Every winter a Melbourne television producer named Nick calls Monash IVF curious to discover if sperm he donated back in 1996 has resulted in any more children.
Most years the person on the other end of the call announces that there has been another baby.
The first was a girl born in 1999.
Since then, there have been a further 15 children, including a boy in 2016, the result of frozen sperm thawed out two decades later.
Nick is now 50 and married with daughters of his own.
Yet it’s entirely possible that this year the winter phone call may deliver news of another baby, if any of the families who have previously used his sperm decide that they want to add to their brood.
The use of the old sperm highlights a significant phenomenon: a shortage affecting Victoria and the nation.
Rising demand for donor sperm from single women and lesbian couples has not been matched by an increase in donors, meaning that sperm given decades ago is being used to create modern families, and IVF clinics are increasingly turning overseas for donors.
A public egg and sperm bank is being actively considered as a way to address the problem in Victoria.
A huge new sperm market emerges
Monash IVF’s Professor Robert McLachlan said previously donor sperm was used only by heterosexual men whose fertility was impaired, perhaps through cancer treatments.
But in 2010, a law change allowed single people and lesbian couples to access reproductive treatment using donor sperm for the first time.
Now heterosexual couples make up just a fraction of the market (15 per cent), with the majority of the demand coming from single women forging families on their own (52 per cent) and lesbian couples (33 per cent).
The mismatch of donors with the growing pool of recipients is stark. There were 1172 people treated with donated sperm last financial year but that sperm came from just 424 donors.
It is a constant source of anxiety for the clinics, said Professor McLachlan.
“We have sperm available and there is no waiting list, but one is always looking at the reservoir …. and thinking ‘well I hope we get some more donors this month’.”
It also means a scarcity of choice for prospective parents.
One sperm donor recipient said she only had about eight donors to pick from when she and her partner conceived a daughter seven years ago and when they returned two years ago later hoping to have another child there were even fewer options.
“None were acceptable,” she said. “In the end we gave up.”
Professor McLachlan said the problem was magnified for some ethnic groups, who may only have a couple of donors to choose from if they want a donor “who would credibly be the genetic father in the social context”.
Shortage creates risk and compromise
Health lawyer Michael Gorton is leading Victoria’s ongoing review into the fertility industry and is concerned about some of the side-effects of the shortage.
Sperm is now being sourced from the US by at least one clinic, and although the overseas providers have to comply with local laws which allow children the right to know the identity of their donors, Mr Gorton said he was worried the resulting children may find it harder to track down their biological relatives.
Older sperm also pose an issue. While Mr Gorton said there was nothing wrong with it from a “health point of view”, he was troubled that some donors might be in their 70s or 80s by the time their donor offspring reached adulthood.
“So the likelihood of them even being around is an issue,” he said.
There’s also the risk that hopeful parents may try to find a donors using potentially dangerous informal arrangements.
There’s no shortage of private sperm donors to be found online but websites often read more like dating ads, with men expressing their desire to pass on their genes, or to have sex with sperm recipients.
On one of the sites, a 19-year-old man from Victoria writes that he is “willing to inseminate a willing ‘future’ mother that is struggling to become pregnant … doing so via natural-sex means”.
If people receive treatment at a clinic then sperm donors aren’t granted any parenting rights, but those protections are thrown out the window when casual arrangements were made, warned Louise Johnson, chief executive of the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Authority.
“Legally, it’s risky,” she said. “From a health perspective, there isn’t the same screening from infections, diseases or other matters.”
“People are not really aware of this.”
A shortage of screened donors has been blamed on a range of factors, including strict restrictions on cash reimbursements for donors and on advertising, plus laws that scrapped a donor's right to anonymity, allowing children to find out the identity of their donor at 18 or earlier.
Victoria's laws also prevent men from providing donor sperm to more than 10 women, as a way to limit the chance of donor offspring accidentally having relationships with their genetic half siblings.
But many experts argue the sperm shortage mostly comes down to the public not knowing the problem exists.
“People are not really aware of this unless they have been touched by it in their personal life,” said Monash IVF’s manager of counselling services, Rita Alesi.
“Women are very good at networking and talking about their stories, but how often do you find a heterosexual man that will openly talk about his need for a sperm donor?
“It doesn’t happen.”
The ongoing review into Victoria’s fertility services is considering the establishment of a public egg and sperm bank, which Mr Gorton said would be much more active in recruiting potential donors than the commercial clinics.
“It’s been a brilliant experience”
Highlighting the profound impact of a donation, Nick has been very recently contacted for the first time by three of his donor offspring, the child born in 1999 (now a woman aged 19) and her younger twin sisters.
A short lunch to meet them turned into a long one discussing family legends and shared passions and traits, and his two daughters suddenly acquired three new sisters.
It is a far cry from what he expected when he decided to become a sperm donor at 28, after talking to friends who were struggling to conceive and reading an article in The Age about the donor shortage – which was of note even then.
“When I went into it I thought it was just a donation, where it was not necessarily anonymous as such but I didn’t see that there was a lot of contact. That was just my naivety to think that would be the case,” he said.
“But what I would say is that 22 years in, it’s been a brilliant experience that I wouldn’t reverse for anything.”