By Mark Bridge, The Times, Saturday 17 July 2010
Shadowy world of web’s unregulated fertility sites
Unregulated “fertility” websites that put their members in touch with sperm donors for a fee are exploiting vulnerable women and risking users’ health and finances, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has warned.
An investigation by The Times this week also found that such sites, which enable people including single women and lesbian couples to obtain sperm outside of the regulated market, are being used by men searching for nostrings unprotected sex. The HFEA believes that the sites’ role as facilitator may in fact constitute illegal “procurement” of sperm, and it is taking legal action against one website to close it down. A spokesman said: “If you use a site that does not direct you to a licensed clinic, you put yourself at risk that the sample you receive is neither safe nor screened and that the donor is not who they say they are.” The regulator also warns that donors who donate sperm via these sites rather than at licensed clinics will be the legal fathers of any children born to single women or unmarried couples and may be liable for child support.
Natalie Gamble, of Gamble and Ghevaert, a firm of solicitors that specialises in fertility law, said that the legality of the sites was a grey area. “What is illegal is procurement of gametes [sperm and eggs]. It comes down to the definition of what procurement is. Putting sperm in the post would seem to be clear. Less clear is helping individuals to make contact with one another.”
Membership of the websites, such as Co-ParentMatch.com and Feeling-Broody.com, costs about £10 to £15 a month. Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, claimed: “They’re in it purely for ‘If a man wants to impregnate the South East… he will be in poor sexual health’ money. It’s blatant profiteering.” He added that the sites profited from the relative expense of licensed clinics which charge about £800 for frozen sperm and one insemination cycle and from a shortage of sperm at clinics now that children born to donor sperm are allowed to contact their natural father when they are 18.
The website of Fertility 1st, which the HFEA is taking legal action against, states that customers should budget £150 for sperm to be couriered. The other sites leave such arrangements up to the donor and recipient, who might decide that his sperm should be delivered to her home, or that he should visit to “produce”, or have sex with her. Whatever the arrangement, Dr Pacey cautioned that sperm obtained using the sites is not adequately screened, so puts the recipient at risk of blood-borne and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. It may also carry genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome. He says that the risk was even greater if, as our investigation suggests, some donors have predatory intent. “If a man wants to impregnate the South East, that ups the risk that he will be in poor sexual health.” He added: “A licensed clinic will run tests before taking samples and again six months after the last sample was taken and frozen. Sperm can only be used after this final check.”
Seyi Joseph, of FeelingBroody.com, said that her site only covered its costs. She added that it has links to documents that explain the rules on legal paternity. She advises that donors be tested for a range of diseases. Nigel Woodforth, of Fertility 1st, said that donors at his site must take regular health tests. He added that donors at the website do not give identifying details to the recipient, and that their records are destroyed after their membership expires. Co-ParentMatch.com did not return our calls.
Time spent undercover on unregulated websites revealed a sad world frequented by men eager to “help” vulnerable women. When I joined one site under the alias of luciex, or Lucy, a 29-year-old nurse, I was contacted by a queue of donors keen to offer “NI”shorthand for natural insemination, as in sex (Mark Bridge writes). As Lucy I signed on at Co-ParentMatch.com, which claims to be the “No 1. Leading website of its kind”a “regulated environment” that uses the slogan: “After all, there’s no time to waste, the biological clock is ticking…” Having uploaded a picture of an attractive brunette and paid £9.95 a month, I was contacted by, among others, men claiming to be a 30-year-old studio manager and a “ready and able!” 58-year-old American “peacebuilder”. Profile photographs showed mainly thirtysomething and middle-aged men, some engaged in manly outdoor pursuits, others dressed for a hot dateone in a crisp white jacket. The tone of conversation was hardly clinical. One man sent “Lucy” a blunt “I am from Manchester and available for NI if you can travel when you are ovulating.” He said that he was a married man and donated to overcome both the national shortage of sperm and narrow-minded attitudes to lesbian parents.
Another tried charm, writing: “Hello Lucie! You reallly [sic] look so gorgeous and I would be happy to donate my sperm so you can become pregnant [...]” Meanwhile, a man whose photo loosely resembled AliG wrote: “Hi how u doin?My names [...] im 30 from London would you like to chat? x”, adding his mobile phone number. When Lucy failed to respond he asked: “Hi Lucie how r u hun? Good i hope… What did u decide to do? Id like to help you become a mother x” Most, when asked, said that they were willing to donate by natural or artificial means, so came across as opportunists rather than full-on predators. Some offered meaningless reassurances about their sexual health. One wrote: “I have also been checked for STDs two weeks ago, in case you wondered.”
Not one asked Lucy why a single woman of only 29 would want to conceive with donor sperm or how she intended to bring up the child, although three professed some interest in a co-parent role. On the other hand, two said that they would be unwilling to take on parental responsibility. One wrote: “I am a donor only and cannot offer financial or parenting support.” It is illegal for donors to charge, and none of the men who made contact requested payment. One did say: “Expenses may be travel costs or hotel costs etc if donation was done on neutral ground.”
Laura Witjens, left, of the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT), says that the casual nature of agreements on expenses leaves them open to abuse. “It is common for guys to insist on natural insemination so ‘pay me and sleep with me’, she said, adding: “Some even sent me photos of themselves ‘donating’. It was shocking, and I’m Dutch, so that’s saying something.”
In spite of this dubious donor-base, the sites manage to entice women “and the odd sincere gentleman”, Ms Witjens said, in part by presenting a clinical façade, using stock photographs of babies to play on emotions. I have spoken to several women who have used the sites who were angry at first when I criticised them. They said, ‘Why make it difficult for people to conceive?’ But they were surprised and grateful when I explained the dangers and the legalities.”