Health: The mother and father of all gifts: A sperm donor and an egg donor tell David J Cohen and Lisa Jeune why they are prepared to risk embarrassment and discomfort to become the anonymous givers of life

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Iain: the sperm donor's story

Iain Godwin is a 28-year-old policeman living in the Midlands. He is married with two children, aged four and five.

'About two years ago, I was having a pint with a friend who confided in me that he had a low sperm count. He said that it was causing distress because he and his wife were desperate for children. I had read that the local IVF clinic was short of sperm donors and it got me thinking about people who can't have children and that perhaps, as a healthy male, I could help.

'My wife was dead against it - she had visions of our children unknowingly bumping into my test-tube offspring later in life and falling in love. But I wasn't bothered by such unlikely hypothetical scenarios, so I went ahead and called the clinic at the local hospital.

'The first time I went, I was incredibly nervous. I had to give myself a pep talk just to ask the receptionist for directions, and when I did, the words 'sperm clinic' stuck in my throat.

'Once inside though, the head of the clinic put me at ease. He asked me why I wanted to give sperm and then he ran through the procedure about how they freeze the sperm and test it, and said that if my sperm was strong enough and my blood was healthy, I would be invited back. He told me about this business in America where test-tube children have sued their biological fathers for maintenance, but assured me that the service was totally confidential and that that couldn't happen in the UK.

'Then he gave me a small medical bottle and asked me if I'd like to go into the cubicle and make my donation. The cubicle was as you'd expect it to be - bare, with a sink, a couple of seats, a big roll of tissues and a lot of Penthouse and Mayfair magazines on the chairs. What impressed me was that it was so clean. The chairs were covered in clean tissue paper, the magazines were new and it didn't smell of sperm. I felt apprehensive about whether I could do the business, but the gorgeous naked women in the magazines helped me get into the right frame of mind and ejaculating wasn't a problem. The difficult part was aiming into such a small bottle.

'There were only three cubicles and sometimes when I went I would have to wait with four or five other guys until one became free. The atmosphere in the waiting room was a bit awkward and we sat in silence, buried in newspapers. Sometimes we'd bump into each other handing in our bottles and we'd stare at our feet and avoid eye contact. Even when I was on my own, I felt uncomfortable handing in my sperm and I would plonk it on the counter rather than pass it to the nurse. After I had been doing it a few weeks though, my embarrassment subsided.

'You're paid pounds 20 a time, which is not bad loot, and I suppose that over seven months I received about pounds 500, which I used as beer money. When I told my police colleagues, they all wanted to have a go, and in the end I recruited about 20 of them. We used to go once a week, three or four of us in the car, and half my unit would be up there donating sperm: 'Thrash for cash' they called it. Some of the lads joked that they would give the nurse half their fee if she would do it for them. And there was a lot of ribbing when two of the chaps went in together and one took three minutes to ejaculate and the other 15.

'They tell you not to have sex for 48 hours before you donate, so if my wife wanted sex on a Wednesday, I would have to say: 'Sorry love, I'm giving sperm tomorrow.' It was just one night a week, so disruption to normal service was minimal.

'The donors are all regular guys. Obviously, to deliver the goods, you have to wank, which in some circles is still taboo. I'm not shy to put up my hand and admit that I masturbate. At work, when I walk into a room and someone shouts 'wanker', I treat it as a joke. That mentality is why they're so short of donors in the first place.

'The clinic has got my full quota of sperm now, which means that I don't donate any more. Occasionally I wonder who my sperm is going to, although I have no idea whether I have successfully fathered anyone. To be honest, I don't think much about it. I never look at newborns and wonder whether they are mine. Even if they are, I don't feel anything - not for the woman, not for the child - because I don't see myself as their father. I don't dream about it, I don't have sleepless nights about it. I think that most men who donate sperm are the same.'

Donna: my eggs can help

Donna Damoussi, below, was spurred into donating her eggs to help infertile women by the birth of her own son, Amir, now aged three-and-a-half. 'The joy I got from the birth of my son was something I had never felt before - I was overwhelmed by it,' she recalls. 'About that time I read an article in a magazine about a couple who could not conceive - their whole life was wrapped up in trying to have a baby. They were arguing and unhappy.

'The article said they attended a clinic that was looking for egg donors. I felt so sorry for them. Having a child is something every man and woman thinks they can do - to find out you cannot must be unbearable.'

