By Francesca Taylor
When I first started my PhD- an exploration of recipient experiences of online, unregulated sperm donation- I became fixated on trying to understand why people would choose this route to parenthood. Most of the things I’d read about online sperm donation were fairly sensationalist news articles which portrayed a ‘black market’ and an online ‘underworld’ where people were going to search for and donate sperm. I felt that in order to design a study where I could encourage people to tell their stories free from stigma and shame, I needed to first have some idea of the context of donor insemination in the UK, including who was choosing online sperm donation and their reasons for doing so. Why weren’t people choosing, for example, donor insemination at a fertility clinic? What were the benefits and drawbacks of online sperm donation? How did the social, cultural, and economic context of donor insemination in the UK inform what was happening online?
In order to answer these questions, I delved into the policies and practices associated with regulated sperm donation in the UK, namely the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) website and reports, and the more localised Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and Health Board criteria. In a nutshell, I found that single women, LGBT+ women, poor women, and ethnic minority women experience significant disadvantage when attempting to access regulated donor insemination at a fertility clinic.
In the following two and a half years, as I was writing, revising, and resubmitting a paper highlighting this issue, several campaigns and reports emerged which drew attention to the fertility inequality that was being experienced by LGBT+ individuals (see What Wegan did Next and British Pregnancy Advisory Service 2021). It became clear to me that the issue was structural and systematic and was informed by wider discourses around who deserved to become a parent, which seemed to persist in the policies and practices of the regulated route to donor insemination. The discourse of stratified reproduction in particular struck a chord, defined by Ginsburg and Rapp as:
“The power relations by which some categories of people are empowered to nurture and reproduce, while others are disempowered… [and] arrangements by which some reproductive futures are valued while others are despised” (p. 3).
With the vast majority of research on regulated fertility treatment in industrialized countries being conducted with white, middle-class, heterosexual women for whom assisted reproductive technologies (ART) are generally more available and/or affordable, the experiences of minoritized women (e.g., LGBT+, poor, Black, Asian, and Indigenous) remained unexplored once again in the context of donor insemination.
My reading led me to Reproductive Justice (RJ), a movement and framework coined in the US by women of color, which is defined as: “(1) the right not to have a child; (2) the right to have a child; and (3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments.” Although RJ has been most commonly used to emphasise the issue of access in pro-choice abortion movements, I sought to mobilise “the right to have a child” in my thinking around online sperm donation. Consistent with the RJ approach, I saw reproductive rights within the context of social and economic conditions, including the systemic barriers which inhibit marginalized communities from realizing their reproductive rights. In the case of donor insemination services, these barriers included the restrictive policies and criteria for regulated treatment, and the subsequent withholding of state funding based on social and economic factors such as sexual orientation, relationship status, location/postcode, race/ethnicity, and insufficient income to pay for “Qualifying Treatment”.
Looking forward, it is essential that we interrogate the structural and systemic barriers to enable recipients in the UK to access NHS-funded donor insemination (DI), if that is the route they choose. Secondly though, we must consider what online sperm donation can offer individuals when it is undertaken with open communication in a safe and consensual way. Although not without its drawbacks, online sperm donation pushes the boundaries of the traditional family and provides individuals with an opportunity to build families on their own terms, outside of state structures from which minoritized groups have historically been excluded. Online sperm donation can also work against the normative tendencies of Assisted Reproductive Technologies, which often reinscribe traditional Western notions of family (e.g., married, White, heterosexual parents with biologically related children). In many ways then, online sperm donation has the potential to queer reproduction. A queer reproductive justice approach to this new phenomenon might allow us to think beyond approaches that legislate equality for an elite few, and towards a radical reimagining of online sperm donation that conceptualises family beyond biological ties and towards alternative forms of family building and kinship.
About the Author
Francesca Taylor is a PhD student and Research Assistant at Leeds Beckett University, interested in genders, sexualities and Reproductive Justice. Her email address is F.E.Taylor@leedsbeckett.ac.uk
The largest ever study into online sperm donation has just been launched at Leeds Beckett University (UK), receiving £910,358 from the European Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) to continue research in this area. If you have experience of online sperm donation and would like to share your story, take part in research, or access resources, you can visit our website: https://www.aiconfidential.co.uk/. If you are interested in learning more about online sperm donation and donor insemination in the UK, our Open Access paper is available to read and download here: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fgwh.2022.644591/full.