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November 10, 2004
by Bettina Arndt

"Make Me a Mum." That's the title of what it's critics are calling "the sickest ever reality show," currently being planned for Britain television by Brighter Pictures, the company which produces Big Brother.

Make Me a Mum is a sperm race. A woman will take fertility drugs to produce eggs and 1,000 men will compete to have their sperm selected for a competition to create a baby. The race will be between two finalists - a man selected for his sex appeal, personality, wealth and fitness by the mum-to-be and a man selected by scientists for the quality of his sperm. At the end of the six part series, viewers will watch to see which sperm wriggles its way first into the egg, which is then implanted in the woman's womb.

Crazy stuff, eh? The idea has rightly brought the ethics boffins out in force, condemning the creation of children for television fodder. British reproductive ethics expert Josephine Quintavalle was disgusted:"My first thoughts go to the child who will be created - what is he or she going to be told about how they were conceived?"

There are children being created in Australia today who are also destined to discover disturbing truths about how they were conceived. All over the country, hundreds of men are lining up to offer their sperm to strangers - sperm to produce children they may never know, children who may never find out whose sperm won the race to their mother's egg.

These are the children conceived via the internet, chosen by mothers who scan donors' ads for the biological father for their child. "I have a very high sperm count and motility", boasts one donor currently advertising on an Australian site. "Great Dad quality here!" claims another. "Sperm Donor with High IQ," says a third.

One hundred and twelve donors are offering their semen on a single South Australian internet site. Lesbian couple, Sally Ryan and Jenny Mann set up their site, The Australian Sperm Donor Registry, to help other same sex couples but now almost two-thirds of the donors and a third of the recipients are heterosexual. The men are not paid for their services - the recipients pay $50 for access to each donor plus a $50 registration fee. Most of the men claim to be driven by altruism: "I detest needles so donating blood is out of the question. This is a way I can do something to help," writes one on his donor profile.

They all talk about wanting to help women have children. For some it's an act of defiance. They are deliberately helping lesbian women conceive because they object to government's denying them access to IVF clinics. And they see it as something they can do without too much bother.

"If I have something and am able to help someone else and it's not going to cost me, then I'll do it." This is a 46 year old Melbourne project manager. I'll call him Eric.* He's heterosexual, divorced with no children from his marriage. His hunch is there are something like twenty to thirty kids somewhere in Australia, born as a result of his 18 years of sperm donation. He started donating in clinics after meeting infertile couples during investigations of his former wife's infertility. But now he's branched out to the internet where he's mainly donating to lesbian couples.

In case you were wondering, private donation involves the delivery of semen in a specimen jar - although the internet sites do attract the odd crank keen on delivery "the natural way". There's about a two hour window for delivery of the fresh sample, organized for when the woman is ovulating. And the turkey baster once fashionable for lesbian self-insemination is no longer in favour, having been replaced by syringes (without needles) which waste less of the precious fluid. The real worry is this "fresh" semen hasn't been tested and shown to be disease-free - as is the case with frozen semen used by clinics. Some people making private arrangements organize these tests - but not all. Eric has met women who don't care less: "Often the women just want the sperm and don't seem to care about quality or anything else at all," he says.

For Eric, moving into internet donation has led to a real novelty - he's actually involved in the lives of some of these children. Not too involved, mind you. "There are about eight kids I do run into occasionally . Some mothers want to catch up on the child's birthdays, others don't want to know me at all." Eric's been happy to supply semen anonymously (all his early donations via the clinics were anonymous): "Some women didn't want any of my contact details, didn't even want my surname. We did it all on just a first name basis and I've never heard from them since."

That was just fine by Eric although he does acknowledge that not being able to trace a parent would be a problem. "I would not want to have someone live their life wondering where they came from, what dad looked like" he says, seemingly unconcerned about the inconsistencies in his position.

He realizes some children may want to contact him when they reach adulthood- although he's quite happy to leave it to their mothers to decide whether they will ever have his contact details. But those kids shouldn't expect too much from this meeting. "I don't want children landing on my doorstep. I don't want to be involved with them. If the kids want that, it's not going to be possible from me. I don't want to be a father. I've got no fathering instincts at all."

