Dilemmas: When a gift is too dangerous

The gift of parenthood is a pretty big one to give to anyone; even doctors involved in new fertility treatments are often accused of playing God. But Nick had been asked to play God in a specific and personal way. The male partner of a young couple he was friendly with was infertile. Would Nick donate his sperm to enable the woman to become pregnant?

Nick was quite game, as was his own partner. They'd been together for 16 years and had never had, or wanted, children. Swearing that he was strong enough not to become emotionally involved, he simply liked the idea of helping. But his other friends thought he was mad. And so did most readers.

How on earth did he have any idea how he would feel? That was the consensus. Children, like love, make idiots of us all, and the birth of this child would almost certainly throw all the relationships around it into chaos.

The infertile father could find himself feeling jealous of his fertile friend; Nick's partner might suddenly feel broody; Nick might see the mother of his child in a sexual light - the possibilities were endless.

'And what are they going to tell the child? And how would Nick feel if the parents died? Or if he felt the child was being cruelly treated? Or what if he suddenly became very wealthy, and the parents decided they wanted some of his money for the child? And if they wanted another, would he be prepared to do it again?' asked Sarah Biggs,

of Painswick, Gloucestershire, who is writing a book on infertility.

'And how, technically, would it be done? At home with a syringe? Because a clinic today would never let this happen. It's all much easier if it's a stranger. The stranger would always be counselled and checked for Aids and inherited disease.'

Then there are the hair- raising legal pitfalls, outlined by Pauline Hillman, a solicitor in family law from Lewes, Sussex. She alerted Nick to a recent case in the United States.

'In Indiana, a retired schoolteacher has been held liable to pay about pounds 67,000 towards his daughter's support, even though the mother signed a contract saying she would never make a claim. The US Court of Appeal held that such a contract was against public policy, and would be so even if the father was acting as a 'sperm bank'.

'Over here, if a man donates sperm to a clinic licensed under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, he will escape the clutches of the Child Support Agency. However, if he makes a private arrangement, the agency may take a similar line to that in the US case.'

Getting cold feet, Nick? I bet you are. And heed the wise words of J G Fielding of St Albans, who commented that although Nick says he has the emotional strength to remain distant from the child, 'will the child have the same determination to have no relationship with its biological father?'

Perhaps the most convincing argument for leaving the donation to a stranger came from an anonymous couple. The mother wrote: 'My husband and I have two teenage children, both conceived by a donor insemination, and it is a great help to have absolutely no idea where the donations came from. No outsider has any interest or claim upon them, and my husband has the absolute security that he is their father because he saw them enter the world, has loved them, nurtured them and provided for them.

'This security would be challenged by the knowledge that a friend was more closely related to it than he was, and maybe took a critical interest in how he was bringing it up.

'I would also wonder why the couple have chosen Nick as 'suitable'. Children come as 'the luck of the draw' - some are born handicapped, some are plain, some are slow learners. Choosing a donor as 'suitable' is going to lead to a lot of disappointment if the child turns out to take after Nick's great-uncle Charlie, who had red hair and a cleft palate.

'Infertility tests people to the limit, and pregnancy and the early months of parenthood can be an anxious time, when a father may feel a failure because his partner has proved herself fertile with someone else's sperm. Most couples in this position find it very hard to talk to friends or family openly, and a good friend such as Nick could be an essential support to them.'

I think there is too great an element of selfishness in Nick's desire to help. I think a bit of him wants to have a child, without the responsibility of bringing it up; and he also wants the warm glow of feeling he has helped his friends. But in the long term, he will be doing nothing but harm by helping to bring a child into a world of adults who will be confused by mixed feelings and uncertainty about who that child really belongs to.

Dear Virginia,

I am gay, and I'd like to ask my 13-year-old nephew to stay for a couple of days in the holidays. He could bring a friend - but I'd like to show him London and get to know him better. I'm no scene queen and am normally in bed by midnight. But my brother, my nephew's father, is a farmer - socially and politically conservative.

When he meets my gay friends he is courteous but not exactly friendly. Whenever I ask the family to stay they refuse, but my brother has brought my nephew by on several occasions when passing. Once they met one of my black friends, and that was the first time my nephew had spoken to a black person.

Despite the apparent success of such visits, my invitations continue to be fobbed off. How can I become more of an uncle to my nephew? Should I speak to my brother- or sister-in-law, or my nephew alone? Do I write - though we never usually do that? I don't want my nephew growing up thinking that I am uncaring, or that gay people are ashamed of themselves.

Yours sincerely, Chris

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