(Top photo of a baby who has nothing to do with this article, and was not – to our knowledge – conceived by someone using their partner's sibling's sperm or eggs, by Pixabay user adtkedia)
Andrea and her wife Mari bought a sperm insemination kit online. It cost €20. They found a volunteer sperm donor online, too. He would come round to their house with a sample, which he provided for free, then he'd leave and they would inseminate Mari. If you've heard any of the old wives' tales about turkey basters, the reality isn't much more glamourous.
The couple tried with the donor's sperm three times, without any luck. On the fourth attempt, Mari did fall pregnant, but she miscarried. They began to feel hopeless.
When Andrea's younger brother heard about Mari and his sister's difficulties with the sperm donor, he did something most people would never even think of. He knew they longed for a baby who was related to both of them. He loved his sister, and he wanted to be the donor. "We were super thankful," said Andrea. The brother only lived five minutes away, so they'd text him when Mari was ovulating. He'd come round with a sample and give it to Andrea.
"That was a little awkward," says Andrea, putting it mildly. The first couple of times, Andrea tried to undo the weirdness of her brother popping round with a vile of his own semen by trying to make the insemination romantic, with candles and foreplay. But the couple soon gave up and just got on with it. After the fourth time, Mari fell pregnant. The couple were scared at first, afraid things would go wrong again, but after two months it seemed as though everything was going to plan. Last week, Mari had a beautiful, healthy baby girl.
Clinics say sibling sperm and egg donation is growing in popularity for same-sex partners and couples with fertility issues in the UK, particularly since TV presenter Mary Portas and her girlfriend decided to use sibling sperm last year. The UK is also experiencing a sperm shortage because there aren't enough voluntary donors, which can make sperm donation from a family member seem more appealing.
"I think what my brother has done is beautiful. My parents felt the same. He will be the uncle."
For many, however, it remains taboo; the proximity of the donor seems too complicated. As Dr Geetha Venkat of the Harley Street Fertility Clinic told the Telegraph last year, she'd seen couples decide to go down this route, only for their wider families to object and the procedures to fall through.
Andrea says she has no apprehensions: "A few colleagues think it's complicated because if my brother is with our child he might get father feelings. Although I can understand those worries, we don't have them. I think what my brother has done is beautiful. My parents felt the same. He told us he wanted to help us, and that he will be the uncle. I know him so well; he won't get too involved."
Andrea and Mari's baby is just a week old, but they can take comfort from other couples who have already experienced what it's like to raise a child with this unusual family structure. Jerry and his husband Drew, an LA couple, decided to use Drew's sister Susie's eggs seven years ago, when using sibling donors was pretty unheard of. He tells me that, at the time, his story made the tabloid press. "There were a couple of stories like 'I Had My Sister's Baby'," he recalls. "All I can say is... that would be illegal and probably quite dangerous."
At first, Jerry and Drew had gone to a family planning specialist who talked them through their many donor options. Initially, they looked for egg donors online, a process Jerry compares to internet dating. "You watch videos and look at pictures of the women. It felt very awkward, maybe because the women were so young – some as young as 19." During this process, Drew's sister Susie got in touch and offered her eggs. She was 28, Drew and Jerry were both 37.
"We had big questions and hesitations, but we also like the idea of being able to tell our kid, 'This is your aunt Susie who you've known your whole life, and she did this really great thing for us,' rather than showing them a video of a woman online," says Drew.
Susie flew from New York to California, and the three of them met with a therapist. "We were concerned about her," says Jerry, "because she was unmarried and wanted kids of her own. We thought: 'What if she has kids with us and regrets it – would she feel some sense of abandonment?' There are a lot of issues like that we wanted to talk through with a therapist. But Susie had a good attitude about it. She basically said: 'They're just eggs, I want them to have a baby, I'll walk away.'"
However, once they actually started the process medically, the three met some difficulties. Susie's egg count had been abnormally low. Still, they harvested Susie's first round of eggs at a clinic, transferred them to the surrogate they had chosen and none of them took. "We were devastated," Jerry says. They tried again six months later, and this time the eggs took. The surrogate fell pregnant with twins.
"For the most part people are over the top nice. There's confusion sometimes, but we don't feel we have to explain."
Looking back, Jerry says the hardest part of the process was dealing with Susie's low fertility. He was worried that they were going to have the only kids Susie would be able to conceive. "She was so happy for us, though," he says. "She's such a giving person, we truly felt that she didn't feel bad – she wasn't ready to have kids of her own. It was just more our own guilt."
Now, Susie is "more than an aunt but less than a mum to our twins", says Jerry. "We don't use the term 'mum' because we feel that would be confusing for them. The head of the surrogacy agency said we need to be clear about that: a mother is the person who raises you. We tell our kids: you have two dads and no mom. Our family is atypical and we need to embrace that, which is why we use the term egg donor and surrogate with the kids. We also celebrate egg donor and surrogate day the day after Mothers' Day every year."
Susie came out of the whole thing well, too; after concern about her own fertility levels (concern that drove her to actually freeze her eggs), two-and-a-half years after she donated to Jerry and Drew, Susie fell pregnant herself. Now she has a daughter, and the two families are extremely close.
Apprehension about sibling donorship ultimately stems from social stigma, but the realities, once you sit down and discuss them, are a lot more practical. The fact is, this isn't incest and it isn't creepy.
It's taken a while, says Jerry, but they are now open about discussing their donor option with friends. They say the only negative reactions they've had are online. "For the most part people are over the top nice," he explains. "There's confusion sometimes, but we don't feel we have to explain."
Andrea and Mari expressed a similar experience, although it's much earlier days for them. "Not everybody knows my brother is the donor," says Andrea. "The people we want to know know. They haven't said anything to my face, although you don't know what they say behind my back."
And as for telling the children? "Our kids feel really lucky and really special," says Jerry, "There might be times when they miss having a mom, but for the most part they think, 'Wow, we have this really cool story about four people who loved us enough to bring us into the world.' My daughter loves telling people about it."
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