In Italy, medically assisted procreation is restricted to heterosexual couples, but websites for would-be mothers have proliferated. Our journalist posed as a woman seeking to get pregnant and found dozens of willing men online.
ROME — Elisa is three years old. In a few months her little brother will be born, and her mother is preparing the girl for the change. She tells her daughter how wonderful it will be to play together, and to do all the things families do when a little boy finally arrives.
Elisa doesn't know it, but technically she already has three other biological siblings: same father, different mothers. She'll get to know them one day, too, but her mother hasn't talked to her about it yet.
"I'll do it when she starts going to school, because some of those children could be in the same class, or the same school," says the mother.
Outside the bounds of the law
Elise is the daughter of a sperm donor, one who presented himself like this: "I am tall, with brown hair, blue eyes, and a lithe and toned physique. I have three beautiful children, we are all healthy. I would like to offer to others the joy and happiness that I have. I ask nothing more." Signed, Marcus.
And it's true: Marcus asked nothing of Elisa's mother. He would have completely disappeared from her life had she not re-contacted him asking him to father a second child with her wife, Elisa's second mother.
Marcus accepted. He is a private sperm donor, the last resort — and far outside the bounds of the law — for those who do not qualify to access officially sanctioned medically-assisted fertilization techniques in Italy.
No sperm bank, no trip abroad, no syringe full of hormones. Everything is do-it-yourself. And the consequences are a sharp deviation from the straight line one imagines in normal social interactions: not at all predictable, sometimes barely imaginable.
No one knows how many non-official sperm donors there are in Italy. What is known, however, is that they are more and more in demand. There are 5 million infertile men in Italy, and the number of gametes is in free-fall. The number of single adults, conversely, has risen: There are 1.8 million more than a decade ago, a 25% increase.
In Italy only heterosexual couples have access to sperm donors through official channels, and only heterosexual couples with several thousand euros to spare can afford a medical technique that doesn't always succeed on the first try. It's a considerable investment of both time and money, in other words.
Be they single or in a relationship — with another woman or an infertile man — the women seeking to have a child who have neither the funds for a clinic abroad nor the time left on their biological clock to go through such a process seek refuge in the simplest search possible: that of the hidden world of sperm donors.
To enter this world there are two possibilities: word of mouth, or websites. In the first instance, most of the difficulties are already surmounted. A friend has already successfully had a child by the donor in question, with the all-important guarantees of absence of hereditary illnesses and agreements on a relationship (or lack of relationship) between donor and child. In the second instance, one has to get comfortable, turn on the computer, register on a specialized site, pay a minimum of 29 euros for one month of access, and send a message out more or less in the dark.
This is what I try to do one evening in late September. Creating a profile takes just a few minutes. I enter my information and find myself face-to-face with a catalog of thousands of sperm donors from all over the world. A search engine lets me filter the results based on dozens of parameters: age, height, hair and eye color, religion, zodiac sign, nationality, place of residence and many more. I prefer not to pick. I type out a very generic message and send it off to the entire massive audience.
"I'm seeking a donor. I'm single, live in Rome, 37 years old." In a few days I receive more than 80 profiles — men who are all ready to donate. I count some 30 people online at any hour ready to chat over the instant messaging service. This is how contact is initiated. You get to know one another, exchange primary information. If you decide to move forward, all it takes is giving them your phone number and continuing the conversation on WhatsApp, or better yet, the encrypted messaging service Telegram.
The day after sending out my message, I receive a dozen or so responses. This is where the real selection process begins for the future father of my (hypothetical) child. The first message is from a certain Ale346, athletic build. He says he's 35, unmarried with a stable income, and only interested in being a donor — no co-parenting.
For a woman on the hunt there are still two key pieces of information missing: a medical certificate proving he is free of illnesses such as HIV, and photos to get an idea of the genes he would pass on to a future son or daughter. From the words exchanged and the tones of the responses comes an understanding of the character behind what is so far only a username.
Ale346 is pragmatic. He quickly offers up his perfect statistics, his overabundant fertility. "I have a sperm count of 109 million per milliliter," he explains. "The majority of men have between 20 and 40 million. I can easily supply thousands of spermatozoids in two days. From the moment I discovered this, I decided to donate. It would feel selfish not to, knowing that so many women are specifically seeking an insemination to be happy. And how are you with your hormones? Have you also checked your vitamins and amino acids?"
Mrb105 strikes a more personal note. He tells me the story of his relationship with a girlfriend that ended before having the time to have kids. It left him with an inner feeling of incompleteness, which he seeks to now fill by becoming a donor. While it's not the same thing as raising a child, he likes the idea that a part of him will live on after he's gone.
What will become of this unsatisfied desire to have children?
This feeling of an inner void is one many find themselves faced with in life, but in the case of sperm donors the effects can be hard to predict. With the passing of years, what will become of this unsatisfied desire to have children? Will these men eventually try and find their offspring? And the women who don't want to reckon with this part of their past, what tools do they have to prevent this from happening?
Some men agree to sign some sort of waiver, an agreement in which they swear they'll disappear. In other cases meetings at regular intervals are agreed upon, along with joint parental decision making. It can paint a pretty picture, but it's also rich material for lawyers to exploit in cases of disagreements or problems. And there is no shortage of problems that can arise as a child grows up. Not to mention the difficulty of a woman seeking legal recognition as the second, non-biological mother of a child in the case of lesbian couples.
Many donor messages arrive from Rome, but there are also many from much farther away. Jorge writes from Spain. The distance is not a problem, he assures: "An airline ticket cost 60 euros, it's not a hindrance to me. Do you prefer a syringe or the natural method?"
And the other big dilemma comes at this point in the negotiations. The rate of success using traditional sexual relations is double that of an insemination kit. But not everyone wants physical contact.
Jorge is categorical. "With me it's artificial insemination only. No contact." He doesn't want money, and nobody else asks for it either. It's something else that all these men are looking for.
Only Mrb105 wants to admit it. "I have husbands begging me to give their wife a child to save their marriage, single women who ask me to give meaning to their lives then disappear. I myself realize that I am doing this in search of a feeling that I lost when my ex left me. We are struggling with an enormous human drama that nobody wants to see."
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