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Camilla Gibb’s new novel is The Relatives.

Last March, people were joking that lockdown would usher in a baby boom. A year later, Canadian family lawyers are estimating a 40-per-cent rise in inquiries about separation and divorce, cisgender women are reporting delaying pregnancy or planning for fewer children, and the birth rate is seeing a statistically significant decline.

This isn’t an entirely new shift in the Global North, where people have been having fewer children for years. But job insecurity, financial precarity and health concerns brought about by the pandemic have helped turn a slow decline into an accelerated baby bust. A widely cited study conducted last year by the Brookings Institution predicted the pandemic would result in a U.S. birth rate that is 8 per cent lower than the expected birth rate without a pandemic. This figure is being corroborated by early U.S. data. In Canada, British Columbia recorded the lowest provincial birth rate in a decade in December, the first month babies conceived during the pandemic were born.

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People from disadvantaged groups are more likely to be faced with economic hardships, especially during a pandemic, which may direct their decision to not have a child. And there are those for whom a loss of a year or more may well prove to mean not having children at all.

But plenty of people in the world do still want children. I see some despair among younger single female friends who are aware of the proverbial ticking clock. I see millennials on Tinder dates sitting six-feet away from each other in parks and imagine how wide the gulf between that picture and the fantasy of creating a family with someone must feel for some of them. I remember how acute my own desire to have a child was in my late-thirties and early forties. Not everyone would consider a pandemic the optimal time to conceive a baby, but I can tell you from experience that the rational self can be hijacked by biology, whatever the state of the world. My former partner and I ultimately conceived with the help of donor sperm several years ago.

Had we embarked on that journey today, our options would have been more limited. People requiring some reproductive assistance, by way of access to fertility treatments and/or donor sperm and/or eggs, have been confronted with delays and shortages throughout the pandemic. Like many other goods and services, the supply of donor material, the majority of it sperm, is way down. The supply chain – beginning with getting enough men through the door of a fertility clinic or sperm bank – has been seriously disrupted over the past year. In Britain, for instance, the number of donors has dropped by 66 per cent. Britain’s largest fertility services provider, the Fertility Partnership, has recently launched a campaign to attract new donors: “Give Future Families a Choice.”

Since we’ve all been pushed to get resourceful and figure out how to improvise by bypassing conventional channels in order to get what we need, prospective parents are finding ways to cut out the gatekeeper: the cryobanks and fertility clinics behind a global sperm industry that was predicted, pre-COVID-19, to be worth nearly US$5.5-billion by 2025.

Suppliers are advertising directly. Sperm Donation USA, a Facebook group matching donors and recipients, has seen huge growth over the pandemic and now has nearly 15,200 members (an increase of almost 25 per cent just since January of this year) complete with photos, educational and medical histories, names and contact information. The growth in sites such as this is hardly surprising: people already meet over the internet for the satisfaction of the most intimate of needs.

To be fair, it has been possible to acquire sperm over the internet for some time, though perhaps never in such an open and accessible way. Shortages have occurred in different jurisdictions at various times owing to changes in laws, which have discouraged donors and/or recipients. In Canada, for instance, sperm donation is considered “altruistic” because donors cannot be financially compensated. As a consequence there is little in the way of Canadian donor sperm; the vast majority of the supply here is imported from the United States.

Prospective parents opt not to use regulated facilities for any number of reasons: because of associated costs, bureaucracy, wait-times; because they want a known rather than anonymous donor; or in response to allegations of inadequate medical or educational background checks carried out by the facilities themselves.

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While it might seem inadvisable from a legal standpoint to be sourcing your sperm from the internet, the formal sperm industry is, for all its apparent corporate polish, clearly rather wild itself. Two recent legal cases involving Ontario couples have been much-circulated as cautionary tales. In the first instance, several couples have now spent years seeking to sue a U.S.-based sperm bank and its Canadian distributor for misrepresentation and falsehood. The donor they used, billed as a healthy and brilliant man working toward his PhD in neuroscience, turned out to be a university dropout with a criminal history who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and a personality disorder.

