By the time that Seyi Joseph was 26, she was ready to have a child. She had a good job, a nice house, and felt financially secure. There was just one tiny problem: she was single.
Joseph, now 32, had considered adoption but had been turned down because she was too young. So she considered sperm donation. But on arriving at a fertility clinic close to her home in Swanscombe, Kent, she discovered that each treatment cost £1,000 and would only have a 20 per cent success rate. She found a US website that matched potential donors with women who wanted to conceive, and posted her details. But even this failed to achieve results: she got pregnant, but suffered a miscarriage after six weeks.
So she took matters into her own hands. Last September she went ahead and set up a website, feelingbroody.com, that matches sperm donors with potential parents. Already around 500 people have signed up to the service, either offering or seeking sperm.
The British organisation Donor Conception Network, says record numbers of women in their thirties are enquiring about using sperm donors; with a third of 35-year-old women single, sperm donation is more relevant than ever.
"I decided I wanted to do something for those living in Britain who sought a donor and didn't want to pay extortionate fees," explains Joseph. "I wanted a lot more choice in who the donor was, something that simply wasn't offered by the clinic I went to. Turns out there were many other people in the same position." Feeling Broody allows wannabe parents to browse donors' details, such as height, sexual orientation, eye colour and the amount of contact that the donor would like with the child. For a price, users can obtain donors' medical information. The website also has a "fertility store" with home pregnancy test-kits and syringes.
Joseph hopes her service will allow potential parents a greater degree of control – she found that many private clinics insist that the donor should be the same race as the woman receiving the sperm, for example. On the flipside, such a process doesn't offer the same degree of protection as a licensed clinic. There is a nothing to stop a donor who has taken part in an insemination outside a clinic from mounting a legal challenge to gain access to a child.
But so far, so good for Joseph, who is now the proud mother of a 10-month-old boy, Alex. Joseph says most of the men on the website just "want their genes out there". Some want to co-parent – namely, share responsibility for a child without being in a relationship. Some are gay, some are straight, some are doing it without their wives' knowledge, others are anonymous.
"I find that most gay couples want a donor but don't want any contact with the biological father," she says. "I wanted to co-parent because that was important to me. Other women I think can handle it on their own with no support whatsoever. Most of the guys on the website are quite flexible. Not many want to co-parent, but you need to be aware of the financial ramifications. Most don't mind meeting up with the kids. I think very few would want to be totally anonymous. That said, the majority don't want to be involved in the kid's life." As for herself, "I don't know why, but I always wanted children from a very young age," she explains. "I come from a large family – my mother and father both have lots of siblings. I guess it was the way I was made. When I was younger I decided I was well-off enough to do it. I did give relationships a try but when guys figured out that was what I wanted it scared a lot of them off. But I soon realised that I would be comfortable doing it all on my own."
Seeking a sperm donor can often be a difficult experience. It has not been helped by changes in the law. In April 2005 the Government lifted anonymity for egg and sperm donors. Now anyone born by donated sperm, eggs or embryos can obtain identifying information about the donor once they reach the age of 18. This has given the children involved more rights – something many of the children involved were desperate for – but sperm donor numbers have plummeted. In 1996, 417 men registered as sperm donors in the UK. By 2008, that number had nose-dived to 284.
"It was incredibly hard trying to find a donor before I set up my website," says Joseph. "When you do find them, and you arrange to meet, sometimes they don't turn up. When I was dealing with the donor in the US it was costing me £800 to have the sperm shipped over each time. I got into a lot of debt. I lost my home. At times I was an emotional wreck. Every time it didn't work out – well, you can imagine what happened. I was very sad and tired. I couldn't tell people about it because there is this sort of stigma attached to sperm donation. People think you're sad and can't get a guy. I'm from an African family and they have been very supportive though – they waited long enough to have grandchildren. "
Bringing up a child without someone at the very least sharing the responsibility every couple of weeks can be tough. "It is challenging," she says. "I am the only one who wakes up if the baby needs something in the middle of the night. I haven't had enough sleep in 10 months. But I didn't want him to feel like he was the only one of his friends without a dad when he got older, which is the point in having a known donor. I am good friends with the child's father. It is definitely beneficial for my son to have him in his life."
The stigma attached to sperm donation has dissipated in recent months, thanks in no small part to the influence of Hollywood.
In April, the actress Jennifer Aniston hinted that she would consider using a sperm donor to get pregnant. Aniston is set to star in The Baster, released in the UK next year, a romantic comedy about a 40-year-old woman who uses a sperm sample and a turkey baster to have a baby.
Such arrangements are not always ideal for the mother's peace of mind. While the biological father of Joseph's child gets to see their son every two weeks, and pays her a weekly stipend of £30 for the child's upkeep, he still has grounds to make a legal challenge for custody.
"He is a handsome father really, and he was fantastic at the birth," she says. "But it's a bit scary because is he going to wake up one morning, when the child is older, and want him to go live with him? I am scared I will lose [Alex], along with information relating to co-parenting and sperm donation. But I don't think he is that type of guy. I have to trust him."
Needless to say, not everyone is convinced about Joseph's business. "After a couple of contacts it sometimes happens that men suggest "the natural route"; and you also don't get the protection which a licensed clinic would offer in terms of testing for various diseases," says Olivia Montuschi, a spokesperson for the Donor Conception Network. "Also, if people's legal positions are not well laid-out to begin with it can result in a very traumatic court case, or considerable friction within a family. This should not be encouraged." The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has also repeatedly expressed concern over the lack of adequate screening and potentially misleading legal advice from web-based fresh sperm donation services.
But Joseph's love for her son has convinced her she has made the right choice.
"Being a mother is wonderful. There is nothing like it," she says. "It is challenging, but the rewards make you happy. Nothing compares to it. I would do it again in a heartbeat. I love him so much; I am crazy about him."
Sperm donation: The legal issues
* The mother who gives birth to the child is always the mother of the child (the only exception is a surrogacy arrangement).
* Whether the biological father is legally the father of the child, however, and whether the mother's partner (male or female) is recognised as the child's second parent, depends on whether the insemination took place at a licensed clinic or under a private arrangement (for example, through a sperm-parent online introduction service such as feelingbroody.com).
* If artificial insemination took place in a clinic licensed by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, then the mother's partner will automatically legally be the "father" (if male) or the "other parent" (if female), as long as the mother's partner and the sperm donor both sign the necessary paperwork. Recognised parenthood also depends on whether the mother's partner agreed to the mother being inseminated (or to IVF treatment).
* Where the arrangement was a private one rather than through a licensed clinic, legal parenthood for same-sex couples depends on whether or not your arrangement falls within the conditions set out in section 42 of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. If it does, the mother's civil partner will be the child's second parent and the biological father will have no legal connection to the son or daughter. If it does not, then the sperm donor counts as the father.
* To meet the conditions of section 42 for same-sex couples, the following four criteria must be fulfilled: the mother must have been artificially inseminated; the insemination must have taken place on or after 6 April 2009 (if it took place before that date, then the old law applies and the sperm donor is the legal father); the mother must have been in a civil partnership at the time of the insemination; and the mother's civil partner must have given their consent to the insemination.
* In a heterosexual couple, the situation is very similar. The conditions of fulfilling section 42 are that the mother has been artificially inseminated; that the mother was married at the time of insemination; and that the mother's husband consented to the insemination.
For more information see alternativefamilylaw.co.ukReuse content