In 2015 Vanessa van Ewijk, a carpenter in the Netherlands, decided that she wanted to have a child. She was 34 and single, so like many women she went to see a sperm donor.
She thought about conceiving at a fertility clinic, but the price was prohibitive. Then he found a perfect fit through a website called Desire for a Child – which is one of the growing number of online sperm marketplaces that bring donor candidates straight to potential recipients. Van Ewijk was particularly drawn to one profile, that of Jonathan Jacob Meijer, a Dutch musician in his thirties.
Meijer was handsome, with blue eyes and blond curly hair. Van Ewijk liked its authentic appearance. “We spoke on the phone, and he seemed polite and nice, well behaved,” she said. “He loved music and talked about what he thought about life. He wasn’t arrogant at all. He looked like someone he knew.”
About a month later, after some back and forth, she and Meijer agreed to meet at the bustling central station in The Hague. He gave her his sperm and she paid 165 euros (around R $ 1000), plus the transport costs. Months later, she had a daughter – her first and, as Meijer told her, her eighth. (Meijer declined to give an interview for this report, but answered some questions via email and said he did not allow his name to be released.)
In 2017, Van Ewijk decided to have another child and looked for Meijer again. They got together and, for an equally modest sum, handed over a container with their semen; again she got pregnant and had a baby boy.
Even before that, however, Van Ewijk learned some troubling facts. She had logged into Facebook with another single mother who had also used Meijer as a donor. The woman told him that, according to a 2017 survey by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sports, he fathered at least 102 children in the Netherlands, through various fertility clinics – a number that did not include his donations through websites.
Van Ewijk wanted his children to be bilateral brothers, so he wanted Meijer to be the donor. Either way, she was alarmed. Holland is a small country of 17 million inhabitants; the more half-siblings in a population who do not know each other, the more likely it is that two will meet and produce their own children – children at increased risk for hereditary defects.
Furious, Van Ewijk confronted Meijer. He admitted that he had produced at least 175 children and that there may be more.
“He said: ‘I just help women achieve their greatest desire,'” recalls Van Ewijk. “I said, ‘You’re not helping anymore! How am I going to tell my kids that they can have 300 siblings?'”
Maybe she only knew half the story.
The first child generated by IVF was born in 1978, and in the decades that followed, sperm donation grew into a thriving global business as fertility clinics, sperm banks and private donors attempted to respond to the demand of parents wishing to have children.
As an industry, however, it is very poorly regulated. A patchwork of laws ostensibly addresses who can donate, where and how often, in part to prevent the introduction or spread of genetic deficiencies in the population.
In Germany, a donor in a sperm clinic cannot produce more than 15 children; in the UK the limit is ten families of unlimited children. In the Netherlands, the law prohibits anonymous donation and non-mandatory guidelines limit 25 children per donor in clinics and veto donation in more than one clinic in the country. In the United States, there are no legal limits, only guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine: 25 children per donor in a population of 800,000.
International regulations are even more fragile. Nothing prevents a donor from working in clinics in other countries, or in global agencies like Cryos International in Denmark, the world’s largest sperm clinic, which sends genetic material to more than 100 countries.
“There is nothing in the United States or elsewhere that would prevent a donor from contributing to more than one sperm bank,” said Wendy Kramer, co-founder and executive director of the Donor Sibling Registry, an organization that supports families. UNITED STATES. “The sperm banks say they ask the donor if they donated elsewhere, but no one knows if they really do.”
And few to no laws govern private donations, of the kind Van Ewijk and Meijer have combined on the internet. Due to these shortcomings, several cases have emerged of donors who had dozens of children and adults who find out, often via social media, that they not only have a few half-siblings, but dozens of them. .
In 2019, the Dutch Foundation for Donor Children, an advocacy group that provides legal and emotional support to people conceived by donors and their families and helps find biological parents, determined by DNA tests that Dr Jan Karbaat , a fertility specialist who died in 2017, he had secretly been the father of 68 children, women attending his clinic near Rotterdam.
In 2017, after confronting Meijer, Van Ewijk informed the Dutch foundation that he had many more children than he initially disclosed and that he had donated sperm at several clinics. The group already had information about him, other mothers with the same complaint.
The foundation quickly determined that Meijer was the father, in particular, of at least 80 children in the Netherlands, in addition to the 102 that the Ministry of Health had identified in 11 clinics across the country. The government ordered all Dutch clinics to stop using his sperm.
The problem of serial sperm donation has been recognized in other countries. Christina Motejl, lawyer in Berlin, is a member of Donor Offspring Europe (children of donors in Europe), a network of adult organizations designed by donors in Europe. She said the group was concerned that donors traveling across Europe were trying to have as many children as possible.
“It’s a little disgusting, in a narcissistic way,” she said. “No sane person would want a hundred or more kids. The big question is, why? These men want confirmation that they are great people and that everyone wants them.”
An Australian mother who bought Meijer’s sperm through Cryos said she was upset by the number of children he had, after all. (She requested that her name not be used, for confidentiality reasons.) She and about 50 mothers who used her sperm formed a group, Moms on a Mission, to try to get her to stop giving.
His goal is to connect with as many mothers or fathers as possible, to find out the actual number of children he has fathered, so they can contact each other when they grow older. The group also advocates the creation of an international database of sperm donors.
“That way these men can’t just give when they want and father all of these children in the world without their parents even consenting to it,” the Australian mother said. “I can’t imagine what our son will think when he finds out.”