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Sunday Life Magazine (Australia)

The sperm that got away

Sunday Life Magazine (Australia), By Amy Cooper, 18 August 2002

Men say they need protection from a new predator - the women who target them exclusively for their sperm - Amy Cooper reports

Around the world, the battle of the sexes is taking a new turn. American millionaire Steve Bing acknowledges he's the father of English model and actress Elizabeth Hurley's son only after DNA tests. In Sweden, a court orders Igor Lehnberg to pay child support to the lesbian couple who used his donated sperm to have three children. Tennis star Boris Becker accuses a Russian model of stealing his sperm during an encounter in a broom cupboard.

Mick Jagger is ordered to pay child support after tests prove he is the dad of model Luciana Morad's son. And in the US, there's the world's first "paternity fraud" lawsuit: Peter Wallis accuses his long-term partner, Kellie Smith, of "intentionally acquiring and misusing" his sperm after she became pregnant when she was supposed to be on the pill.

The ingredient these stories share is becoming as influential as drugs, dollars or oil. It stirs up conflict, divides loyalties and drives men and women to desperate acts. For a slightly absurd-looking microscopic organism with a wriggly tail, sperm has a lot to answer for.

No-one used to talk much about man's most active ingredient, but science has made it a star. New IVF techniques mean the little fellas can travel where no sperm has gone before, creating life on demand. But not everyone is convinced these powers are being used for good. While sperm hogs the limelight, men the sole manufacturers of the precious stuff claim to be forgotten casualties of its celebrity status. Just like whales, seals, elephants and other creatures hunted for their body products, men say they need protection. Their sperm, they fear, has made them prey and women are the predators.

Melodramatic? Perhaps not. The recent case of a Californian woman who arvested her husband's sperm after his death had ethicists shouting "grave robbery". Overseas, sperm banks are conducting a barely legal, highly lucrative trade (via "sperm for sale" websites) in the semen of Nobel prize winners and athletes. These banks ship it to your door and one vial can sell for as much as $90,000. Add the background of a supposedly shrinking global sperm count and a new generation of feisty, go-it-alone gals who want babies but not necessarily men, and you can understand why the hairier sex is starting to feel uneasy.

"Stolen sperm" is the alleged offence in Read More ..d Read More ..ses: woman gets pregnant without man's knowledge or consent, and man is required to accept the emotional and financial consequences. Man feels tricked, woman feels abandoned. Sperm warfare ensues.

John Ward*, from Melbourne, is making Australian history. He has filed a formal complaint to the Victorian Equal Opportunity Commission arguing the Federal Government discriminated against him by ordering him to pay child support for a son who, he says, is the result of "stolen sperm". He was 24 when his girlfriend at the time became pregnant.

"I did not want to be a father yet," says Ward, an artist and student, now 29. "I wanted to see Read More .. life before marriage and having a family. I made my position on this very clear to my girlfriend and did everything to protect myself by the proper use of contraception," he says.

Ward told the commission that his partner could have become pregnant only by using his sperm without consent. He has suggested she "secretly self-administered" it from a used condom. "Except for the first time, we always had protection," he says. "I'd never had any sexual experience before, and after [the first time] we saw a doctor because we were worried she might be pregnant. He told us due to where she was in her cycle, it would be impossible for her to have fallen pregnant. After that, we always used condoms."

Ward's girlfriend broke up with him three months into their relationship and the next day called to say she was pregnant. "She told me that regardless of what I wanted, she was going to have it," he says. "I was shocked and in disbelief."

DNA tests proved Ward was the baby's father. He pays monthly child support. The baby's mother has claimed Ward wants no involvement with the child, which he denies. The commission is investigating the case and Ward is awaiting a verdict.

Ward, whose wife is supporting his fight, says the experience has ruined his life. He admits, "I often find myself crying when men are not expected to. In the past, I tried to kill myself. I don't find it easy to trust people. I'd never had an intimate experience with a woman before and I didn't realise there are women out there that would resort to that."

Cases such as this have given rise to support groups for men. One of the most active is DADS Australia, a national network of men and women campaigning for "equal parenting". The group's president, Rod Hardwick, a fireman from Sydney, is eager to emphasise that "this is not a traditional men's group. Both women and men actively participate. We promote positive fatherhood and if a man walks into one of our meetings wanting to know how to shirk his responsibilities, we tell him to leave."

Compassionate and articulate, Hardwick says he's moved by the suffering of men who seek his help. He prefers to call sperm theft "paternity on the sly". "When a woman commits [paternity on the sly], she is denying a man his right to choose," he says. "He has responsibilities, but no rights. He becomes a disposable chequebook. Every time this happens, trust between the sexes is eroded a little bit more thand families are disadvantaged."

Hardwick has himself been a victim of sperm misappropriation but is reluctant to supply details, "because I don't have a personal axe to grind. My job is to educate and to help men and women going through family separation." He does, however, say that when sperm is stolen, "you feel like you've been raped".

After hearing stories from his group, I'm reminded again of the internet trade in alpha male sperm. For a fleeting, frightening moment, I wonder if those men surrendered their samples willingly. Stolen sperm victims, after all, tend to be rich, intelligent, handsome or all three. Steve Bing is worth millions. Boris Becker is a former elite athlete. John Ward is a talented artist. Rod Hardwick is tall and handsome.

So is Andrew Davidson*, whose photograph is proudly shown to me by his father, Allen*. Andrew, once a teenage model with a Sydney agency, is too upset to talk about his experience but has authorised his father to tell a story to move the hardest female heart. "Our son was 16, kind, good-looking and a talented football player" says Allen. "For 11 years I've had to watch this beautiful, compassionate, sensitive young man have his life destroyed."

As Allen speaks, his wife has tears in her eyes. They have a daughter, too, and tell me they simply wanted the best for their kids.

Andrew lost his virginity to an older girl who broke up with him and on the same day revealed she was pregnant with his child. "I was there," says Allen. "She said, 'F***k off. It's my baby, my child and I don't need you.'

"My son was devastated he'd thought she loved him. He was only a child himself. She'd told him she was on the pill. He believed her.

"We later found out she'd broken up with her previous boyfriend because he wouldn't give her a baby, and that she'd told friends she'd "got with" Andrew because he was handsome and she wanted a beautiful baby."

As the baby's biological father, Andrew is required to pay $9,000 a year to the baby's mother. Andrew's parents shouldered the burden when they began to fear their son was suicidal. "She has made it clear she doesn't want him near the child," says Allen. "She doesn't even like us having contact, although we're his grandparents.

"She now has four children to three different men, and lives on welfare and child-support payments. It's a deliberately planned lifestyle she's never made any secret of that. She coldly plotted to use my son to conceive, and when the deed was done, cast him aside."

Allen Davidson, Hardwick and other campaigners for "paternal rights" blame laws they believe encourage women to obtain sperm from men so they can "legally extort money" from them. Under the existing Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989, biological fathers are required to pay, for one child, a minimum of 18 per cent pre-tax income for a minimum of 18 years, regardless of the circumstances surrounding conception. Calculations of individual payments above that minimum are based not on standard estimated
costs of rearing a child, but on the father's income. It is also possible
for the income of the fathers subsequent partner to be included in the
calculations.

"It means that one night of sex could mean an 18-year financial sentence," says Hardwick. "One man in our group is now celibate. It makes men frightened to enter relationships, which is sad for everyone."

His words resonate with men on the dating front line. I speak to several, both single and in new relationships, and they all admit to feeling insecure. Says Justin Lloyd, 32, from Sydney, "It is worrying that you could think you're both just having fun and then your life could be turned upside down. That's like being used as a stud stallion, or being held hostage.

