Amazingly, there is not much good, independent, information on what your options are when it comes to choosing a sperm donor in the UK. This introductory guide is based on personal experience (my partner and I learnt about this the hard way), advice from various experts and professionals in the field and my own research for the Blooming Parents Ultimate Guide to Starting Your Own Family.
Hopefully it will help you to avoid the same mistakes we - and others - have made.
Why Is It Important?
Choosing a sperm donor is a very big decision for every female same sex couple hoping to have their own baby. Your choice of donor will determine many characteristics of your child as well as what sort of relationship they have, if any, with him.
You will also want to make sure that your donor is free from any infectious diseases (like HIV or hepatitis) and not going to pass on any genetic diseases.
With these things – and more – in mind, it's important to make sure you know what your options are and the best way of getting your chosen option.
Decision Number One
Probably the first decision you will make about your sperm donor is whether to choose a known or unknown donor. This may be an obvious decision for you, as you may not know anyone that you would consider as a donor or coparent, or you see your family as being made up of you, your partner and children only.
On the other hand, you may know a man that, for whatever reason, you would like to have as your donor or coparent.
Or perhaps you don't know anyone suitable but you may feel so strongly about using a known donor that you use a connection service to find a known donor or coparent.
You will need to think about what each of these options mean and what would work best for you.
What – Or Who – Is An Unknown Sperm Donor?
An unknown sperm donor’s identity is unknown to the family he is donating to. A clinic or a sperm bank sits between the donor and the sperm recipient, so there is never any direct contact between the donor and recipient unless they mutually agree to meet once the child has reached eighteen and has made contact with him. UK law requires all sperm donors to make their identities available to their genetic children once they are eighteen years old.
Don't Make This Mistake!
One of the biggest mistakes my partner and I made at the beginning of our conception journey (for a series of several unsuccessful IUIs), was pretty much unquestioningly accepting the advice of the fertility clinic when it came to choosing a donor. The only option we were presented with was to use a donor that, effectively, was on their books: it wasn't made clear to us that the sperm bank they were using was under the same general management as the clinic itself.
When we gave them our very basic preferred donor criteria (to physically match me, as the non-genetic, non birth-mother), we were given no matches and had to compromise completely on the hair and eye colour - and on top of that had barely any details to go on. We really felt in the dark about who the donor we had settled for was. We had no idea what he looked like or whether we trusted he was doing this for the right reasons. It felt a bit like a game of roulette, but instead of walking away and soon forgetting about the consequences of the outcome, these completely unknown factors would be inherent to our child’s identity and remain a mystery until he or she turned eighteen.
If you have only very basic details on your donor (the HFEA lists what these are on their website) to go on until your child(ren) reach eighteen you need to think about how you, and any children you have, will feel about and manage this. Of course, this may not be much of an issue for your family, but research has shown that donor conceived people are generally happier when they have a good sense of who the donor is, as this helps them make sense of their own identity as they grow up.
What Are Your Options for Sourcing Unknown Donor Sperm and What Are the Issues Or Risks?
Your options for sourcing unknown donor sperm are:
From a sperm bank (in the UK or based overseas e.g. in the USA or Denmark)
Through the fertility clinic you have chosen for your treatment. The clinic may recruit its own donors or have a relationship with a UK or overseas- based sperm bank and obtain the sperm from them directly.
You will have to ensure that your treatment clinic will be happy to use the sperm obtained from the sperm bank if you are sourcing it directly yourself. The donor you choose will also need to fulfill the criteria set out by the HFEA on sperm donor requirements.
There are sperm banks based overseas that ship directly to individuals (as opposed to clinics only) for home insemination BUT you will need to be aware of the legal issues surrounding this as well as the sperm bank’s donor screening and identity disclosure policy. By doing this you would be going outside HFEA guidelines and therefore the HFEA's safeguards will not apply. It is also worth noting here that the recorded success rates for home insemination are lower than treatment at a clinic.
There are differing views as to what is ethical when it comes to using donated gametes. Make sure you understand all of the implications of your decision before you undergo treatment. This is an extremely personal decision and you need to base your decision on what you think is important – for example, how important is it that you know what the donor looks like? Do you need to satisfy yourself that he is doing this for the right reasons? Decide what is important for you to know about the donor.
If getting your ideal donor means obtaining the sperm from a sperm bank that is making a tidy profit from what they do you should feel comfortable with this. Some people argue that sperm donation activities should not be a business activity. Note that for the donor to be HFEA compliant they must not be making any significant financial gains from their donations.
Xytex (USA) and The European Sperm Bank (Denmark) are two of the most reputable sperm banks regularly used by UK clinics. Xytex in particular provides a lot of information on their donors; some of their donors have provided adult photos and audio interviews.
What – Or who – Is An Known Sperm Donor?