Eric doesn't like it when he's questioned about the fallout for these children of never be able to trace their biological father or tracking him down only to be brushed off. Asked whether he felt any responsibility for them, his answer was short. "No, I don't!" He adds in a peevish tone: "You're causing me a lot of bother. I don't know why I rang you."

Eric's fecundity palls in comparison with an American donor in email correspondence with an Australian Donor Insemination (DI) support group, who claims to have over 600 children, the last 100 through the internet. He acknowledges that to meet them all would be "taxing."

Talking to sixteen Australian sperm donors, there were many who made it clear they are not too keen on these questions. They simply weren't interested in the repercussions of what they were doing for the children - they focussed only on the rights of the mothers. The most thoughtful tend to be the gay donors who seek to create some sort of family. Many of these donors are conscious of a clock ticking - most are in their late thirties or forties and saddened by missing out on children. Like Noel Posus, a 37 year old, gay Sydney life coach. He's just put his name down on a donor website. His motivation: "I have quite a lot of love to give". But that love doesn't come with strings. While he'd prefer to have contact, it is not essential - "I'm happy to be in a father-like role. If I could support the family in any way, emotionally financially, I would."

He'd prefer the children eventually had his contact details but he's happy to leave this decision up to the lesbian couple. "They are the parents and I'd want them to make that call." he says. He doesn't put much store in biology origins partly due to his own background. Posus was born the thirteenth child to an American family who arranged for him to be adopted by friends. Raised in a happy family, Posus discovered his true origins at thirteen but does not see that knowledge as having had a huge impact on his life - hence his faith that if he chooses the right couple, the children will do just fine.

Incidentally, Posus' biological father did a great job spreading his seed. "My father got around a lot. He even put into his will that anyone who claimed to be an heir to his estate got one dollar, just in case he'd lost count," says Posus.

The belief that mothers know best was one of the most striking themes to emerge from interviews with these men. Most are happy to leave decision-making in the hands of the women giving birth to their children. "I'm just a small link in the chain. The upbringing is the couple's affair. I just provide the sperm and off they go," says Andrew,* 42, a Sydney sales manager. He's married, trying for his own family and just started offering his sperm on the net.

Andrews quite happy with the idea of spreading his seed as far is it will go: "Thirty, fifty. If the people kept coming and I can keep going, that's fine by me." Most of the women he's met don't want any continuing involvement with the donor. He sees no reason why these children need a father in their lives: "Two mothers are just as good as a mother and father. That old traditional John Howard mother-father thing, I don't think that's important in today's society". And he doesn't care what they tell the kids about their origins : "They may tell them they had a one night stand, that's up to them."

Then here's Hugh,* a 44 year old heterosexual Sydney pharmacist. He's had four children in the last 8 months, all conceived to lesbian women via the internet. Two single women in their mid-forties are also currently trying to conceive using his sperm. He'd be willing to supply anonymous sperm - although he'd prefer the kids could one day know who he is. He doesn't feel he could say "no' to anyone who turned up wanting his sperm (except perhaps if they were "druggies") - "Who am I to say who should or should not be a parent?" he asks, adding "I don't feel there needs to be a father for a happy family."

Here they are - man after man - all convinced that males are irrelevant to children's upbringing. I talk to Justin,* a very intelligent donor, who works in IT at a Melbourne university. He has one child in his own relationship and his partner's pregnant with another. Plus he has already donated sperm to one lesbian couple who have had a daughter and is about to donate to another - both through the internet. I asked him which child he would rather be - the child soon to be born to his partner, or the child about to be conceived by the lesbian couple. He was emphatic that neither child would have a particular advantage: "Historically children have been brought up in all sorts of families. Diversity appeals to me."

This is happening at a time in history where fathering is receiving more attention than ever before. New books are constantly published promoting fathering, there's much talk of "father hunger" with today's young men lamenting the lack of closer relationships with their own fathers. And decades of public debate about the impact on children of losing contact with their fathers after divorce has largely concluded this is not in the children's interests. So how is it possible that so many men seem to be deciding the opposite is true?

