“The first thing I felt was disappointment, grief, why is this happening to me, all that sort of stuff,” says Sam, 33, on discovering he is infertile. Sam was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder impacting sperm production after a year of trying to conceive with his partner, Anna, 29. After consulting their fertility specialist about their options for creating a family, the couple decided to explore using donated sperm and are in the midst of selecting a donor.
“It was certainly very challenging in the first couple of months to be able to accept that,” Sam says. “With research and homework and reading journals and speaking to my partner, I very slowly came to terms with it, and it’s become the new normal now… There’s more to being a parent than genetics.”
The use of donated sperm to conceive a child is increasing, but we don’t know exactly how common it is. According to The Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority, 1,574 people received sperm donations in Victorian fertility clinics from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021, with single women being the largest group using donor sperm (53%), followed by women in same-sex relationships (34%) and people in heterosexual relationships (17%)1.
But these statistics don’t paint the full picture, thanks to a lack of nationally consistent legislation monitoring donation practices and a growing trend of informal sperm donations sought through unregulated websites and Facebook groups.
David, 46, has three donor-conceived kids, now in their teen years. He says the drive to have a family and a strong partnership with his wife, Sarah, helped him manage the “confronting” news that he was infertile.
“At the time, I was very much focused on my wife and I, as a couple, starting a family and really doing what we needed to do to make that happen,” he says. “It was a little bit confronting to some extent, but it wasn't a massive downer for me, in terms of challenging my concept of who I was as a man.”
Psychologist Narelle Dickinson, who specialises in fertility support counselling, says some men can struggle with the idea of not becoming a biological father.
“They worry that they won't connect to their child. They worry that this donor is one day going to swoop in and suddenly make a claim over the child and they worry that the child won't see them as their real dad,” Narelle says. “They also feel like there's something wrong with them; like that they're not a real man if they can't have their own kids, or that their partner might somehow reject them.”
Her advice is to acknowledge these feelings and concerns and talk about them, whether that’s with your partner, a friend, a health professional, or your peers.
David and his wife Sarah joined a fertility support group and, “That was one of the most beneficial things we did,” he says. “[It] opened our eyes up to just how many people were affected by infertility issues and what a broad spectrum there is of situations and treatments and… the fact that you're not alone in going through this journey.”
While David and Sarah kept the process quiet at first, once they decided to use donor sperm they sat down with family members and informed them. And they’ve been transparent with their kids “from the get-go”, with open conversations and education about donor conception.
Discussions around using donor sperm have come a long way from the days when parents were encouraged by doctors to keep it a secret. But there’s still a stigma and shame around infertility, as well as a lack of awareness about the rights of donor-conceived children.
“The research tells us that when we approach donor conception with honesty and openness, what we know is kids are fine, parents are fine, donors are fine,” Narelle says. “Donor conception is not the problem; secrecy is the problem.”
In most states in Australia, legislation now requires identity registration of donors, and parents of donor-conceived kids are encouraged to talk to them about it from an early age, making it a normal part of their family story rather than something that needs to be “revealed”. The latter can cause significant psychological distress and is becoming increasingly common with the growth of easily accessible DNA testing kits.
“We know that when donor conception is kept secret from the child and then they find out later by accident or when they're a lot older, that information tends to be a lot more challenging for them to come to terms with,” Dickinson says.
Secrecy can create an impression of shame, and lead to feelings of betrayal and distrust. For many donor-conceived people, knowing their origins is an important part of their identity and knowledge about their medical history has important health implications.
“We've had those discussions, if the kids want to talk about it, we talk about it, and that's how it goes, and it's really been remarkable,” David says. “As a father, I don't imagine that I feel any different to any other father, anywhere. You sort of almost forget yourself [that] we needed someone else's sperm to get these kids, it just doesn't feel like that, at all.”
The guidelines for sperm donation vary across Australian jurisdictions so it’s best to seek information specific to you. For more information on donor conception check out donorconceivedaustralia.com.au.
1. 2021 Annual Report. (2021). The Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority.