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Making babies without blokes: How Berlin women are doing it

Sure, having a kid still takes an egg and some sperm, but while scientists work on overturning that truism, single women and lesbians have a variety of options to get knocked up without the hook-up. A new German law has made it easier than ever.

Sure, having a kid still takes an egg and some sperm, but while scientists work on overturning that truism, single women and lesbians have a variety of options to get knocked up without the hook-up. In fact, a new German law has made it easier than ever.

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Illustration by Alyona Baranova

A stone’s throw from the Friedrichstraße S-Bahn, Berliner Samenbank receives sperm donors and future mothers on the regular. “We have them come in at different times, so their paths never cross,” explains laboratory head Ann- Kathrin Hosenfeld. In fact, most clients never even need to come here: Samenbank usually sends its sperm to their associated doctor’s office upstairs, or to another fertility centre elsewhere in the country. It’s one of two sperm banks in Berlin, and just 10 in the whole of Germany. Many future mothers come from out of town because they cannot get an appointment where they live. “In Germany, each federal state’s doctors’ association has its own guidelines, and some of them prohibit the insemination of single women and lesbians,” Hosenfeld says. “While those guidelines are not legally binding, it’s a grey area and some practitioners still fear they might lose their licence. In Berlin, both the guidelines and doctors are especially liberal.” An insemination can be arranged in as little as four weeks, depending on the woman’s cycle and how busy the sperm bank is at that time. For a healthy woman in her early thirties, it takes an average of six medically assisted inseminations to get pregnant. According to the sperm bank’s price list, this would set her back about €2800, plus taxes and possible doctor’s fees.

MAIL-ORDER CHILD

First, the mother-to-be fills in a questionnaire about the features she is looking for in the donor. She can also send photos as references. According to the sperm bank, most send shots of themselves and their partners, but some go with celebrity pics – especially popular these days is Fifty Shades of Grey actor Jamie Dornan. The team then generates a list of about eight potential candidates from their register of 200, detailing each man’s hair and eye colour, height, weight, ethnic background, profession and hobbies. For those interested in personality as well as looks, an extra €100 buys a “self-assessment” including each candidate’s values and life goals. Once the client has made her pick, she transfers the money and arranges an appointment for the insemination. Every year, the business sells a good 500 shippings of sperm.

Since 1986, the procedure has been available to partnered women between the ages of 18-48. But it’s only since last July that single women can enlist the services of Berliner Samenbank. “Until then, it was possible to name the donor – or even the doctor who performed the insemination – as the child’s legal father, and then sue for child support,” explains Hosenfeld. “We’ve been taking the risk with lesbian couples since back in the 1990s and never had any problems, but with single women we’ve been waiting for more legal security – which we now have.”

The law that takes effect on July 1 of this year ensures that neither donor nor doctor can be identified, hence no parental rights or obligations. It also prescribes that whenever a sperm donation results in the birth of a child, the donor’s identity must be documented with a federal agency and stored for 110 years, up from 30 years. Previously, children in Germany had the right to request this information once they turned 18; now, the minimum age is 16 (or even younger if legal parents give their permission). The donors themselves, now as before, have no way of knowing what happened with their sperm after they hand it over. Hosenfeld is excited about the changes: “We expect that, now that the legal situation has become more clear, more men will be open to donating their sperm. And while we don’t have numbers yet, we’ve noticed a growing demand, especially from single women in their late thirties.” She predicts that in the future they will make up about 50 percent of Berliner Samenbank’s customers.


BABY SHOPPING

Berlin sperm banks aren’t the only ones selling spunk. In fact, they have competition from all over the world. At Kinderwunschtage, a fair for prospective parents, businesses from Denmark, the Czech Republic, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, the US and Cyprus offer their services in assisted reproduction for as little as €300. While national laws differ, most of these countries allow for completely anonymous donation, so that not even the future child will have a way of finding out whose genes they carry. The competition is less about prices – all options are similarly expensive – and more about add-ons. Some Spanish providers offer “all-inclusive holidays”, while US banks boast of their large donor catalogues complete with extensive medical records, written interviews (Do they have a good relationship with their mother? What character traits do they find important?) and even voice recordings. The stalls are brimming with colourful brochures, almost all of them translated to target the German market.

