When Andy and his wife started trying for a baby in 2019, they had no reason to believe the process wouldn’t be quick and straightforward.
But two years and two cycles of IVF later, Andy (who didn't want us to share his surname to protect his anonymity) found himself facing a stark choice. At 37-years-old, he was told that he and his wife's failure to conceive was due to low embryo quality and this was far more likely to be a result of his sperm than his wife's eggs. Doctors' explained, in no uncertain terms, that while it wasn't impossible for Andy to father his own child, the chance of it happening was "unlikely".
“It was at this point that we formally discussed the potential to use donor sperm,” he says. “It's always something that I've been aware of. But, like most men I imagine, I never thought it would be me.”
Andy is far from alone. According to the latest figures from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), there has been a sharp rise in the number of people using donor sperm in IVF, up from 1,171 men in 2006 to 5,368 in 2019. Meanwhile, cycles using donor eggs and donor sperm have also increased 50-fold from 27 cycles in 1991 to 1,375 cycles in 2019.
That trend doesn't look like changing course anytime soon. A major worldwide study published in 2019 found that the percentage of men who were at risk of needing fertility treatment increased from 12.4% in 2004 to 21.3% in 2017. While the reason for this rise is not entirely clear, what is known is that heat, chemicals and toxins can all cause sperm quality to deteriorate, so environmental and lifestyle factors are thought to play a part. The rise in the number of men trying to start a family later in life may also have an impact, as sperm quality starts to decline once men hit 40.
More people doing something usually results in it becoming more accepted, but despite the increase in numbers, there remains a stigma attached to using a sperm donor for IVF.
Rhian Kivits, a Relate-trained sex and relationship expert explains: “Men can be quite shocked when they discover they need a sperm donor. Even though they may have suspected an issue with their fertility, the harsh reality of being told that they definitely need a donor in order to become a father can catalyse grief, loss, guilt and even a sense of injustice. It can bring up insecurities within men about their masculinity which they may need time to work through.
“They may struggle with guilt and shame, assuming they'll be blamed and judged by their partner, family members and friends.”
A Problem Shared
Dean* and his wife were seeking IVF treatment abroad when he was diagnosed with azoospermia – a medical condition where the body doesn't produce any sperm.
“I felt worthless," he says. "The one thing I should be able to do so easily can’t happen. I did cry a little bit. Everything that makes you a man, seemed to be gone.
“Deep down I know this doesn’t define me, but when you hear those words it’s such a shock. I thought about it for quite a long time afterwards.”
Dean eventually opened up to his wife about his feelings, but still feels unable to tell most of his family about needing a sperm donor.
“Eventually I told my mum," he explains. "But the rest of our families don’t know. I don’t know if it’s the embarrassment or the fact it’s quite a taboo subject. Nobody talks about these things.”
For Andy, the problem wasn't that people weren't talking about using a sperm donor, it's that the people who were talking were sharing stories he didn't want to hear.
“I think people who have had bad experiences through donation are a lot more likely to share their story, whereas the success stories become lost among millions of other happy families," he says. “So the first stories I read were ones of kids who felt angry that they were donor conceived and parents who didn't feel like they bonded with their children.
“I started to have the same worries, that I would have nothing in common with my child or that when they were older they would be resentful, angry or reject us.
“But the more I read, slowly I began to find positive accounts, both from donor parents and donor children, and that helped me to overcome these thoughts and be happy knowing that it's possible to have a positive experience through donor conception, despite the lack of genetic link.”
Dean also sought support online, joining a Facebook group for men experiencing fertility issues. He said: “Joining that group and talking to other men in similar situations has been the biggest help. We're able to talk about issues and not feel excluded. We share information and sometimes successes in treatments. It helps when you can be open and honest with someone.”
From Embarrassment to Hope
Adam and Emma Haslam sought IVF treatment in Prague after being turned down for NHS funding. Tests revealed the couple had just a 3 to 5% chance of conceiving using their own eggs and sperm.
"I felt embarrassed and worthless, like I wasn't a real man," Adam says. "I felt angry, depressed and alone."
Adam struggled with his feelings, but within this maelstrom of emotions, one stood out: hope. “We used an amazing, world-class, safe clinic and suddenly my chance of becoming a father increased to 65 to 70% by using donor sperm and egg.
“My desire to become a father was bigger than everything else I was feeling and after the initial shock, I felt hope for the first time in a long time.”
Fortunately the treatment worked, and the couple welcomed their son in 2018. Any fears Adam had about being unable to bond with his son immediately disappeared. “I love every fibre of his being,” says Adam.
A Path to Parenthood
Adam and Emma subsequently set up Your IVF Abroad, providing personal and practical support to people who are considering travelling abroad for IVF treatment.
Offering advice to men in a similar situation, Adam says “Seek support through professionals like a donor conception counsellor. Find some peer support, whether that's online or in person. Talk to your partner and share your feelings, whatever they are. This is not your fault – remember infertility is a disease.”
“Donor sperm is not anyone's plan A, but it's a wonderful path to parenthood and I do not regret my decision," he adds. “I also would not change how my little boy came to be, as he would not be who he is and now I rarely think about the fact he is not genetically linked.”
*Dean's name has been changed to protect his privacy
Fertility Network UK provides support for anyone with fertility issues via their support line on 0121 323 5025.
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