At their home in Calcutta, Soma and Ashok’s lives revolve around their six-year-old son, Debraj. After all, he was born when the couple had given up all hopes of bearing a child. A dozen years of marriage and failed infertility treatments had forced them to conclude that donor sperm was the only way to have a biological child.
After the very first artificial insemination of the donor seed, Soma got pregnant. Ashok was low for a while, knowing it wasn’t his seed that had been planted in his wife’s womb. But once the bump began to show, his spirits lifted. Today father and son are inseparable.
Even some years ago, any talk of a sperm donor would be met with good-natured ribbing. “You want a donor? Why don’t you just call me,” went the standard joke, says Dr Aniruddha Malpani, an infertility specialist in Mumbai.
The release of Bollywood’s Vicky Donor — the hero is a professional donor — may have tweaked perceptions a bit, though not much has changed in terms of donor choice. Couples still demand sperms of men of a certain caste, religious sect or colour, say sperm bank owners, who claim not to record such data. “We record a donor’s taste in films and music, and even his shoe size, but not his caste,” stresses Dilip Patil, CEO of Baby Quest, a Mumbai sperm bank.
Recently, a Mumbai woman claiming to be a socialite walked into Baby Quest and offered to pay “anything” for a donor who’d match any of her Bollywood idols, whom she’d graded on a chart.
Likewise, Aditi, a 30-something Mumbai housewife seeking a sperm donor because of her husband’s “sugar problem”, insists on seeing a photograph of the tilak-sporting Vaidyanathan, a potential donor in Chennai, who responded to her Internet post. “Without seeing your photo, we can’t proceed,” says Aditi, offering to share her own picture. “I’m good looking. Your looks, habits, nature and hobbies matter to me as you can be my donor,” she adds.
Couples usually ask for someone “decent” looking, which invariably boils down to gora-sa (fair) and not ganda-sa (ugly), says Dr Rajeev Agarwal, a Calcutta-based infertility specialist and owner of Cryobank Kolkata, a sperm bank. Dr Malpani adds that a woman often wants to know if the prospective donor looks like her husband.
But sperm donation has a dark side too. Some couples, peasants and wealthy business magnates alike, have asked that their wives be inseminated by the sperm of a brother-in-law or a father-in-law. This, the experts say, is done to preserve the bloodline and ward off suspicion because the child would have the family looks.
There have been occasions when infertility clinics have used the sperm of a donor without informing the couple. In a 2010 study on ethical issues in assisted reproductive technologies (ART), Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar Varada Madge tells the story of Aarti, a 35-year-old “high caste” and “high-class” software professional who felt cheated over being implanted with donor sperm without her knowledge during her long infertility treatment. “We had no idea that they were doing this,” she said.
Even now, many doctors inseminate women with the semen of a donor who could be “anyone from the neighbourhood rickshawwallah to the lab technician”, says Dr Agarwal. But there are also instances of infertile men urging the doctor to use donor sperms without informing the wife, he adds.
A new bill — the ART Bill, 2010 — which began as guidelines put together by the Indian Council of Medical Research is expected to streamline the haphazard world of seed donation.
While the draft bill is still pending in Parliament, sperm donation has taken a new turn. These days, couples pick up their donors online. Ashish, 30, an engineer and life skills trainer in Hyderabad, whips up his charm on a chat site, saying he donates his sperm only to “trustworthy couples, whom I get to know via online chat, the phone and then a meeting at a coffee shop.”
Amidst plenty of smileys, he tells Sakina, who’s shopping for sperm online, about a baby girl he’d fathered last year for a friend and her gay husband. While harping on how he feels the pain of childless couples, he doesn’t forget to mention the Rs 8,000 plus travel costs an Andhra couple paid him recently to donate his sperm.
Money is the biggest motivation, Patil stresses. Earlier, when sperm donation was still in its nascent stages, donors were paid Rs 1,200 for a sample, says Dr Kedar Padte, an infertility specialist in Goa. Now with more choices, and online options, a donor gets Rs 200-500 a sample.
The draft ART Bill specifies that a donor’s semen sample may not be used more than 75 times, but sperm banks randomly send out their samples without follow-ups about resulting pregnancies. Rahul, a 22-year-old biotechnologist in Mumbai, has, for instance, donated sperm about 90 times since he was 18.
The draft bill also specifies that a single sample supplied by a sperm bank should be used only once and on a single recipient. If a donor is found to have fathered 10 children, he is blocked from donating any more. But this ban can only happen if an ART clinic reports the pregnancies, says Patil. “And getting reports of pregnancies is an uphill task,” warns Dr Agarwal.
Doctors have many tales to relate about would-be donors. A quirky donor would routinely return about an hour after donating a sample, to offer to donate once again. Another donor’s opening line was he missed his wife who was back in the village. If the ART Bill turns into law, this donor would need his wife’s consent before donating sperm.
Aniruddha Acharya, whose sperm bank Evolution Vision in Jalna, Maharashtra, hand delivers frozen semen samples in cans of liquid nitrogen to 14 states, says his 30 or so donors are single men. “Married donors find it difficult to abstain from sex for the mandatory 36-hour period before giving a sample,” he says. Also, the sex in between donations could be unprotected and with an infected partner, and be life threatening to both the recipient and the child.
If the ART Bill gets passed, a donor found to have suppressed information about himself can be punished. Someone like Mangesh, a 26-year-old IT professional, for instance, would have to be more upfront when offering his sperm. “I love studying, listening to Indian music and spending time with my mother,” he tells Shweta, a middle-aged woman who advertises for a sperm donor online. A little prodding later, he talks about losing his father to a heart attack.
But youngsters like Vishal — he calls himself Vishal Donor now — aren’t worried about what the law has in store. The 22-year-old is happy to think he has children scattered across the country — or perhaps even the world.
After the release of Vicky Donor, Dr Agarwal says donors walk into his sperm bank with their heads held high. “I’m tall, fair and an IIT graduate and want to donate my sperm. How much will I be paid,” one man asks. After all, if the screen hero could get a life by donating his sperm, why can’t he?
(Some names have been changed.)