A woman plans a baby but doesn't tell the man. Is he a victim of 'gene theft' or simply fair game? Elisabeth Winkler meets a self-confessed sperm hunter and an unwilling donor
What happens when a woman wants a baby but hasn't got a man? Today a woman has the option to go it alone - all she needs is the sperm to get her started. But sperm banks in the private sector are expensive and the NHS may present a single woman with bureaucratic hurdles. No wonder some women cut out the middleman and find their own donor.

Malcolm Stern, author of The Courage To Love (to be published by Piatkus in November) has been asked four times to father a child. "It's very flattering to be told that your genes are nice enough to pass on. It's an honour. My instant reaction is to say yes. If a woman wants to do it her way that's fine by me. But there are hidden repercussions for a man. My fear was, suppose I fell in love with my child but couldn't be with it? So in the end I said no."

Not all men are asked so openly. One who felt duped into fathering a child says: "She made the right decision for herself but at my expense. She didn't care about my predicament. It was as if I'd outlived my usefulness."

His ex-girlfriend didn't want to be interviewed; as far as she was concerned the pregnancy was an accident. According to the Family Planning Association (FPA), few women will admit that they sperm-hunted to get a child. "An accident is OK because it shows a woman can't control her fertility," says Michele Misgalla, spokeswoman for the FPA, "but the thought of a woman taking active and sole control makes a lot of people feel uneasy."

Terms like "gene theft" have been used where a woman's reproductive intent disregards the need for male consent. What are men's rights? "Women have been left holding the baby since time began so surely they can take the decisions about their fertility?" says a spokeswoman for Women's Health. "As long as men fail to take responsibility for contraception, they have forfeited their rights." Or as one male friend put it, a man who has sex without a condom is freely donating his sperm.

Is this the ultimate liberation for women? Denis Knowles for Relate, the counselling charity, is dubious. "How far down the line of freedom do we go? It's a sad day when a man's only input in his child's life is his sperm. Children have a burning need to know where they came from and it's selfish to have a baby this way when it denies the child its father."

But psychosexual therapist and agony aunt Trisha Kreitman thinks that sometimes there's a case for going it alone. "When you look at the figures for domestic violence and child abuse, having a baby this way can seem a sane choice. Women are making use of their freedom to design a life which protects their child from trauma."

Liberty brings with it moral dilemmas. Unlike artificial insemination, gene procurement has not been extensively debated. Bruce Lidington of Families Need Fathers injects a practical solution into the debate. "Society is stuck in an either/or mentality as if the only two choices are the perfect cornflake family or the single parent. What about a third model, of shared care? Once the shock has worn off, many men want to stand by their child. The adult-adult relationship may be a write-off but the father- child one can still be allowed to grow."

KEN'S daughter was conceived eight years ago on his first date with Gilly, whom he knew casually from his sports club. "Contraception was not discussed. She'd invited me into her bed and I assumed she'd taken the necessary measures. Afterwards I didn't want to pursue the relationship so I made my excuses."

Gilly took the hint and no longer appeared at the gym. But six months later she contacted him. She was pregnant and did he want to be involved? She gave no explanation about how it happened, but he has since found out the pregnancy was planned. "Looking back I realise she had designs on me before that first date. She had her eye on the whole package, me and the child."

Convinced he wasn't the father, he dismissed "the lady and her baby" from his mind. But 18 months later he was summoned to court and ordered to pay maintenance to his daughter Natasha. He disputed paternity, unsuccessfully, despite inconclusive blood tests. "I was naive and left it to legal experts. I've been on a steep learning curve since then."

Nowadays his legal battles are fought on a different front, preparing cases for his right to spend more time with Natasha. This turn-around occurred after he met her for the first time. "After the court case, my peace of mind was shattered. Supposing I was the father, how terrible it would be that I wasn't involved. So I sent Natasha a birthday card and was invited to spend the day with them. As soon as I saw Natasha I knew she was mine. She was the spitting image of my sister sitting in her pushchair. There was an instant bond."

The adults arranged that he would visit Natasha monthly but, next time, Gilly wasn't so accommodating. "She was jealous. She didn't want to share her plaything. Also she realised I was so smitten by my beautiful daughter, I was blind to her mother's presence. After that Gilly made contact a pig. She's been greatly disturbed that I wish to be part of Natasha's life."

An engineer, Ken has spent thousands of pounds on legal fees to secure his paternal role. "As a man I feel marginalised: an unmarried father has no rights - only financial obligations. I'm nothing more than a wallet on legs."

Gilly has since moved to the other end of the country, to discourage him, Ken thinks. He is not beaten and six times a year he does a 600-mile round-trip to see Natasha. The visits, which last an hour and a half, can be an exercise in loss and frustration. "We get on great but it's hard sometimes that I can't pick her up and give her a great big squeeze. But I've never had that hands-on relationship which builds naturally with a baby. There are so many lovely things I can't share with her and that hurts. But I'm just going to keep plodding along. I think the absolute world of her - the love just gets bigger."

JUDE'S daughter, Sita, is 20 months old, conceived within a three-week relationship with Dominic. Jude had been friends with Dominic for the previous five years but since finding out about the pregnancy, Dominic has cut off all contact. They had met when studying to be educational psychologists and Jude was immediately taken with him. "He's not conventionally good-looking but he has a rare mind," says Jude, 29. "He's witty, astute and innovative and his charisma put everyone else in the shade."

Jude became friendly with him and his partner Rachel, who both supported her during her marriage split-up. Rachel was a manic-depressive and Jude's goodwill was often pressed into service either financially or to help look after their three young sons. "I was spending as much time with the boys as Rachel and that's when the desire to have Dominic's child began to surface. His children are so unconventional, comical, and loveable that I longed for one like them. At nights I would have a recurring dream of having his baby."

The relationship remained resolutely platonic and all thoughts of having his child began to recede. For a while Jude lost contact then she heard from a distraught Dominic. Rachel had left and once again Jude's help was needed. "I felt very centred, living in the same house with him," explains Jude. "I wasn't bothered by any of those old, dormant feelings. Then one night, out of the blue, Dominic said he wanted to have sex with me. Here we both were, our respective spouses out of the picture; at last - I couldn't believe my luck!

"Over the next three weeks I concentrated everything on conceiving. I prayed, focused my will and slept with him at every opportunity. Every fibre of my being was shouting 'Give me your sperm!' and after making love, I'd lie there, holding everything in. I knew exactly when I'd conceived, like a tiny spark of light exploding in my abdomen. Being pregnant by him was something my body had wanted for so long. I wanted his genes, his agility of mind, his talent. I knew we would make a fantastic kid - and we did."

Jude had told Dominic that she had not used contraception. At first his response was "it's your body" but when reality dawned, he was not so philosophical. "I saw a side to him I'd never seen, that he couldn't cope, it was too incestuous. I was furious when he blanked me and I still miss his sons terribly. But my joy about the pregnancy didn't diminish. I was ecstatic, I'd fulfiled the dream. All that mattered was my baby, this sacred, precious gift which he had unwittingly given me."

Now she is relieved to be alone. "If I'd been with him, I'd never have been able to create such a rich and harmonious environment. This way I've got no distractions, I can really give myself to my relationship with Sita. I feel so blessed to be her mother, she's a constantly evolving little miracle."