Woman’s Hour: Illegal Sperm Donors

I am a regular listener to Woman’s Hour and tuned into the podcast on ‘Illegal Sperm Donors,’ c.16.01.15 shortly after its airing. I am unsure why the programme was entitled ‘Illegal Sperm Donors,’ for neither civil nor criminal laws govern cyber-enabled donor conception. Indeed, unregulated sperm donation via the Internet has much in common with the Wild West as it is largely unregulated. Recently, I returned to the podcast for research purposes and within a few minutes of hearing the narrative of Erica Tranfield my fingers were trying to plug my ears for a second time. From the word go, Tranfield’s recital was little more than a business promotion and it drew creepy parallels with a sale’s pitch I encountered in a bike shop when I popped in some days ago to browse their 29ers MTBs. Now, I know quite a lot about MTBs and I know when I am being misled. Similarly, as a social scientist who has conducted a prolonged covert investigation into unregulated cyber-enabled sperm donation and the abuse of women, I knew Tranfield was similarly misleading the listening audience…and by default any woman who is considering utilizing the Internet – including Pride Angel – for donor conception.

Tranfield is the founder of Pride Angel, an established unregulated online sperm donation website, and as such she has a vested business interest in self-promotion, even if that means slipping off the truth track to promote Pride Angel as heads and shoulders above her market rivals when it comes to safety, banning NI donations, and the illegal sale in human gametes, as well as preventing all anonymous ‘donations.’ Wait a minute…or two, or even three, I have heard part of this sales pitch before. It was via Emma Hartnel-Baker, owner and marketer of FSDW. Here, we have two women, both owners of unregulated sperm donation websites, clambering for their market share of fresh sperm, live pregnancies, and the revenue it generates, whilst obfuscating the risks and dangers awaiting unsuspecting women.

The thing about conducting a long, laborious, and frequently challenging covert investigation into unregulated sperm donation and the abuse of women, is that I KNOW how these sites operate. Pride Angel does not differ from the multitude of other online sperm donation websites or groups on social media platforms when it comes to the safety of women or the welfare of children who are conceived via donor conception. Returning to Tranfield’s narrative on Woman’s Hour, I was struck, bluntly, by the self-edifice of her promotional message regarding several points, which I shall now turn to…

Tranfield stated that ‘as a company we are safer than any other website because we actually check all our profiles everyday and we screen them and suspend any offering natural insemination.’

This comprises a dangerous safety message. It is indicative of a marketing strategy that is being promoted above and beyond women’s safety, both online and offline. Sadly, the statement, which was aired over Radio 4, also suggests that Tranfield has little or no knowledge of cyber-enabled violence against women…including rape and sexual assault. Men do not always state on their profiles that they want or expect NI – sex. Instead, they will request sexual intercourse or sexual contact once they have established contact with a woman, usually by personal chat, or email, or they will request/demand sex when they meet a woman in person after agreeing to donate by artificial insemination.

By default, Tranfield’s safety claims suggest that women are not at risk of sexual orientated crimes via Pride Angel simply because she screens donor profiles for NI and any donor therefore offering or requesting sex is suspended. This is dangerously misleading and is on a par with the claims of Emma Hartnel-Baker, who in turn alleges that her own site, FSDW, comprises the only ‘AI’ sperm donor site in the world.

Tranfield asserted, ‘We don’t allow anybody to offer anonymous donations.’

This is a woefully misleading claim in the arena of cyber donor conception, and especially, when one remembers that children will be conceived via this route. Yes…there are serious child welfare issues at stake here in relation to anonymous donations. Research conducted by the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation found that most men donating sperm hid behind false names, and gave false information about their occupation, family histories, home address, whilst also routinely telling untruths about their marital status, and how many children they had already fathered. As a website, Pride Angel, cannot regulate who hides behind an alias and who does not. Claims purporting to ban anonymous donations are simply fanciful; legal regulations do not exist to enforce the disclosure of the parents’ names and other identifiable information via cyber sperm donor sites. Moreover, Pride Angel and other platforms similarly lack the powers to self-regulate.

In essence, Tranfield’s claim that Pride Angel does not permit anonymous donations is a reflection of an unenforceable code of conduct. It does not, however, reflect the lived practices of parents and potential parents using the platform for donor conception. Indeed, there is a tacit rule in the cyber sperm donor community that men – donors – can remain anonymous, but women should reveal their full names and personal details. To this effect, many sperm donor websites – FSDW is a classic example – and groups on social networking sites – such as Facebook – encourage men to hide behind aliases. This simply fuels and supports the mechanics of stalking and the abuse of women, whilst also laying the bedrock for intractable child welfare issues, such as anonymous donations. Tranfield may wish to discourage anonymous donations in donor conception, perhaps evinced be her statement, ‘we don’t allow anybody to offer anonymous donations,’ however, this simply cannot be regulated at present.

Tranfield is essentially claiming that any woman who uses Pride Angel will know the father of her child/children. For the founder of an unregulated sperm donor platform, this is a highly irresponsible message to promote. Surely, it is imperative for women to be educated about the fact that overwhelmingly men hide behind aliases and fictitious biographies, meaning that children born via “donor conception” may never know the true identity of their biological and legal father and who their half siblings may be.

Tranfield claimed, ‘We don’t allow anyone to request payment for sperm, other than expenses.’

Tranfield cannot regulate or police whether men choose to violate the law by selling fresh gametes. It is simply not possible, for Pride Angel is little more than an introductory site that facilitates communication – at a price – between women wishing to conceive and men ‘donating’ sperm. Moreover, the issue of what constitutes ‘expenses’ is highly questionable. Research conducted by the Sperm Donor Abuse Foundation has found that it is commonplace for women to be financially exploited by men selling fresh gametes and indeed, Pride Angel is not immune. Furthermore, the HFEA has demonstrated very little interest in pursuing those men who openly break the law by selling fresh gametes via sperm donor websites and social media platforms, such as Facebook.

Tranfield asserted, ‘We also have a report abuse system whereby any user can report inappropriate messages or behaviour.’

Sadly what is missing from this statement is a clear definition of what constitutes ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and I would argue that the interviewer, Jenni Murray, had a duty to press Tranfield for an explanation on this serious issue. For instance, are we referring here to sexual offences, cyberstalking, or other types of criminal behaviour? It would seem that we are not, for Tranfield failed to hint at such behaviour, even though the cyber sperm donor community is a highly sexualized environment, where a culture of rape prevails, along with insidious rape myths and heinous victim blaming. I suspect that Tranfield failed to define inappropriate behaviour over the airways of Radio 4 as it would constitute a bad business move; from a marketing perspective, the last thing a sperm donor website needs is the socially constructed imagery of genuine and benevolent men ‘donating’ sperm associated with serious criminal offences, such as rape or sexual assault.