Adrienne Burgess is a fathering expert, an adviser to the Blair government on fatherhood policy and author of "Fatherhood Reclaimed, " a groundbreaking book on fathers. As someone who's been working for more than ten years to promote positive, involved fathering, does the attitudes of these sperm donors suggest she's fighting a losing battle?

"Yes and no - no in the sense that research shows real progress - incontrovertible evidence that dads in intact families are increasingly close to their children. But this is undermined by this widespread notion, so clear in the responses of the men you've interviewed, that dads don't matter at all. This is complete rubbish - if you look at it from the child's point of view, which hardly anyone ever does. The truth is, that an absent or detached father is a serious stressor, which, when combined with other stressors, can have a massively negative impact on a child's life chances," Burgess comments from her Byron Bay home.

Burgess wasn't surprised that the men who were very close to their own fathers were much more likely to insist on contact when offering sperm and to refuse to donate anonymously. "My relationships with my father was something I couldn't have missed. I wouldn't be who I am today without him in my life," says Paul Cortissos, a Melbourne nurse. Cortissos, gay and 32, has just started offering his sperm on the net. He's determined he will have contact: "The child will have a sense they've got a father or at least a male figure in their lives."

Both of Andrew Barrett's parents were teachers and so he spent a lot of holiday time with his dad when he was growing up. Barrett, a divorced 38 year old working for a truck manufacturing company, is currently considering his first sperm donation - via a Melbourne clinic - and he'd want the children to know who he is. "I certainly wouldn't be rejecting a child. If they wanted me to be involved in their lives I would be," he says.

The attitudes of such men contrast with the many donors who are willing to donate anonymously or without any contact. These men are more likely from family backgrounds involving an absent dads, fathers who were largely missing from children's lives through divorce or simply hard work. Like Chris,* a 39 year old heterosexual Melbourne-based articled clerk who's the son of a politician. "My father was very much the absent father," he says. Chris is currently in the process of organizing to donate to a lesbian neighbour and also advertising on the net. He'd be willing to meet the children but doesn't want any involvement. He's convinced that two lesbian parents, both coming home at night to share the parenting, are likely to do a better job than many traditional families. "Fathers don't offer anything unique," he says.

Richard Fletcher, director of the Engaging Fathers project at Newcastle university, suggests males in our society who grew up with absent dads face an interesting dilemma. Confronted with the societal message suggesting father involvement is critical, "they are forced to either conclude they must themselves be damaged or else to decide it doesn't matter" So rather than judging themselves as not okay, they conclude dads simply don't rate and are happy to conceive children who may never know them.

Many of their children will face that fate -since no official records are kept of donors using the internet.(This also raises real concerns about inter-breeding, with DI offspring unknowingly mating with half-siblings).

Unlike DI children born to heterosexual couples, children raised by lesbian or single women know there must have been a donor. How will those children feel if they discover their mothers' chose to conceive using anonymous donors? Or chose a donor who was only willing to meet them provided there was no "involvement"?

Intentionality is the key issue here. Many of these children are being deliberately conceived in circumstances where they will grow up to have to deal with the harrowing truth about the irresponsible way they were conceived. Unlike donors of thirty, forty years ago who donated to infertile couples advised to keep secret the circumstances of the child's creation, these children will all know there's a donor, many, perhaps most will want to get to know that donor. And many will be doomed to disappointment.

It is finally being recognized that DI offspring have a right to knowledge of their biological origins - a good twenty years after we enshrined that right for adopted children. Two years ago the Senators Andrew Murray and Aden Ridgeway pushed through a Senate amendment to a bill on embryos, declaring DI children had a right to identifying information about their biological parents. This is now law in Victoria, Western Australia and in the next month or so legislation to this effect is likely to be passed by the NSW parliament.