A ‘known donor’ here means a donor you already know, or someone that you get to know with the intention of conceiving using his sperm. A known donor falls short of being a coparent; a known donor may have no involvement in their genetic child(ren)’s life or they may play a role but it falls short of covering any sort of formal or legal parental responsibility.
If you already know the potential donor there are many things you need to consider to help assure you and your potential children's wellbeing, health and legal positions. Using an HFEA-approved clinic for your treatment is the way to go in terms of your conception using a known donor. They will ensure that the sperm is safe and fit for purpose and help you to work out which treatment(s) are most likely to work for you.
If you would like to use a known donor but don't know anyone that you would like to have in that role, there are connection websites that can put you in contact with men that are offering these services. An example of this is Pride Angel. You need to be very careful about going about using a known donor in this way for many reasons that include your (and any potential child's) health and wellbeing, legal, and other long term issues. Specific legal advice is a good idea in this situation and will help to prevent any unforeseen problems that may arise later in your child's life.
What Is A Coparent?
In this context a coparent means another person(s) who has some sort of legal parental responsibility for your child. In this case it will most likely be the sperm donor and perhaps his partner.
The considerations for coparenting are the same as those for known donors with the added legal responsibilities that coparenting brings. You will need specialist legal advice for this. Not just from a family lawyer but one that has experience with and a specialism in non-traditional families.
Sperm You Obtain Directly From a Donor and Self-Insemination
You will have read and watched at least one story about a ‘sperm donor’ who claims to have fathered hundreds of children for purely altruistic purposes. He provides fresh sperm and meets women at service stations or hotels and hands over a fresh semen sample.
So what really are the risks of doing this? In the HFEA’s words, they are:
‘that the sample you receive is neither safe nor screened
that the donor is not who they say they are
that the safeguards that the law offers both to parents and to those who
are born do not apply and cannot be invoked’
Some sperm donation and connection service websites are no doubt more genuine in their aims to help than others. A good way of determining this is whether or not the site recommends using an HFEA-accredited clinic for the conception treatment. Regardless, if you source your sperm in this way (and whatever arrangements you make in terms of your future relationship with the donor), you should undertake your conception treatment at an HFEA-accredited clinic. This is to give you, and any future children, basic but extremely important health and welfare protections. For more information on what these are, see the HFEA website (http://www.hfea.gov.uk/). The National Gamete Donation Trust also contains a lot of good information on the issues that can arise from unregulated sperm donation (http://www.ngdt.co.uk)
Where Can You Get More Information on Choosing a Donor As Well As Everything Else You Need to Know?
There are some good resources that will give you information on choosing a donor, and there is a list of useful links to help you with this at the end of this guide. Or you can ask friends, friends of friends or family that have been through it! They will no doubt have learnt a lot from their experience.
However, as a female couple wanting to start your own family it's important to remember there are so many other important choices you need to make - choosing a donor is just one of these. You will need to consider your legal options and which will best suit your intended family structure, as well your medical, clinical and possible NHS funding options. Unfortunately the information that female same sex couples should have is often hard to find, and where it is available, it’s not always independent or specifically tailored to our needs.
This is why I created The Blooming Parents Ultimate Guide to Starting a Family, an independent guide on all the important aspects of what you need to consider: legal options and pitfalls, medical, clinical (NHS and private), sperm donors in all their forms, and the key child developmental questions you may have. The guide is specifically for UK female same sex couples and includes exclusive and significant input from leading UK experts on the specific issues faced by same sex couples starting a family.
Now you know that you do have options when it comes to choosing your sperm donor, so don't let anyone tell you otherwise! What is important is that you know what your options are and that you work out what is important to you, both in terms of what you are looking for in a donor as well as how much information or what sort of relationship you intend to have with him.
I really hope that you have found this useful, and wish you the very best of luck on your journey to parenthood!
Alex, Blooming Parents
https://www.europeanspermbank.com – reputable Denmark-based sperm bank with HFEA compliant donors
http://www.hfea.gov.uk/ - the HFEA regulates human embryo research and assisted reproduction treatment in the UK. The HFEA website also includes a search function for HFEA-accredited clinics.
http://on.ft.com/1N730Cb - FT.com published this very interesting article in 2015: Sperm Donation, A Lucrative and Growing Industry. It may give you some insights into the different sorts of sperm banks that are out there.
http://www.prideangel.com - Pride Angel is 'dedicated to connecting sperm donors, egg donors and co-parents worldwide.'
http://www.nataliegambleassociates.co.uk/knowledge-centre - great legal resource for same sex parents and parents to be
http://www.ngdt.co.uk/ - The National Gamete Donation Trust, a UK government-funded charity which aims to raise awareness of and alleviate the shortage of sperm, egg and embryo donors.
http://www.stonewall.org.uk/help-advice/parenting-rights - good but basic top level advice on your options
www.xytex.com – reputable US-based sperm bank with HFEA compliant donors