COVID-19 pandemic-fuelled IVF baby boom creating 'sperm drought' across Australia

Melbourne couple Chloe Bonello and Teaghan Watton had their baby Toby with the help of a sperm donor they found on Facebook.  (Supplied)

As more single women and couples bring forward their plans to start a family, the IVF baby boom it has fuelled has created a "sperm drought" in Australia.

With travel plans delayed and people having more time on their hands to ponder their future due to the COVID-19 pandemic, fertility clinics have reported a surge in demand for their services, while an increasing number of people are also going online to fulfil their baby dreams.

Medicare data shows there was a 35.3 per cent jump in the number of IVF cycles undertaken in Australia in the year to May 2021, with every state and territory experiencing a growth of at least 21.5 per cent.

Solo parent stigma falls away

City Fertility Sydney medical director Devora Lieberman said she had seen a "dramatic" increase in the number of single women coming into the clinic. 

"I think the stigma that used to exist around being a single parent has lifted and there is self-actualisation with women who realise they don't necessarily need to be in a relationship to start a family," Dr Lieberman said. 

Dr Lieberman says she is seeing at least two single women a week to talk about starting a family.  (Supplied)

She said the pandemic had resulted in people having more time to think about what was important to them, while it had also freed up cash to pay for fertility treatments that would have otherwise been spent on overseas holidays, going out and other activities. 

IVF Australia medical director Peter Illingworth said Australia was in the midst of a "sperm drought" and they were finding it harder to source donors than before the pandemic hit. 

The number of sperm donors dropped by 10 per cent from 2019 to 2020 while the number of births increased by at least 15 per cent across IVF Australia's seven clinics, located in NSW and Canberra — and not all of the babies conceived last year have been born yet. 

Pandemic spurs self-reflection and forward planning

"The pandemic has caused people to look at their lives in more detail and people have brought forward their plans to get fertility treatment, which they were going to put off until they had done other things, such as travelling overseas for example," Dr Illingworth said.

"It is partly that COVID has affected people's way of thinking and we have also seen more single women and women in same-sex relationships who need to use donated sperm to have their families."

IVF Australia medical director Peter Illingworth says there have been an increase in the number of babies born through the clinic during the pandemic.  (Supplied)

Lockdowns and travel restrictions have also made it more difficult for people to access sperm, which has blown out waiting lists at clinics. 

The waiting list at one of Perth's main clinics has increased to between 18 and 24 months due to increased demand as women have been less able to travel east to access sperm. 

The pandemic has also made it harder for donors to get to clinics.

"Being a sperm donor is an altruistic gift, you are going through the hassle of turning up to appointments to help someone else and if you are struggling to keep your head above water, particularly if you are a casual worker, it becomes harder," he said. 

Victoria experiences 26 per cent jump in number of babies born through clinics

Figures from the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority (VARTA) show 538 babies were born in the state in 2019-2020 as a result of sperm donation facilitated by Victorian fertility clinics born — a 26 per cent jump from the previous year.

VARTA chief executive Anna MacLeod said while it was difficult to be certain of what was driving the trend, their data had also indicated an increasing number of single women and lesbian couples having babies with the use of donor sperm. 

Over the same period, the number of available sperm donors in the state dropped from 424 to 335.

VARTA chief executive Anna MacLeod says their data indicates an increasing number of single women and lesbian couples are having babies with the use of donor sperm.   (Supplied)

It prompted VARTA to issue a statement about the potential risks of entering into arrangements outside of fertility clinics, which screen the sperm for infectious diseases such as HIV and provide counselling so both parties understand their rights to avoid claims of parentage from a donor or requests for child support from recipients. 

Sperm donors who go through clinics are required by law to provide identifying information to central registers so the child can make contact in the future. 

The registers also help prevent donors from exceeding state-based limits on the number of families they can assist to prevent siblings from unknowingly crossing paths later in life. 

"Clinics are reporting that demand for donor sperm is outstripping supply, which may be prompting some people to seek donors through unregulated channels," the statement from VARTA said.

'No grey areas' with a clinic

Single mum-to-be Sarah Phillips went down the clinic route and is ecstatic after falling pregnant through Melbourne IVF. 

"I have always known that I have wanted to be mum one day," she said. 

"I always assumed I would meet someone, get married, have a child and live happily ever after, but I just haven't met anyone.

Melbourne single mum-to-be Sarah Phillips got pregnant with the help of a fertility clinic.  (Supplied)

After two intrauterine inseminations, two frozen embryo transfers and five cycles of IVF, Ms Phillips is 27 weeks pregnant.

"I always knew I wanted to go through a clinic — I liked the legalities and the processes — there were no grey areas and it was very black and white. 

"The counselling was helpful to talk through the rights of the child, mother and donor, who is not going to legally have rights over the child and that was comforting to me and my family. 

"If my child wants to contact the donor before they're 18 or the donor wants to contact us, it is done through VARTA so it is all very controlled and supportive. 

"Finding a donor on Facebook didn't feel safe for me."

Ms Phillips believed anyone who donated sperm was going to be a "genuinely nice person" so health and family medical history was the most important criteria for her. 

She was also glad to have the unique opportunity to avoid her child being a carrier of a genetic disease.

While falling pregnant cost her between $30,000 to $40,000, she said the biggest costs were emotional, mental and physical when she had to pick herself up and try again after each failed attempt. 

"I can't tell you how lucky I feel and how my heart is with the people out there who are still on that journey who are desperately trying to pick themselves up and not give up hope," she said.

Couples go online to fulfil baby dreams

Melbourne couple Chloe Bonello, 28 and Teaghan Watton, 33, fulfilled their dream of having a family through an increasingly popular Facebook group — Sperm Donation Australia. 