The Australian Health Ethics Committee is about to release new guidelines supporting the right of DI offspring to this identifying information, banning the use of anonymous sperm and requiring clinics to help potential donors understand "the significance of the biological connection they will have with the persons conceived." At present, anonymous sperm is still being used in a number of Sydney clinics and in the other states which have not introduced laws banning its use. But a majority of DI children are unlikely to be informed about their origins because they are being raised by couples who keep this a secret from them. According to a recent survey by the Royal Hospital for Women in Sydney, less than ten per cent couples using the clinic tell their DI offspring the truth.

Yet the push is on, led by a new generation of DI young adults who are very actively lobbying for less secrecy. Most of these people were conceived using anonymous sperm and now face the immense frustration of being unlikely to ever trace their biological fathers. Victoria has a voluntary register for donors who previously gave anonymously but are now willing to be contacted. On fifty eight of the many hundred donors have come forward, leaving thousands of DI offspring high and dry

Like Narelle Grech. This 21 year old Melbourne social work student has endured the extreme frustration of talking to the doctor at the clinic where she was conceived, knowing he had her donor's information in front of him and yet was unable to give it to her. The doctor had written to her anonymous donor asking if he'd meet Narelle and received no reply. "I have so much frustration and anger toward the doctor but I know he's legally bound not to tell me," she says. She's recently discovered she has four half sisters and three half-brothers - "I so want to know them," she says.

Grech is a member of TangledWebs, an Australian group concerned about some of the hidden complexities that result from donor insemination. Members of the group have all been involved in DI and include donors, DI offspring and their families. TangledWebs was started by Michael Linden and his partner Lia Vandersant, who found themselves confronting these challenges when Linden discovered through a newspaper story that a daughter conceived from sperm he'd donated eighteen years before was now looking for him. He immediately recognized Myfanwy Walker as his daughter, they met up and photographs of the two of them together - both blond, blue-eyed and remarkably similar - were splashed across the media as the happy end to a Myfanwy's painful search.

But for these families, this was just the beginning of many years of stressful family interaction as Vandersant and her own son, Liam, coped with the initial infatuation between Linden and his new daughter and helped Myfanwy's brother Michael (also Linden's son) also find a place in the family. "I really love Michael's kids but it was such an invasion. The initial feelings between Michael (Linden) and Myfanwy were so intense that the rest of us felt abandoned, rejected, redundant," says Vandersant who acknowledges their marriage went through a very rocky period in the process. She says there are real issues in meeting the woman who has born her own partner's children - it is not uncommon in such family reunions for sparks to develop between donors and the mothers of the children. (In the United States, a similar reunion hit a stumbling block when the mother of the DI offspring fell in love with the donor and moved with her daughter to live near him - not much fun for the donor's wife!)

Michael Linden is now very close to his new children yet he now sees donating sperm as "an act of stupidity." He believes it is grossly irresponsible for men "to intentionally create a situation where a child is never going to know who their biological father is, or if they do find him, may never be able to establish a good relationship with him." TangledWebs is seeking a parliamentary enquiry into DI and takes the position that these procedures may ultimately need to be outlawed - a stance which attracts enormous hostility. Myfanwy Walker and another DI young woman recently appeared on Sixty Minutes, only to be attacked the following week by Peter Harvey: "These two young women have been given life. ... How dare they seek to deny it to others?"

But surely it is only the people who have lived through the consequences of DI who are in a position to warn of the pitfalls. As Michael Linden points out, all the emphasis now is on children being able to trace the donor, as if that solves all the problems, "But that's where many of the problems begin," he says.

Problems like young people discovering their fathers don't even want to meet them (even with donor-identified sperm, the donors retain the right to refuse contact with the offspring), or are prepared to meet and that's all, or show enthusiasm for meeting the first DI offspring who turns up but then the novelty wears off. In the US a thirteen year old year old named Ryan Kramer and his mother Wendy set up a website, Donor Sibling Registry, for DI offspring connection. Kramer's still looking for his donor and declares rather plaintively that if he ever discovers him, he hopes he's the first rather than the twentieth child to turn up.

