There may be a medical reason someone struggles to have a child, and same sex couples face their own struggles to become parents.
Sperm donation is one of the ways people can get pregnant, and there are plenty of clinics that allow it to happen.
But there is also a private market for donors, and a simple Facebook search brings about lots of different people providing services.
One of these people is 34-year-old Hugh – not his real name, as he has children in Shropshire who do not know his identity – from Shrewsbury.
“One of my friends was having trouble conceiving and we laughed and joked about using me as a donor, but it was a bit too close to home and we felt it would have destroyed the friendship,” he says. “But after that I decided to put myself on websites and be an option for other people.
“I’m doing it purely to help a couple and give them a dream they want. It’s nice to see people as a family unit and happy. I have always been a helping person.”
The walls of Hugh’s home are covered with photographs of pictures of different children all smiling and happy. Two of them are his own, in the familial sense. Others he has fathered for other people. In total, he has 10 other biological children by other parents.
Hugh has regular tests done to analyse for sperm quantity, quality and movement, and he is checked for any infectious diseases.
“I don’t like the idea of donating to the clinics,” he said. “They only get basic information about the donor. When a child turns 18 they can get information about their biological father. If a child was 10 years old and wanted to find out who their father was there’s no option.”
Hugh can be found under online pseudonyms on Facebook and a number of dedicated websites which match donors with those seeking help.
“You can usually pick up if people aren’t doing it for the right reasons,” he says. “We need to make sure everybody is happy with what we are agreeing to and then we go ahead with the donation if everything is okay. I’ve said no and met some couples who I have had bad vibes off, or have been a bit uneasy with.
“It does come across as a bit of an interview. Usually they have a lot of questions and I have questions for them. But once we meet I can get a feel if it’s a good thing to do or not.
“If I meet a couple for example, I’ll want to know if they are married, how long they’ve been together, do they have good jobs to support the child. I just want to make sure the child is going to be looked after safe and well.
“I do have a paternal instinct with it and that’s why I like to know they are safe and well.”
According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) – the UK’s independent regulator of fertility treatment and research using human embryo – more than 54,000 patients underwent about 75,000 fertility treatments in 2017.
One of the couples Hugh has helped are Clare and Sophia from Burntwood, near Cannock. The couple – who also did not want to give their real names – have been together for 10 years, and married for six.
“We had always wanted a family and children,” says Sophia, 33. “Children feels like the next step. Our relationship on its own is fantastic and great, but we want to add to that. We have always wanted to nurture and raise a child.”
Sophia is currently pregnant, but it has not been an easy journey.
“We started donating with him three years ago,” explains 31-year-old Clare. “I went first because I knew I would have issues. I did struggle for about 19 months before we ended up going down the IVF route and Hugh was good enough to donate to the clinic so I could pay to use his sperm.
“I got pregnant and miscarried six weeks in. We couldn’t afford to keep trying with my embryos.
“So we thought we would try with Sophia. I really, really wanted a baby. So we put my IVF to one side and we let Sophia have a go and she became pregnant first time. Unfortunately just before 17 weeks Sophia went into premature labour due to complications. He was born alive, but he didn’t survive.”
The couple were heartbroken. They felt their dream of having raising a child would never happen for them.
“Losing the last baby was horrendous and the worst thing to go through,” says Sophia. “This baby was coming along, we had things all mapped out, we were excited and people were excited for us, but on that day our world was turned upside down.
“But then we were worried that was the only chance we had to have a child. I have felt like it wasn’t going to happen for us and that the world’s against us.”
The couple took a break from trying. They wanted to have time to grieve.
“We were worried Hugh might be put off as we had put him through quite a lot, but he stood by us the whole time,” says Clare. “When we decided to try again Sophia became pregnant again first time. Hugh has been amazing, a lot of people would have given up by now. We have heard a few horror stories with donors, and we feel lucky.”
Hugh says he mainly get approached by same sex couples, but it is not exclusive. But, he warns that there are other donors out there who take advantage of people.
“I get contacted by people all over the place and lots of different types of people,” he says. “Single women, lesbian couples and heterosexual couples.
“I don’t charge, I only ask for any expenses to be paid, like fuel or if I have to stay in a hotel. I have met couples from all over the country and heard about certain donors who are ripping people off.”
There is a great degree of trust that has to go on between both parties when it comes to private sperm donation. Hugh has a contract agreement which he presents people with before the donation, which helps prevent legal complications over things like access and money.
“I have a contract, well it’s an agreement really, that if anything were to happen such as someone wants to get child maintenance off me, I could go to court and produce the evidence of the agreement,” he says. “I have a copy of all the message. It would be the judge’s decision of course but hopefully they would see it as a donation. But it is potentially a big risk.
“I suppose you could say my terms are a yearly update with a picture and paragraph saying how things are going to let me know all is well,” he says.
“I couldn’t really know that a child has been created and then never know anything else about the child. That wouldn’t be right for me, I want to know they are safe and well.”
Completing a family
Lorna and Dave Evans live in Wrexham and they met Hugh to help complete their family with their six month old boy Harry.
Lorna, 32, wanted another baby but Dave was unable to have any more children because of a vasectomy he had while in a previous relationship that could not be reversed. They had looked into reversing his operation, but because of the length of time since the vasectomy it carried only a 15 per cent chance of success.
“I had the thought of going to the sperm bank,” said Lorna. “But when I was looking through all the forms the only thing that was running through my mind was that I don’t know anything about these donors and that I wouldn’t be able to answer any questions for Harry.
“I found that there are Facebook pages for this sort of thing and I was on it for a long time. We met a few donors and it just didn’t click, it didn’t work. We’d asked for artificial insemination and they would come and ask for natural insemination, which is sex, and were quite pushy. It’s just not what we wanted, we are a married couple. Artificial insemination also gave Dave his role in helping to make a baby.”
After three tries with Hugh, Lorna conceived and baby Harry was born, adding to the family unit which also includes his older brother Riley.
“I had to track my ovulation and when I was near the time we would let Hugh know,” she says. “He would come here, go upstairs and make a deposit. We would do our bit and then have a cup of tea and talk for a bit.”
The couple have decided that being frank and honest with Harry as he grows up is the best thing for his understanding of where he came from.
“We have decided to tell Harry the truth straight away,” says supply teacher Dave, 47. “I’m dad and he’s the father and Harry will be able to meet the other brothers and sisters and we meet up regularly.
“I consider him to be my own son. I had a bond with Harry straight away, I really didn’t think I would but I did and I was worried about it. He’s felt like my own since.”
But it’s not only other families that Hugh has helped. A donation he made to one single woman blossomed into romance – and he has since effectively adopted his own child.
“We were friends for a long time, one thing led to another and we decided to give it a go in a relationship,” he says.
“I was able to have me signed on to the birth certificate. My partner had only put her name down when he was born which left space for the father. It was just a case of making an appointment with the registry and putting my name on. Because I was biologically the father it was pretty simple.”
Hugh fully expects that eventually he will get more knocks on the doors from some of the children he has helped to bring into the world.
“In the future, especially with the girls when they get to teenage years, they’re going to argue with their parents and I foresee that randomly some of the girls will turn up and I’ll be happy for them to come in and stay a couple of days until things calm down,” he says. “It’ll be difficult, but as long as I communicate with parents I don’t think there will be any issues.
“I do have some regrets. My own children and the children that see me are going to grow up knowing me and seeing me, but I do feel sorry for the ones that aren’t. Will they resent the others because they didn’t have that connections they had? That is probably one thing I hadn’t foreseen, a child growing up having no idea who their father is because their mum kept it a secret.”