Chloe and Teaghan brought forward their plans to bring Toby into the world after the pandemic de-railed their wedding plans twice.  (Supplied)

When clinics and IVF treatments were disrupted as the pandemic hit last year, the page facilitated 437 births and saw a jump in active members from 4,000 to 6,000. 

Chloe and Teaghan brought forward their plans to have their baby Toby, who was born nine weeks ago with donor sperm sourced through the page, after COVID-19 caused them to postpone their wedding twice. 

They say private sperm donation can be done safely by putting in place the same checks and balances undertaken by clinics — without the hefty price tag. 

Being born without a uterus meant Chloe could not have children so the couple considered reciprocal IVF, where Chloe's egg would be used and Teaghan would carry the baby.

They ended up on Sperm Donation Australia after a friend had a baby through the page and they eventually worked up the courage to post their story after observing interactions between the group's members. 

Donors 'can look good on paper'

"We had some lovely donors reach out and it's a bit of an interview process, going through and finding the ones that align with your values and checking all their background history," the couple said.

They selected the donor for his darker features, to align with Chloe's Maltese heritage.

Teaghan and Chloe wanted to meet the donor to see what kind of person he was and make sure his values aligned with their own.  (Supplied)

"He was also just a very down to earth and a very loving, kind person and those were the most important things we were looking for," they said.

"We also wanted to make the experience as intimate as possible and we found it was better for us to meet the person. 

The sperm was screened thoroughly for HIV and STDs and the donor provided a "thorough" report with his full family history including past major illnesses and other relevant genetic information. 

Research and education crucial to preventing issues down the track

"The donor has a limit on how many families he donates to and makes sure his recipients are spread out over vast areas," Chloe and Teaghan said.

"We also had a lawyer do up a legal contract, both to benefit us, so he doesn't have custody rights, but also to protect his financial assets so we don't go after him for child support.

"It really comes down to having those conversations about what relationship the donor wants to have in the child's life.

"It can be done safely, you just need to do the research, and the Facebook page has a wealth of information on it and it also provides a community where people ask all kinds of questions."

Legal advice recommended with both options

Kirsty McLeod is a family lawyer at Farrar Gesini Dunn, specialising in surrogacy and donor conception matters.  (Supplied)

Canberra-based family lawyer Kirsty McLeod said if a woman got pregnant using donor sperm by way of a procedure —  defined as any other method that is not sexual intercourse — the donor is presumed not to be the legal parent of the child. 

"There is no distinction in the legislation about whether the procedure occurred at a clinic or not," she said. 

Women who find a donor online are warned not to do so via "natural insemination", as this would mean the sperm donor is seen as the father in the eyes of the law.

Ms McLeod, who specialises in surrogacy and donor conception, said there was a bigger risk of a known donor claiming custody rights because they were more likely to have had involvement in the child's life.

"People should ideally get legal advice and have a discussion about what their intention is with any known donor and document it in a donor agreement.

"It in itself is not legally binding ... but it is best practice to document everyone's intention and whether or not the donor will have ongoing involvement.

"If they go through a clinic it is a bit more regulated, with limits on the number of families a donor can help, genetic testing, counselling and legal advice." 

Online donation evolves to offer more 'professional' experience

Perth-based Adam Hooper, who founded the Sperm Donation Australia Facebook page in 2015, said they would soon be launching their own baby register to keep a formal record of donors that would help offspring track down their biological fathers and siblings. 

Donors will be given a "donor code" after supplying identification and other information such as how many families they were planning to help.

He said there were many "loopholes" with the clinic system such as donors not being required by law to update their details if they moved or changed their name. 

Sperm Donation Australia founder Adam Hooper has himself donated sperm to help 15 families have babies, including Theo pictured here.  (Supplied)

Mr Hooper said the page's associated website featured a wealth of information such as advice on donor and recipient agreements and even a "natural insemination (NI) consent form", which helped people address "awkward" questions and establish boundaries before they "do the deed".

He is currently working on an artificial insemination consent form. 

Mr Hooper said many people may be surprised to hear it was often the women who prefer the NI method because they believed it to be more effective and found it less "gross" than handling the sperm.

"Online donation is continuing to evolve in terms of making it more of a professional experience and we are looking at ways to reinvent ourselves to offer a better experience."

He said there had been a jump in the number of sperm donors, single mums and couples joining the group during the pandemic.

Sperm Donation Australia founder Adam Hooper says his Facebook page offers people a personalised experience that they can't get through a clinic.  (Supplied)

"Women have told me their biological urge to procreate has kicked in now more than ever," he said. 

Public sperm bank in the pipeline

Public fertility services like the one being established by the Victorian government may provide a solution to people facing the high costs and donor shortages at clinics, while avoiding the risks that can arise from finding a donor online. 

The Victorian government has set aside $70 million to improve public hospital facilities to deliver fertility services and provide up to 2,700 free treatment cycles to up to 4,000 Victorians a year — saving them $10,000 each on average. 

The investment includes Victoria's first public sperm and egg bank, which will proactively recruit donors, store eggs, sperm and embryos and educate the public about the need for donations. 

The facility will be the first of its kind in Austraila. 

A 'strong degree of trust' needed with donor

Dr Illingworth supported public fertility clinics and warned people against going online to find a donor.

"When a man gives his sperm to allow somebody else to have a family, that man becomes part of that family, whether the recipients like it or not, for the rest of their lives.

"You have to have a strong degree of trust and a strong relationship with the donors so that everybody understands the boundaries and how they want the family to end up.

"There have been a number of cases in family law where donors have successfully applied to be the parents of the child, but these are all known donor arrangements.

He said going through a clinic could act as a barrier between the donor and recipients so the intended parents remained in control of the family.