So far, Mrs Damoussi, 28, has donated 22 of her own eggs to an egg bank, operated by the Assisted Conception Unit at the Lister Hospital in London. The four eggs retrieved in the first treatment cycle were used by doctors to help one woman; the 18 in the second treatment went to help a further three. Because donors are not told about the outcome of treatment, Mrs Damoussi will never know whether any of the women became pregnant.

'It is none of my business who the recipient is - although it would be nice to know if one's efforts were rewarded,' she says.

She is one of the relatively few women - just over 1,000 since August 1991 - prepared to donate eggs. Separated from her husband, she lives with her son in south London. According to Deanna Lemonsky, the counsellor at the Lister's Assisted Conception Unit, she is a typical female donor. 'These women are mostly young mums, who have either read an article about egg donation or who have a friend who cannot have children. They feel so fortunate that they want to give the happiness they feel about their own families to somebody else. It is very moving.' Mrs Damoussi receives no payment, although the Lister reimburses her travel expenses. The clinic has more than 600 patients waiting for a donor, and many will wait for two years. For donors the age limit is 35; for recipients, 50.

Mrs Damoussi is unusual in that she has donated her eggs twice and is prepared to do it again, despite the fact that it is a lengthy process involving drug treatment and a small operation. The donors have hormone injections for up to two weeks to make their ovaries super-ovulate. The eggs are then collected through the vaginal wall under either local or general anaesthetic.

Mrs Damoussi, who injected herself with the hormones, has suffered no pain or ill-effects from the two treatment cycles she has undergone. But women who have fertility injections are at risk of developing hyperstimulation syndrome when too many eggs, usually more than 12, are produced. This can cause breast tenderness and fluid retention.

Mrs Damoussi is not dismayed by the possibility of becoming the biological mother of up to 10 children, whom she will never know. 'Amir is the child that I wanted. I do not see the eggs I donate as my potential children. The mother is the one who does all the work.'

Her practical but generous philosophy extends to other areas. She gives blood regularly and is on a list for potential bone marrow donors. 'People have gifts in life. I am not academic, but my gift in life is to do things for other people. I believe one should help when one can.'

Her parents support what she does, although her mother expresses anxieties. What if Amir should marry a girl who was the result of her egg donation? The reaction of close friends is mixed, although some girlfriends have expressed interest in doing the same.

When living with her husband, Mrs Damoussi was keen to become a donor but he was against it, she says. 'He couldn't understand why I wanted to do it. I think he was frightened.'

Will she tell Amir that he may have biological brothers and sisters? 'Sometime in the future I will explain that some people cannot have children and Mummy has helped them,' she says.

Would she like the recipients of her eggs to tell any offspring that they are a result of egg donation? 'It is not for me to say,' she says. 'But, surely one of the reasons that there are so few people coming forward to donate eggs is that this whole thing is kept so quiet - it is like a horrible secret for all involved.

'It should not be something to be ashamed of. I am proud to be able to help somebody to have a child of their own.'

THE RULES AND REGULATIONS

Under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, except in certain circumstances where the donor is known to the recipient, the identities of donors are confidential. No information that would reveal the identity of the donor may be given to the couples treated with their eggs or sperm, to any children born as a result or to the public. Unauthorised disclosure of donors' names is a criminal offence with a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority regulates fertility treatment and embryo research and has a legal duty to tell people aged 18 or over, born as a result of donation, basic details of the donor if they ask. Those aged 16 who want to marry can be told if they could be related to their future spouses.

To answer these questions, the authority keeps a confidential register of donors' names and dates of birth and collects donors' personal details such as eye and hair colour, occupation and interests.

HFEA regulations also state:

Donors should not be not told about the outcome of treatment nor the identities of the recipients.

Donors can be paid up to pounds 15 for their services, plus travel expenses. In practice, male donors generally get paid, while women do not: since egg donation is a more invasive and lengthy process, women would not be attracted by a payment of pounds 15. Eggs are often donated by women about to be sterilised, who can then be offered private sterilisation free of charge.

The maximum number of babies that can be produced from one donor is 10, apart from exceptional circumstances where a recipient wants another child from the same donor.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA): Paxton House, 30 Artillery Lane, London E1 7LS.

Assisted Conception Unit, Lister Hospital: 071-259 9038 (quote ref 104 769).

Needs (National Egg and Embryo Donation Society): 061 276 6000.

(Photographs omitted)

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