March into the archives : sperm donation

The article below was first published in Woroni, the ANU student newspaper, and later Hungappa, the student publication of CSU's Wagga Wagga Campus. I also used it for my journalism course, it earned a distinction as well as a warning about the language used.

Sprog, cum, jism, love sauce, custard, spoof but mostly mess. I've possibly wasted more sperm than brain cells. When the fun is over it's been dried to sheets, discarded in condoms, wiped up with boxer shorts and given to unappreciative girlfriends.

It is truly amazing that males manufacture so much sperm, an average of 300 million microscopic tadpoles a day. Furthermore, at any moment there are 2-3 billion sperm being produced in the high-intensity factory and storage facility called gonads.

While seminal fluid is treated with a greater contempt than phlegm the people who appreciate sperm, aside from women in pornography, are doctors working in IVF. They are seriously keen to pay for orgasms. Sperm donation is part-time employment for some students in California who earn US$40 per ejaculate.

Now, aside from the proposition of a paid donation, the ethics of sharing your biological material are contentious. As modern medicine has been answering the prayers of childless couples for decades, the rights of the offspring to know their origins have only recently been recognised. This biological technology has grown thorny with consequences.

To investigate I gathered first hand research at the IVF department of the John James Hospital in Canberra. Upon arrival I was reminded of one of those certainties in modern life, that where there are doctors there are waiting rooms. This one had the usual women's magazines but the pictures on the walls told another story. Instead of watercolours, Anne Geddes' photographs hang throughout. There are babies in pumpkins, pea pods, cabbage patches and a giant photographic display of the department's many successes. My name was called for the interview and it turned out that selling myself wasn't necessary.

Like a blood bank they are always looking for donors and unlike a job interview there seemed no wrong answers. The technician placed a small pile of papers in front of me and soon the first of my preconceptions was discarded because recipients get no choice in the semen they receive. The technician explained they base this decision on the characteristics of the husband or the ethnic background of the single woman. Demand currently exceeds supply and donors from non-Caucasian backgrounds are rare. To help compensate some clinics share their material and it is an advantage that frozen sperm has no use-by date.

The paper work isn't nearly as intensive as you'd expect. There is a Statutory Declaration identical to those given at the Blood Bank which asks whether I've been recently tattooed, ill, operated on, had homosexual sex, injected drugs or otherwise exposed myself to the risk of disease. Then there is a legal document whereby I relinquish control of my semen, though I can choose whether it will inseminate single women. There is a sheet to volunteer information about my interests, education and reason for donating, to which I penned 'good will' knowing that writing 'to further career in journalism' would lead to regret - but if this is the case I can request the clinic destroy any unused sperm.

The technician returned to witness my signature upon the various dotted lines before leading me off for the first of possibly two blood tests that check for Hepatitis and HIV. A second test is required before the sperm can be used after six months of quarantine. After that it will be ready to be withdrawn from the bank but I will not know whether my genetic material has contributed to creating a child until one requests to learn my identity. This was legislated in Victoria and in recent years has begun to enter clinics via the National Health and Medical Research Council's ethical guidelines.

The physical check-up was carried out by Dr Martyn Stafford-Bell, a gynaecologist and obstetrician, who put the day into context by running late on account of delivering a child. Dr Stafford-Bell expressed a grim view of the Victorian legislation as a forecast for donor insemination. "Why on earth would you want to collect that sort of documentation unless some clown was going to make it a legal requirement that all these children are told who their genetic father was?"

Perhaps his opinion shouldn't be surprising. Until recently the medical profession have been running the donor insemination program. Two decades ago doctors would advise parents not to let their children know the details of their conception. Effectively the government has placed itself in the middle of their baby factory.

Three weeks later I am back at the John James to produce my donation. The technician pays $20 and seems to apologise that, while it isn't much, it's what they are able to offer. My deposit is made in a small room with a Staff Only sign and a vacant/occupied lock like a public toilet. Anyone who has donated blood knows that for less than 10 minutes of discomfort you get fruit juice, jelly beans, tea or coffee, biscuits and a current magazine to read. At John James they offered half a dozen old Penthouse and a foot fetish magazine called Leg Scene. In comparison to the wide variety of stimulating material available in a Canberra sex shop, the clinic's selection was limited, tame and entirely heterosexual. I was a tad disappointed there were no XXX videos or at least a radio to drown out the noise of the cafeteria across the hallway. Sex in public is exciting but spanking the monkey in a neon lit hospital room as people finish lunch is perverse.

Leonie Hewitt is spokesperson for the Donor Conception Support Group of Australia. The group caters for offspring, people contemplating using donor gametes and the donors themselves. She has three children conceived through IVF and views changes to legislation as important. "We've come to the realisation, having a 14-year old, a nine- and a seven-year old, that they may want information about themselves. If our children want to find the donors we will help them in any way we can."

Mrs Hewitt also argues it's important for the donors to know how far their genes travel. "At the present time it's 10 families with up to three children to each, which is an awful lot of family. The donors are kept like mushrooms, they should have more control over who they donate to and how many offspring they create."

She reacts strongly to the idea university students might be donors. "They're doing it for monetary reasons and haven't thought of the long-term implications and it's serious stuff. They need men who've finished having a family and know the joy that kids can bring. Young men are a bit too into themselves aren't they? We're talking about a child here, it's not some object that's going to be behind a window. It's a human being. Say you have bowel cancer? What if the offspring has that genetic trait in their biological make up? Why shouldn't they find out about it? I think that sadly the child has been neglected in the debate. We're at the point adopted children were 30 years ago and I hoped there would be a domino effect after the Victorian legislation."

Two weeks later I visit John James Hospital to ask the technician about my sperm count. Apparently my sample was extremely low and not worth freezing. I'd only abstained for a day and a half and they recommend a full three days. If I didn't have a child it might be interesting to wonder about the possibility of being infertile myself. However, I've come to realise that donating my genetic material is a messy matter because the relationship between donor, recipient and offspring needs to be clearly defined. Until then I'll decide where the goo goes.