors via their paper applications. No photos – but there was a section where each donor shared in his own words why he was making his sperm available. Based on their two-page profiles, I could choose a donor and start the baby ball rolling.

Even though I hated taking medicine and the thought of self-injections made me nauseous, I couldn’t wait to start. Three weeks later, I had sailed through the counselling sessions and was ready to meet my donors. I felt nervous and excited. How will I choose him? What if I like more than one donor? Does it matter that I can’t see what he looks like? I decided to approach the selection session like I would a dinner party with strangers. If there was someone I enjoyed chatting with and who made me laugh, he would father my child.

One donor wanted full involvement with the child’s life, from religious upbringing to school zones. Donor two hadn’t told his partner he was making the donation, automatically rendering him more sneaky than saintly. Donor three was 50 years old when he’d made the donation five years earlier. Thanks, but no thanks.

Donor four seemed… good enough: he was in a long-term, committed relationship, his partner fully supported the decision to donate, he didn’t expect to meet the child (but was open to it if a meeting was initiated when they turned 18), and he knew the difference between a comma and semicolon. I even chuckled a couple times as I read his profile. Glory days! Sort of.

I left the clinic with a signed agreement that, within six months, I would begin hormone treatment and use the sperm of donor four. I felt comfortable with that time frame and the understanding that, if I changed my mind or didn’t start the process within that period, the sperm would be made available to someone else.

At about that time, out of the blue, an American friend phoned me to share her news: “I just paid US$1500 to knock myself up!” She met her donor through Cryobank California, one of the two biggest sperm banks in the world. Its donors are fully vetted and screened and are paid up to US$1500 a month for their services – plus gift vouchers and movie tickets. My friend felt she knew her donor intimately: she’d seen his baby pictures, examined his genetic test results, pored over his academic record at Harvard Business School, and could recite by heart his multi-branched Italian/Croatian family tree.

I was envious. How could she know so much about the father of her baby while I was stuck with a few measly paragraphs? A long-planned three-week visit to see my family in California was fast approaching and suddenly I knew how I was going to spend my holiday. The first time I logged on to my Cryobank account, I cried. I was overwhelmed by the quantity and quality of options. There were youthful, virile men of all sizes, shapes, colours, political leanings, religious bents and education levels. When I stumbled across a 28-year-old Jewish filmmaker who worked for the Boston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, my heart soared.

My heart sank, however, when I learned that I’d face arrest if caught entering NZ with a canister of foreign spunk. I briefly considered asking for three months’ leave from work to return to the US, crash out on the floor of my parents’ tiny one-bedroom apartment and try to knock myself up. But I knew the stress would wreak havoc on my ovulation cycle, which notoriously went out of whack whenever I travelled internationally. It was voluntary IVF with my 200-word donor or nothing.

Sometimes, fate intervenes. Not long after I returned from the US, I got lucky, found love, got pregnant the old-fashioned way, and became a mum six weeks before I turned 40. But not everyone gets in-the-nick-of-time lucky. In his podcast interview, Tom Sainsbury referenced the “seven” donors whose sperm was available for lesbian couples (and probably for “others” like me). When I heard that number I despaired. From four to seven donations in 15 years? Was my earlier donor option still on offer?

I know it’s a complex issue. There are myriad ethical, health, safety, social and legal issues to consider and protect. But the impact of having sperm so tightly regulated means a world of stress, anxiety and potential pain for the hundreds of Kiwis who want a baby but need someone else’s swimmers to conceive.

Surely, it’s a classic example of supply and demand. Here, the demand so far outstrips the supply, it undermines what the World Health Organisation deems a basic human right – to have a child. There aren’t many times I say “Let’s follow America’s lead” but, when it comes to sperm donation, I do. Hey, New Zealand – it’s time to break the deafening silence, make an awfully good decision, and come together to turn the Kiwi sperm shortage into a bittersweet vestige of the past.

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