"It almost happened to me once. Although the pregnancy was unintentional on the girl's part, she wanted to keep it. I told her we weren't going to get married and live happily ever after, but accepted I would have to contribute financially. In the end she lost the baby, which was sad, but I couldn't have afforded to support it. I was in my 20s and it would have ruined my future. It's wrong for the baby, too that's no way to come into the world."

He adds, "To know there may be women actually planning this is outrageous."

Kevin Airs, 35, says he's particularly wary of 30-something women because "they're at a predatory age. So many of them want babies, and while they might have waited for the perfect partner in the past, they're now prepared to compromise to complete the picture. It makes you very scrupulous about using condoms, and careful about one-night stands."

Mary Doyle, a relationship counsellor, believes Airs has a point. "Male clients tell me they are fearful of 35-plus women because many seem desperate for a baby," she says. "I've seen women of that age planning ways to have a baby without the male's consent or involvement. These women do the rest of us a disservice they're predatory.

Doyle says the unscrupulous harvesting of a man's sperm affects those involved on another deeper level. "It's also theft of trust, self-esteem and peace of mind," she says.

"I've known terrible cases of women being seduced by men who are then gone with the wind once the pregnancy happens, but I'm also seeing more men exploited in this way.

"What's different now, is that the reproductive responsibility used to always lie with the woman and now it's more evenly spread. DNA testing means men can't avoid accountability. That deters rogues from recklessly spreading their seed, but it's also open to abuse by women."

Doyle believes there should be more equality in the way we approach such cases. "Using pregnancy to manipulate a man is nothing new, but now women have greater economic power, their motivations can be different. They may not want the relationship just the baby. The saddest thing is the effect on these children, who get a financial contribution, but no dad. They miss out most of all."

The only biological fathers excluded from financial obligations are consenting IVF sperm donors. Ward and Davidson believe they should also be entitled to sperm donor status. Read More .., they say, because they gave their sperm without consent.

It's an obvious question: if there's a legitimate supply of donated IVF sperm, then why resort to stealing a lover's sperm, with all its emotional and financial complications?

The problem, it seems, is that the supply is more a trickle than a torrent. Despite fertility clinics' zealous recruitment of donors, each has only an estimated handful of regulars. (Last year, Sydney's Concord Hospital had only one new donor.) Some blame the shortage on growing pressure for access to information about the donors. It's been law in Victoria since 1995 for sperm donors to register so their future offspring can identify them when they turn 18. Similar laws in other States are
likely to be introduced within a couple of years.

The procedure itself involves a cubicle, some smutty magazines and a sample vial. But some sperm donors are enthusiastic and up-front. Jim Penman, head of Melbourne-based Jim's Group, an international network of businesses, seems to possess sperm that is as productive as his companies.

"When I donated sperm in the late 80s and early 90s, they told me they'd disguise my identity and I couldn't understand why," he says. "I have eight children from my marriages, and four donor children that I know of. I wouldn't want any of them to meet their half-siblings and end up dating."

Penman is proud of his sperm. "It's good quality. The sperm are good swimmers and robust, with few abnormalities. I donated six times and got four children. I may have more but I haven't checked." He donated enough sperm to create 100.

Penman believes one way to beat the deceitful collection of sperm would be to pay donors for their services and identify "good" genes like his for selection by prospective parents. He says he hopes his donor offspring will seek him out one day. "I'd be pleased. I'd want to know them. Who knows there might even be a role in the company for them."

Time will tell how the children from Penman's donated sperm turn out. Time will also tell how the adults destined to grow from "stolen sperm" will feel about their controversial origins. The journey of sperm is no longer a simple diagram in a biology book, but a human battlefield. And as science marches on, leaving confused men and women trailing in its wake, it's hard to predict any peace.

It seems right that a man should have the last word.

"It'll get to the stage where you'll sit down and sign legal documents before you sleep with someone," says Justin Lloyd. "Or maybe men should find a way to copyright our sperm, like you would a creative work. Then if someone steals it, we'll be entitled to compensation, rather than the other way round."

* Names have been changed