A windowless room, complete stranger, porn mags and a plastic cup. In the 1980s, single women and couples began to embrace a totally new way of having kids.
Since then, the demand for donor sperm has increased significantly in New Zealand to the point where we are now in the midst of an unprecedented donor shortage. Possible solutions being explored by the Government include allowing the importation of sperm from the US where there are far more donors. Fertility Associates, New Zealand's largest fertility clinic, recently began paying donors $500 in compensation to try and increase local numbers although the debate continues on whether money should exchange hands at all. Some argue it's unethical, while others say it's unrealistic, and also unfair, to expect donors to do it for free.
Technology is adding a new dimension to the experiences of both parents and the kids themselves. New Zealand may follow innovative sperm banks like Seattle Sperm Bank which offers to match a donor as closely as possible to a photo of a family member, parents' friend (or even a celebrity) so that their kid will look similar to him. The company, which exports sperm to around 30 countries including Australia, England, Brazil and Kenya, also offers kids the ability to join a private online forum so that they can stay in contact with their half siblings around the world as they grow up.
In New Zealand the first generation of kids conceived with the help of sperm donors are now fully grown millennials. What do they think about their unconventional beginnings? I skyped Adam,* a friend of mine who's a member of this unique club to talk about his experience and what advice he'd give others.
VICE: Hi Adam. Let's start at the beginning, back in the mid 80s. Tell me about your parents and the donor.
Adam: My parents who raised me are New Zealanders. They were friends with quite a few other lesbian couples who were also having children around the same time—some had kids with a donor they didn't know, others had a friend who was willing to be a donor. My donor father is an American and hasn't been in my life since I was conceived. I have a photo of him somewhere but I don't know that much about him and have never really asked my mum for all the details. Maybe if I have kids or as I get older I might become more interested. My younger brother was also conceived using donor sperm but from a different donor. He has had the donor in his life since birth so he's had a very different experience to me.
You've had a bit of time to think about everything and will soon hit the big 3-0. How do you feel about the way you were conceived and has this changed over time? It was never a big deal in my family so it has never been a big deal for me. I can't remember the age my parents told me so they must have told me when I was really young. It's always been my normal so I don't really have anything to compare it to. It's also just one aspect of my life—kind of like being gay, that's only one part of me, it's not my whole identity. I honestly don't feel like I've missed out on anything.
There is a huge shortage of sperm donors in New Zealand which has largely been attributed to the fact that donors can't be anonymous. We are also still debating the issue of whether donors should be paid. What are your views on this?
Yeah, I find the donor shortage issue really interesting and didn't know much about this until recently. I do think that donors should be paid something because they are doing a great thing and shouldn't be expected to do it for free, but I also don't think it's good to do it solely for the money. It should be possible for kids to find out who the donor is if they want to because I can understand that not having this choice could be quite upsetting and hard on people.
Maybe it would be good if donors [donating to a sperm bank] had more say over who got to use their sperm. It seems like all of the choice is in the hands of the people using the sperm and donors don't have much control. If it was more of a reciprocal thing maybe that would help increase the number of men who wanted to donate.
You may have half-siblings in New Zealand or other parts of the world. Do you think there should there be a limit on the number of children born from the same donor?
Yeah definitely, especially because of the risk of two people meeting each other and not knowing they were related and potentially having a relationship. It sounds crazy but it could happen in a small country like New Zealand. Or even just being friends and then finding out you were related to them would be quite strange.
People thinking about having a child with a sperm donor may read this. What advice would you give to these soon-to-be parents?
I would say make sure you are in the right stage of your life to have children financially and in the right frame of mind. You should also tell your children how they were conceived. Be open and honest about everything. No one likes having the truth held from them and it will always come out in the end, so there is no point in hiding it—like adoption.
On the flipside, what would you say to men thinking of being a sperm donor or men who have already donated sperm?
Think it through really carefully and make sure you are aware of what you are getting into and the responsibility that comes with it. You are not just donating sperm, you are involved in creating a real person. How you behave or react down the line, like if the child wants to get in contact with you, can have a real impact on them so remember that. I guess there is also a big difference between donating to people you know, like friends or family, and being a donor for people you don't know, like being on a register. But whoever you've donated to, it's really nice to want to help people have kids and you should feel really good about that. You're doing a good thing.
One thing I've always wanted to ask you is would you be a donor yourself?
I'd definitely consider being a sperm donor myself but I'd have to be in the right stage of my life and be ready to do it. It's a big decision. I'd also want to be as fit and healthy as possible, because I think I've heard this has some effect on the quality of your sperm. The other thing is that I'd want to know that my sperm was actually going to be used and not just stored somewhere—that would be weird. It would be a bit of a hit to the ego if no one wanted to pick me as a donor. You get picked from a catalogue and judged—it's kind of like Tinder!
It's also kind of a way of having kids without having to do all the hard work that comes with parenting so maybe that's part of the appeal for me! I like the idea of getting contacted out of the blue when the child is older and wanted to meet with me and potentially have a relationship. I think that would be kind of cool.
Media coverage about donor conceived children's experiences can often be quite negative but you've got quite a relaxed attitude about everything which goes against this stereotype. What would you say to other donor conceived children or adults reading this?
It's tricky because I don't really know how they would feel about being conceived in this way, but I'd be really interested to find out. I guess I wouldn't want them to think that there is a right or wrong way to feel—everyone is going to have a different experience. Just because I am quite relaxed about everything it doesn't mean that it's wrong if they feel angry or conflicted towards their parents or towards the donor. What I would say is to take comfort in the fact that you were planned and wanted. Lots of children conceived the "old fashioned way" were unplanned and unwanted (which is sad) but you can know for sure that this wasn't the case for you.
You have your brother of course, but would you want to meet other people who were donor conceived?
I know there are donor networks out there online but I haven't really looked into them or joined any. It would actually be really cool to meet other people in the same position and hear about their experiences.
*Name has been changed. Zoë Lawton is a family law researcher. Follow her on Facebook.
Following this interview Adam and Zoë decided to set up Generation One, a private Facebook group for the first generation of people conceived with the help of a sperm or egg donor. You can join the group here .