Real Living: Diary of a sperm donor
Why donate your seed to an anonymous woman who wants children? Andrew Gordon is a man who knows the answer
Sunday 03 January 1999
The Malvern Hills
A gentle breeze brushes my face and I watch skylarks dance above the heather. It's a glorious sunny day. Just a few miles away, my unborn child's life is being brought to an unnatural end.
It's nearly two months since we were given the news. After the initial shock we found strength in a naive optimism which allowed us to plan a contented life together with our child. Giving up a dry university course seemed an easy sacrifice.
Now I have to believe it is the right decision to stop the dreaming and face reality. It is certainly Anne's right to make it: it's her life which would be irreversibly thrown into confusion and she's too young to be trapped.
Last night I summoned a local Catholic priest in the hope he might be able to change her mind; he failed. This is painful to write and painful to confront.
4 October 1989, Hampshire
My eyes were wide open when I married my first wife, Jane. I had convinced myself that having children was not important. I loved her and that was all that mattered.
Gradually I learn of the pain, hope and disappointment she experienced as she endured IVF treatment during her first marriage. Helpless, I watch the emptiness and the sadness eating into her and I begin to appreciate why some childless couples will sacrifice so much in pursuit of a family.
14 April 1998, London
I am watching a television programme about children born through IVF in America and their desire to meet their genetic fathers. It's emotional, and slightly bizarre. It's not the first such programme I've watched.
So here I am. I've convinced myself that I will never be able to cope with the upheaval of being a father and yet there are primitive voices in my head. I am the last male in the family and the genetic line ends here.
What has drawn me into the world of IVF? Is it pure altruism stemming from the memory of Jane's despair and a desire to help those whose stories have been so vividly told in the media? Or is it a selfish search for a means of exorcising the pain which still lingers and the gratification of establishing my own anonymous immortality. Maybe I'll discover the answer only when it's all over.
How to begin? There must be hundreds of sperm donors and I have never knowingly met any of them. Whom do I ask?
"This is the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. How may I help you?" The officious voice confirms my suspicions: this is going to be a cold, clinical process. She agrees to send an information pack and I can feel a tinge of excitement as I take a first step into this sinister, anonymous world.
I browse through the "List of Centres which carry out recruitment of Sperm Donors": Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, Leeds, Whalley Range (where?), Aberdeen. My mind drifts. I begin to feel like a god: I can choose where I wish to father a child. Do I want him brought up a Geordie, a Scouser or a... what do they call someone from Whalley Range? Harley Street is more me. I call.
"I'd like to enquire about becoming a..." The next word hangs uneasily. What kind of men do this anyway? Muscly students after the price of a round in the bar? Sad middle-aged men who never really succeeded in becoming full members of the human race? I consider replacing the receiver.
I have fallen at the first post: I just can't say the word and she has to do it for me.
"Egg or sperm?"
The image of a waitress in an American diner comes to mind. "Sperm," I say. I've done it; there's no turning back now.
"Come in on Monday morning," she says. "You must not have intercourse between now and then."
7 September, London W1
I have prepared carefully for this: healthy food all weekend, plenty of mineral water. No alcohol has passed my lips and my friends believe there is something wrong with me.
I stride confidently across the street.
"I'm sorry," they tell me at reception, "the lady who does all this has had to go home. Could you come back later in the week?"
I sip tea at DH Evans and feel rejected and belittled.
8 September, London W1
I sit talking to Sarah, one of the clinic's assistants. She tells me my life may change unexpectedly. Suppose I remarry - how would I feel about all this then? Have I thought carefully about two people I will never know using my gametes? Self-doubt almost persuades me to give up. I try to persuade her that I really have thought all this through but she looks unconvinced.
"How old are you?"
I can see the relief on her face. "I'm sorry. We have an age limit of 40."
Back sipping tea in DH Evans. Retirement is all I have to look forward to. There's a Calvin Klein advert in the perfume department. It shows a fit young dad playing joyfully with his son. Suddenly I feel like an outcast who's missed out on "real" life by three years.
Defiantly I return to Harley Street; someone here must need me.
9 September, 3pm, London W1
I am sitting chatting to an eminent andrologist and scientist in the country. When I ask whether I am too old for his clinic he smiles: 43 is quite acceptable here, he says. We carry on talking. I am impressed by his determination to screen potential clients carefully; money, he insists, cannot be the prime motive. The government is considering changes to the law relating to the rights of children born through IVF. There may be implications for the anonymity of donors. How do I feel about this? Do I know that a child born using my sperm has the right to sue me for damages if I pass on unstable genes? I enjoy this, the ethical debate - and I'm living it.
He takes me to the "Special" room. It's not what I'd expected - I'd heard about sexy videos and pornography to thumb through and I'm relieved to find no sign of it.
Gingerly I pass the container to the nurse. Was it okay? I mean are there donors who manage to fill it to the brim? Would she reject me there and then?
