The Current

'Don't rely on promises': How arrangements with known sperm donors can unravel

Three sperm donors all set out with the same intention: Donate sperm, don't get involved. But the laws are murky when it comes to donors' rights and each of the three donors is facing a different dilemma. Are they parents or purely donors?
A new documentary, 'Known Donor' takes us inside the complicated reality of third-party reproduction and the murky laws of donor rights. (iStock)

Read story transcript

When you ask someone outside the family unit to help you create children, it's called "third-party reproduction."

While the relationships between sperm or egg donors and family can vary depending on the preferences of the individuals, murky laws regarding donor rights can further complicate the matter for many people involved in third-party reproduction.

Sometimes donors envision themselves playing an "uncle-like" role in the child's life. Sometimes they play no role at all. But sometimes, the donors and the parents disagree on what kind of role it will be.

Provincial parentage laws have gone a long way to clarify these situations. Ontario introduced its "All Families Are Equal" Act last fall; while B.C. updated its laws about five years ago. But there's still uncertainty about known donors: how known is too known?

"I started to feel betrayed," says a sperm donor from Northern, Ont., (The Current has agreed to not use his name to protect his privacy). He donated sperm to an acquaintance and thought that we would have an uncle-like relationship with the child.

Are known sperm donors who never intended to be involved with the family before the baby was born, parents or just donors? (Andrea Laurel/flickr cc)

"I was under the impression I would have been part of his life. I think she changed her mind when she got pregnant," he says in the documentary, Known Donor.

Even though he signed an agreement with the mother that he would not have any right to see the child, the sperm donor threatened to take legal action. But the parties settled the matter out of court.

No one keeps track of how many people use known sperm donors to conceive children, but cases where the relationship unravels between the sperm donor and the woman or couple to whom he agrees to donate his sperm, is illustrative of just how complex, and sometimes fraught these arrangements can be.  

"I think what happens in some cases is that when a couple tries to create their family through third-party reproduction, they can be so desperate, frankly, to create that family, they need so much assistance, that they might agree to things at the time because they're vulnerable," says Michelle Flowerday, a family lawyer in Toronto.

"They might say 'You can play an uncle role' or 'I'll send you yearly photos' or 'You can have access.'"

Flowerday's advice to those considering third-party reproduction: talk everything through up front.

"Thoroughly explore the issues, talk about them, at length," she says.

"Really have a sense of where you stand on them, as the donor, or the intended parent of the child. Seek counseling.  Seek the advice of a lawyer. And be sure to have a contract in place."

"Don't rely on promises."

Listen to the stories of three sperm donors in the documentary Known Donor at the top of this web post.

This documentary was produced by Alison Motluk and The Current's documentary editor, Josh Bloch.