Hilary wanted a baby, but she didn’t have a man. Mr Right was nowhere to be seen, she was 34 and didn’t want to wait. Mr Not-So-Bad was not good enough and a casual fling for the sake of a baby was out of the question. Then she discovered that she didn’t really need a man at all: she needed only his sperm, and a spoon. Within the year she had her baby.
Women have been doing it themselves for years. Originally an American idea, Self-Insemination by Donor Sperm or ‘turkey-basting’ (turkey basters are popular implements for SI in the United States; spoons and syringes are preferred in Britain, turkey-basters not being that common), was first used here by gay women in the Seventies.
Now it is catching on among growing numbers of family-minded single women gay and straight in their thirties and forties who are choosing to have the baby now and the father later. SI is cheaper and easier than artificial insemination in fertility clinics, the alternative non-sexual way of making babies. These clinics do treat single women, but with growing reluctance, since 1991’s Virgin Birth controversy.
Linda knew that she did not want to go to a clinic. The cost aside, she said: ‘I never wanted an anonymous donor. I didn’t want him to be a father, but I wanted to know who he was.’ Instead she bought some sterile needleless syringes from a chemist for 9p each.
The cost of a clinic would have been about pounds 150 for an initial consultation and pounds 100 a month after that. Finding the right donor was more problematic. ‘It is a huge favor not only are you asking them to be the biological father, albeit absent, but they have to make a commitment to have an Aids test, and to drop everything once a month, for every month until it works.’ Linda was lucky.
Her friend, a photographer, agreed. ‘When the time was right I cooked a special supper and invited him and some other friends around. The others handed me some wine; he handed me some sperm in a film canister. Nothing was said. Mid-course I went upstairs and did it. It was all a bit haphazard. I sat through pudding with my legs over the back of a sofa.’ Another film canister was delivered the next evening.
Linda did not conceive that month, but she did the next. ‘I did it four times in all and got pregnant on the third try.’ Her son, Michael, is now nine months old.
We are used to procreation without sex. Infertility was the motivator and, since Louise Brown became the world’s first test-tube baby in 1978, fertility clinics and science have stepped in when nature fails. Babies can now be made in test-tubes (IVF), infertile eggs can be replaced with fertile ones (egg transfer), infertile sperm with fertile (AID) and hostile wombs can supplemented by friendly ones (host womb).
Along the way sex became redundant and artificial insemination originally an infertility treatment became the way fertile women, who didn’t want intercourse, could have a baby.
But if inseminating was no longer tied up with infertility, it did imply hi-tech procedure. Not so. What is startling about SI is its simplicity. ‘I thought that you had to go to a clinic,’ said Hilary, ‘that inseminating was complicated and that only doctors could do it.’
Babies can be made without the penetrative help of a man or the costly help of science. ‘There really is nothing to it,’ said Lisa Saffron, author of Getting Pregnant Our Own Way, a guide to self-insemination.
‘There is no technology, no technique, you can even use your hands.’ That a spoon can do almost the same work as a man’s most valued member could come as a blow to some, but as Tara Kaufman, former spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: ‘If more women were aware of SI, more would be doing it.’
The method might be easy, but the organization isn’t. DIY babies are never accidents. The mechanics of conception are studiously studied and fertilization is planned in minutest detail.
Linda gave up smoking, drew up charts and took her temperature to establish her fertile period and bought predictor kits to confirm it. Finding a donor, known or anonymous, can be difficult there is a big difference for some men between recreational and procreating sperm. And organizing the handover can be complicated.
Jill, who used an anonymous donor and an intermediary, said: ‘We drove to the donor’s house and found the jar sitting on a stool a foot away from a blazing fire. It had been there for ages. Needless to say the sperm was cooked and I couldn’t use it.’ The second time her new donor lived miles away and she had to drive at 80mph to get back before the sperm expired.
Healthy semen is a precious commodity for women bent on SI. They tend to know everything there is to know about its upkeep: that it’s not that robust and has to be used within two hours of ejaculation; that the best time to use it is once it’s passed through the clotting stage (immediately after ejaculation) and gone into the slippery and liquid phase (about 10 minutes later); that it should never be frozen in the deep-freeze or overheated, as both extremes kill it; and that it should be kept at body temperature, preferably in a pocket or under the arm.
Whole sections of Getting Pregnant Our Own Way are devoted to sperm, and, like any ‘how-to’ manual, it offers handy hints like mixing it with a saline solution to extend its shelf-life.
The book also considers the legal, health and ethical implications of DIY babies. The risk of Aids and infection is very real.
Clinics screen their donors for disease and the semen they offer is guaranteed germ-free. Conception can take months and clinics offer counselling and have built-in support to help women through what can be a very stressful time. Women who do it themselves are more isolated and have to take more on trust.
Moreover, a man who donates sperm through clinics is not legally, financially or in any way a father. Those who donate informally are.
The guidelines of the newly established Child Support Agency explicitly state that men who donate sperm for Self Insemination away from established clinics are responsible as fathers and therefore could be liable for maintenance. Women on income support who refuse to name the father, or in the case of anonymous donations, genuinely don’t know, could face close interrogation by the agency and reductions in benefit.
Likewise, there is always the possibility that a father might demand custody. So inseminating at home and knowing the father might be cozier than conceiving with the help of strangers in a clinic, but legally it can be a minefield.
Problems then, lie not so much with the technique but with what happens after. Although Joan Raphael-Leff, a psychoanalyst and author of Psychological Processes of Preparation for Good Parenting says, ‘sexual activity in itself does not constitute preparation for good parenting,’ conception, whether by spoon or sex, is just the beginning.