Yet there are reunions taking place which are plain sailing, or even totally joyous events. Peter Browne (53) met his daughter Danielle Heath (22) at a Donor Conception Support Group three years ago. She saw him and guessed he might be her donor, DNA tests confirmed the connection and now the two of them have recently been living together in Brisbane. Peter, who never had children of his own, is thrilled by this new relationship. "It's gone a long way towards validating my whole existence," he says. The two are now trying to trace Danielle's brother, also conceived using Browne's sperm.

Given decades of research showing difficulties faced by many step-families in blending members of different families together, it's hardly surprising that others are running into trouble. Often it is the partners of donors who often sense the possibility of bumpy waters ahead. Remember Justin, the Melbourne IT guy who was donating to two lesbian families? His partner Nancy, currently pregnant with Justin's second child, has major misgivings about what he is doing."I think it will be harder on me than on him. I'm prepared if there's a person to embrace into our lives but I see it as so many unknowns."

Since she's had her first child, her concerns have increased. "I had huge reservations a second time," she says explaining she's nervous about her children and their relationship with these half-siblings, who "could be in any sort of emotional state" when they turn up. "It's an innate protective thing concerning my family," she says. Some of her disquiet may stem from her own background - she grew up in a divorced family where her father remarried and then devoted himself to his new family.

Ken Daniels, social work professor at the University of Canterbury, has worked for almost three decades studying the social impact of DI and has been influential in pushing his country towards increasing openness. Last month New Zealand enacted legislation which requires people seeking DI to inform their children about the nature of their conception, clinics haven't used anonymous sperm for over fifteen years, and children are increasingly having contact with donors, even from a young age - all moves which Daniels applauds. But he acknowledges that even with this desired contact, the family dynamics aren't always easy.

In Australia this was highlighted by the tragedy of the 2002 Family Law case involving Patrick, a young boy who died with his lesbian mother in a murder/suicide when his sperm donor father was awarded regular contact with the child. Six years ago Melbourne Hotel manager Peter Spark (33) was in regular contact with the son conceived by a lesbian woman using his sperm. For the first year all went well, then the lesbian couple decided "they didn't want a male in their lives." Spark hasn't seen the child since. But he's also had a far more positive experience with two other children born to another lesbian couple. In this case, it was the older child, a boy now nearly four, who started asking to see Spark more often and he's gradually being allowed more contact.

Yet these are tenuous bonds, easy broken at the whim of adults making decisions about their own lives. That's always the risk with DI, particularly as practised via the internet. It's being driven by adults, consumed by their own wishes and desires - including infertile couples who often wish to pretend the child is totally their own, lesbian and single women wanting to avoid having a man in their lives and well-meaning donors who don't give a fig about the children conceived through their benevolence. "The interests of children are often forgotten or downplayed in the rush to satisfy one's own needs," warns Ken Daniels. But is anyone listening? (Ends)

Banning Internet Sperm Trade

With the major Australian internet trade in sperm taking place through the South Australian web site - Australian Sperm Donor Registry - state Liberal MP Robert Brokenshire has responded by attempting to pass a Private Members bill to have the registry closed down. His aim is not only to close the South Australian site but also prevent access to similar websites which come through into South Australia. The bill prohibits publication of "offers to provide human reproductive material," with a $10,000 fine for people who set up such websites.

"This is a lost cause," says Irene Graham, executive director of Electronic Frontiers Australia who suggests it may be possible to close down the South Australian site, or even sites across Australian in the unlikely event that all states passed uniform legislation. But there is no way of stopping people accessing sites based overseas. "Attempts to censor pornographic material or shut down on-line gambling have made absolutely no difference to what Australians can access on line," she adds.

Meanwhile Queensland Senator John Hogg, has just returned from a study tour, meeting with DI offspring and reproductive experts in Britain and Belgium. He's now calling for a broad-based parliamentary enquiry to look into human rights issues associated with DI, including the internet trade and its implications. "This is an issue that needs to be faced up to. The number of children and young adults seeking knowledge of their genetic origins is too great for it to remain swept under the carpet," says Senator Hogg.

*Names disguised.

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