In the second instance, seven Canadian couples who used the same donor launched a suit against a Canadian provider last year for misleading information about their donor’s health and background. Despite the provider’s claims of rigorous screening and testing, five of the seven children in this case have tested positive for Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease – a hereditary neuropathic condition that results in the loss of muscle tissue and sensation.

There are plenty of cautionary tales in the unregulated market, too, including donors promising a sample, then looking to have sex to provide it. There are disingenuous donors who string a woman along just to ghost at the time of the month she is about to ovulate. And there are the donors who create multiple accounts. The serial donor, someone compelled, I imagine, to spread his genetic material far and wide, now has an increasing number of channels through which to donate.

There is little consensus around how many offspring from a single donor is too many in a population. Much as formal providers might stipulate limits to the number of offspring derived from one donor, this is virtually impossible to regulate or guarantee. A donor may well supply multiple banks, and records of live births resulting from his sperm are dependent upon voluntary reporting by recipients. Sperm is often purchased in bulk because it can take multiple tries and you want the guarantee of a supply from the same donor. Besides, buying in bulk is cheaper. And what do you do with the leftovers? Plenty of people with the means will pay a storage fee to keep them in a freezer just in case they want to produce a sibling at a later date. If you choose not to use them yourself, you can legally donate them to another party, pass it on so to speak. And on it goes. A donor has no control over how far and wide his sperm travels; no true idea of how many offspring might result and neither do his recipients.

On the whole, the fact that we make choices around conception is less shrouded in secrecy and shame than it used to be. There is a general movement toward greater openness throughout the Global North, including the unmasking of anonymity. Many jurisdictions recognize access to the knowledge of one’s genetic parentage as a human right – a moral right and a legal one.

Since 2008, adoption records in Ontario have become open to an adoptee when they reach the age of 18 and to the birth parents a year later. Many jurisdictions apply the same principle of the right to genetic knowledge for children conceived using donor material, including sperm, eggs and embryos. Sweden was the first, prohibiting anonymous donation in 1985. Several other countries followed suit, including Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

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U.S. and Canadian laws are seriously lagging behind those of other comparable nations. Anonymous donation remains the industry standard. Legal cases where the privacy rights of the donor versus the rights of a child to know their biological origins are debated have landed in favour of the former. There was some movement on this in B.C., with a Supreme Court challenge to grant donor offspring the same rights and privileges as adopted children that was initially successful, but this was overturned in 2012.

Given this perspective, you can see why donors and recipients might want to select each other, opting for a more personal exchange and bypassing regulation that erects barriers to knowledge, knowledge that should be available, most critically, to their offspring. The fantasy of preserving anonymity has, in any case, been largely erased by the availability of DNA testing.

To be sure, this movement toward direct transaction between donors and recipients may well presage a future litany of legal cases. But the indirect transaction through a provider results in plenty of legal cases now, particularly where couples separate and there is leftover genetic material, in the form of sperm, eggs or embryos preserved in a cryobank. Most clinics ask recipients to sign a document agreeing on their intentions for this material in the event of divorce or death. The extent to which these decisions are legally enforceable though is unclear.

Calls for greater regulation have to be weighed against potential breaches of rights and freedoms as well as the potential for discrimination. We do not invite regulation into the world of unassisted heteronormative reproduction, for instance. And we generally do not ask for a full medical history of our partners, their university transcripts, a PhD in neuroscience, a sperm analysis or DNA testing to prove they have no other children, either.

There is a risk in having children however you go about it. In times of deficit, people get creative and in getting creative it’s possible we find a way to fashion something more aligned with what we want. There might be more human value in meeting a man in a parking lot who gives you a vial of sperm during a pandemic than the clinical, anonymous, expensive and slow process that awaits you at a clinic. Perhaps the man in the parking lot proves to be a decent human being who delivers and then politely vanishes and that becomes part of the story you pass on. Ultimately it is the stories, the narratives we build and share that imbue all relationships, however conceived, with meaning, after all.

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