The Busy Life of a Prolific Sperm Donor
On the way to fathering his 83rd child, Ed Houben walks into Arrivals Hall D at Berlin's Schönefeld Airport. He's wearing hiking pants with pocket flaps and a fleece sweater, and he's carrying a backpack with a bottle of water in one of the side pockets. "Hallo," he says, overemphasizing the letter "l" in his Dutch accent. He walks straight toward the bus stop. He's in a hurry because the would-be mother goes to bed early and they still have plans for the evening.
Houben hasn't actually traveled to meet women in a long time. Nowadays, they usually come to him. But there are emergencies like this one: The would-be mother is in the 11th day of her cycle -- that is, two days before ovulation -- and she doesn't have anyone to take care of her cats.
She is waiting in a small apartment at the other end of the city. She has inflated the air mattress in the living room and is wearing attractive lingerie.
Houben takes a seat on the upper deck of the double-decker bus. He already has three children in Berlin. The remaining 79 live in other cities and countries, including Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Spain. Houben has entered their names, dates of birth and genders into an Excel table at home. The oldest child is almost nine, while the youngest is only 2 months old. He pops another mint into his mouth and yawns. "My sleep hormones are starting to kick in," he says, "but I can't go to sleep just yet."
He gets off the bus and switches to the subway in Berlin's Rudow neighborhood. The train stops on Hermannplatz, where he has to board another bus replacing a stretch of the subway that is out of service. It's all very time-consuming. He looks at his watch. It's almost 11 p.m. "Pretty soon," he says, "there won't be much of an opportunity for romance anymore."
An attempt is planned for the evening, and a second one for the following morning. "Attempt," in this case, means sexual intercourse with a woman he met online through the sperm-donation site spermaspender.de.
The Right Fit
Houben is a sperm donor. He gives women his sperm and, according to his estimates, he succeeds in giving them a child in 80 percent of cases. "That's my success rate," he says.
Ten of the women he has helped become mothers are doctors. It's important to him that the women are educated, says Houben, a 42-year-old historian.
They must also be healthy. No drugs or HIV. No hepatitis B and C, no syphilis, no gonorrhea or other sexually transmitted diseases. No diseases caused by bacteria, such as chlamydia. "Those are my conditions," he says. He requires a medical report as evidence, and he also sends his own medical report, including a semen analysis known as a spermiogram, to the women.
The spermiogram displays his sperm count. A sperm count of less than 20 million per milliliter of ejaculate indicates that the potential donor is "not a good prospect." The prospects are better for sperm counts of 80 to 100 million. Houben's count is 100 million, "or 110 million," he says with a smile. He speaks loudly and openly on the bus, as if he were discussing a good baking recipe and he were the master baker.
As he sees it, the rules are simple. But they're really more complicated than Houben makes it seem. For childless women, the path to having a child isn't an easy one.
Sperm Banks in Germany
The method officially practiced in German doctors' officers and fertility clinics is called "donogenic insemination," and is defined as "the direct introduction of sperm cells from an unknown donor into a woman's uterus, with the goal of overcoming unwanted childlessness."
German doctors have contributed to a 36-page brochure of guidelines "for quality assurance in Germany." Most are owners of a sperm bank, of which there are about a dozen in Germany.
Briefly put, the procedure at a sperm bank goes like this: The would-be mothers are heterosexual and preferably married, and their identity is not revealed to the donor. According to the guidelines, the donor is not older than 40, undergoes a thorough examination and has sperm that meets the "minimum requirements," or 10 specific criteria. The "practical execution" is documented, and the document is kept on file for 30 years.
Sperms banks charge between 3,000 and 4,000 (about $4,000-5,300) per treatment, and they pay the donors, who are usually students, about 100 per donation.
It takes about six months before the first attempt is made.
An estimated 1,400 women become pregnant in Germany each year through official sperm donations. Others travel abroad, to clinics in Spain and England, for example, where it's easier, where there are fewer requirements, and where sperm banks are also happy to accept lesbian couples or single women as clients.
Still others write an email to Ed Houben in Maastricht, where there are almost no requirements. He provides a solution for those who lack the time, money or opportunity to take the official route.
Lawmakers aren't interested in how a child is fathered in Germany. There are no limits on how many children someone can have. Ed is the sire of a large family, and what he does isn't against the law. Still, he is taking a risk.
Under the agreements Houben reaches with the women, he has no rights or obligations, such as a duty to pay child support. But if a woman decided to change her mind, for whatever reason, these private agreements would hold absolutely no water in court. Houben could be ordered to pay support for the child and, in the first three years, for the mother, as well. The child itself could also sue for support when it gets older and has a legal say of its own.
Houben himself says that what he does is the most natural thing in the world. In livestock farming, it's called "natural mating," that is, breeding in the biologically intended manner.