While I sit waiting for the result I am given forms to complete. What do I want done with the frozen sperm should I die? Do I wish to apply conditions to it use? And now the difficult part - I have to write about myself so that my children are able to gain some insight into their natural father. I feel uneasy; for the first time I see the image of a child. What do I say? Do I explain why I'm doing this? Do I say I love them and wish them a happy journey through life? I take the easy way out. "I enjoy travel, literature, good food..."
Would a child really want to read this? Everyone loves good food and not many hate travel. I resolve to write it later.
I wait for the result of the tests which will establish whether I am infertile and, more importantly, whether my donations could be frozen; I am told many samples prove unacceptable. I pretend to edit a script, trying to appear calm and only vaguely interested in the result. Inside I'm stressed and begin to prepare myself for disappointment.
"It's a good sample. Come back next Tuesday for the first of three blood tests." The man presses a pounds 5 note into my hand. I don't want it - I didn't come here to make money. I ask him to find a charity for it.
15 September, Virgin Express
A girl from Dorchester sits opposite me in the restaurant car. She is carrying her 12-week-old son. Instead of my usual scowl I find myself smiling at the baby. What's happening to me? She breastfeeds and I go on smiling; two weeks ago I would have felt shocked and embarrassed.
I want to tell her why I'm travelling up to town, but I daren't: she may see me as some sort of pervert.
By 3.30pm two neat plasters cover the veins in my arms. "You have a 50/50 chance of carrying a virus. Don't worry, about half the population has it. It doesn't affect you, but the foetus doesn't like it."
The foetus. For some reason the word hits me heavily: it's all becoming real.
"Ring on Friday."
Why am I so depressed on the return journey?
18 September, 930am
Positive thinking is good. This positive I discover is not so good. I'm one of half the population who carries an innocuous virus (cytomegalovirus) which will do me no harm but the foetus is likely to find it unacceptable. Before I have time to respond, the bearer of the news continues: "We'd still like you to come in next Tuesday for some more tests."
It's not over. I'm not sure whether to feel happy or sad.
The consultant is off to a conference in Los Angeles next week. We discuss his speech and he shares some of the light-hearted anecdotes he intends to include. Do I have any amusing additions? I'm lying on a couch with my trousers down and I'm not sure whether any jokes will come readily to mind. They're all about female participation in IVF research and include an adulterated chemical periodic table with some change to the number 69. Do I think he may alienate some of his audience? Can I suggest any amusing alterations? I'm lying on a couch with my trousers down and I'm not sure whether any jokes will come readily to mind.
"We thought it was worth going on with you as you're such a nice chap." He smiles. "If the tests for HIV, cystic fibrosis, chromosome abnormality, syphilis, hepatitis A and B are all okay we can take three months of donations. We'll be able to use them for any recipient who also carries the cytomegalovirus."
I'm a second-class donor but I suppose they think that my contributions to the world of fertility might produce nice kids.
As I sit waiting, a well-built young man emerges from the office carrying a sample container. Sheepishly, he heads for the Special Room but goes through the wrong door and finds himself in the linen cupboard. I observe him carefully. I'm behaving like a jealous bull in a field of friesian cows. He makes me look geriatric. As I sign the book and receive my pounds 5 I notice that we are the only two donors at the moment. It's just me and him. Let the genes war commence.
I listen to a radio discussion on IVF this morning. A representative from an adoption agency accuses couples undergoing IVF treatment of being selfish. He says there are plenty of children awaiting adoption. Surely he's the one who's treating children as commodities and denying the power of the genetic drive. Once again the ethics and morality of IVF generate heated debate.
Front page of The Independent on Sunday - Danes come to the rescue of sperm banks. The final paragraph reads: "A British sperm bank did do a lot of advertising in Bristol, spending pounds 30,000 in total, and only one man came forward."
There are regional shortages of sperm donors in this country, and ethnic minorities are particularly under-represented, writes Tobias Jones. The normal payment per donation is unlikely to be more than pounds 15. Students make up the vast majority of donors, particularly medical students. Men will be turned down if they have ever been intravenous drug users, or are haemophiliacs who might have received infected "Factor Eight" blood, or (it is recommended) if they have had any homosexual contact. Donations are not taken from men under 18, or over 55 unless there are "exceptional reasons" to do so.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 provides a legal framework to protect the interests of donors, children and legal parents. Although a sperm donor has no legal rights or obligations over any child born, the Authority does have a confidential register of information, so that a child born through treatment can - when 16 or older - find out if they are about to marry a genetic relative. The identity of the donor will not be disclosed.
Donated sperm will be screened for disease, and then frozen and quarantined for at least six months. An attempt is made to match the physical characteristics of the donor to the male partner: hair colour, blood group, skin colour. There is a limit of 10 offspring per donor.
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