Virginie and Grit are strolling around the Moabit venue to sample their options. “We’ve heard good things about Denmark – friends of ours said it was very convenient because they had the sperm bank and treatment centre under the same roof. But we’ll compare prices. Who knows, maybe we’ll get the insemination done here after all,” says Virginie, a 27-year-old event manager. Her partner, who is 10 years her senior, is planning to carry the child. “We would have asked a friend for a sperm donation, but nobody volunteered,” she says. They are both blonde but looking for a dark- haired, good-looking donor and intend to go with their gut when making the choice. Virginie adds: “Since we have the option, we also want the sperm we use to be properly screened for diseases and genetic defects. We don’t want to have to worry about these things as we begin this new chapter of our lives.”


BREAKING THE TRADITIONAL MOULD

For those who can’t or won’t spare the cash, there are several online platforms where would-be future parents can team up to fulfil their procreation desires. One of them, familyship.org, was founded in 2011 by a Berlin lesbian couple who didn’t like the idea of choosing their sperm from a list of specs. “It didn’t feel right to go by hair colour and shoe size,” says Christine Wagner, who was 30 when she and her then-girlfriend started the website. “We tried to think of someone we might already know, and went to queer groups for people hoping to start a family. None of that was successful though, so we started the website – for completely selfish reasons!” When they saw the number of users increase, they decided to keep it running. A non-profit venture for its first three years, the site required so much time and resources that Wagner and her partner decided to put up a pay wall. They currently have around 4000 users, 700 of them from Berlin, who browse each other’s profiles and message back and forth. “About two-thirds are women; in Berlin we have just over 450 right now.”

Wagner knows their motives: “These days, women often push back family planning in favour of their careers – or they simply can’t find the right partner. When those women turn 36, they start getting nervous. For some, looking for a sperm donor or co-parent online can be an emergency solution.” But the ticking of their biological clock is not the only reason women turn to the web. “Romantic relationships can go wrong, but children need stable homes. So maybe it isn’t always the best idea to combine the roles of lovers and parents. That can get messy rather quickly.” When Wagner’s own relationship fell apart, just as the couple had found a potentially suitable donor, she decided to go through with it anyway. “I found that I really wanted to become a mother, and the ‘donor’ happened to also want a child. We now live together, but I’m still single and free to date, which is nice.” Her daughter is now four and a half years old. When she and her ex, who is still operating the website with her, receive negative feedback, it’s usually from people calling them “selfish” to insist on having a child outside of a traditional heterosexual relationship. To that Wagner replies: “Isn’t there always a selfish element to wanting a child? I think what counts is having a loving home, and one might argue that the chances for that are even higher in alternative family models. Think about it – with us, there are no accidental pregnancies!”


THE DIY WAY

Meanwhile, many women forego medical insemination for what’s still the queer scene’s most popular means for conception: the good old “turkey baster” method (or Bechermethode, “cup method”, as Germans call it). It can be done without cash, contracts or doctors, but it does require a trustworthy accomplice.

When Alex and Freya hear the phrase “turkey baster”, they laugh out loud: apparently that would be too big and imprecise an instrument to work with the tiny bit of slimy liquid the donor hands over. The German couple (names changed) decided to get pregnant a year and a half ago, while they were both still students “We couldn’t afford a sperm bank, so we asked a friend to help.” They tried plastic syringes, but eventually succeeded with a menstrual cup instead: “I determined my ovulation by peeing on strips and took cough syrup to thin down my body fluids, hoping that would make it easier for the sperm to get through,” Freya remembers. “We also used a special conductive lubricant on the inside of the menstrual cup.” It took the then-28-year-old five tries to get pregnant; today, the little girl has two legal mothers, having been officially adopted by Alex. The process required birth certificates, proof of the mothers’ legal partnership status, medical certificates for Alex and the baby, a home visit from a Jugendamt official – and the donor-friend’s official renouncement of his paternity rights. “If you go for private sperm donation, you have to be absolutely sure the person you pick is 100 percent reliable,” Freya warns. Alex adds: “We went with someone who has a long-term girlfriend and is well settled in his life. We figured that would make it less likely for him to want paternity of our daughter once she was born.“ With the successful adoption, that worry is now off the table and the couple are already thinking about a little brother or sister for their daughter.