Ellie Ellison met the father of her unborn child for the first time just ten minutes before they climbed into bed together, her wearing a full-length dress and with a rolling pin within easy reach, just in case he turned out to be violent.
This was no romantic encounter — a classic understatement if ever there was one. Its sole purpose was to procreate in what is becoming an increasingly popular method of donating sperm — arrangements made not through regulated clinics but between willing strangers who find one another in the ‘wild west’ of the internet via ‘natural insemination’, otherwise known as no-strings-attached sex.
And while eyebrows, at this point, will undoubtedly be shooting skywards in horror and disbelief, these arrangements, as sordid and dangerous as they might be, actually do exist.
Hundreds of donor babies are conceived this way in the UK every year, with men offering their wares on dozens of websites, going by names such as ‘spermdonorhub.com’ or ‘co-parentmatch.com’.
‘It’s certainly not what I was looking for when I decided to use a sperm donor, but I’ve found my happy ever after with Joe,’ says Ellie, 29, a mental health carer from Norwich. ‘It feels like we’ve been together for years
Not only do they cut out the hefty fees of an official fertility clinic — normally around £1,200 per attempt compared to the £200 of the average freelance operative — natural insemination is said to be three times more effective than artificial insemination when it comes to conceiving a baby.
As Ellie can readily confirm.
For, although the first attempt at conception was unsuccessful, Ellie invited her ‘donor’ back the following month for another try. Her baby is due in October.
Not only that, but she has something else to celebrate. Ever since discovering she was pregnant in February, she has found herself growing ever closer to her donor, who goes by the name of Joe Donor, a 50-year-old ‘entrepreneur’ who has online businesses, including one providing copywriting.
The pair say they are now deeply in love and plan to get married and raise their child the old-fashioned way — as husband and wife.
‘It’s certainly not what I was looking for when I decided to use a sperm donor, but I’ve found my happy ever after with Joe,’ says Ellie, 29, a mental health carer from Norwich. ‘It feels like we’ve been together for years.
‘We are each other’s best friend and are content doing the simple things: pub lunches, evening walks in the countryside near our home, seeing the sunset, and chilling out watching films on Netflix in the evenings.
‘We’re planning on getting married once lockdown restrictions ease. I don’t need a big party — I just want to wear a simple white dress and have a simple wedding. The important thing is the two of us making a commitment to one another to be together and raise our family.
‘Then we’re going to look for a bigger house in Wales, where property is cheaper, maybe five bedrooms so we can have more children and enough outside space for a vegetable patch and a chicken coop.’
Yet, there is one very big question that needs answering here. Will Joe, who has allegedly fathered a staggering 150 children in various parts of the world over the past decade, have to break off from hoeing the potato patch and feeding the hens every time he gets a phone call to nip off and have sex with strangers, for the cost of his petrol (50p a mile)?
Ever since discovering she was pregnant in February, she has found herself growing ever closer to her donor, who goes by the name of Joe Donor, a 50-year-old ‘entrepreneur’ who has online businesses, including one providing copywriting
Most definitely not, insists Ellie. His ‘natural insemination’ days are now over.
‘I didn’t ask him to stop but he decided he would and that makes me feel better because I’m quite insecure,’ says Ellie. ‘It would really affect my mental health if I knew he was going off to help a woman have a baby naturally, even though I know, from experience, the point is to conceive, not enjoy sex with someone.
‘Like Joe, I viewed it as a sperm deposit when we conceived, but I’d be worried that another woman might see it differently and he might end up falling for her.’
But, with Ellie’s full consent, the couple have agreed that his artificial insemination duties, in which he delivers fresh semen in syringes to clients, can carry on — even if it means their unborn child could have numerous more half-siblings around the UK, to add to the 150 who already exist.
This is a brave new world indeed, and one most will struggle to comprehend. But, astonishingly, Ellie and Joe Donor — not his real name for the last thing he wants is 100-plus child maintenance requests, many years down the line — the couple insist they’re just ordinary people, who met in extraordinary circumstances.
Ellie already had a three-year-old daughter with a previous partner, and was living with a new boyfriend and planning a child of their own, when they discovered he had a very low sperm count.
They looked into sperm donor clinics when they chanced upon a Facebook group, matching donors with recipients, which had 30,000 members, among them ‘Joe Donor’.
The couple talked it through, did their research and decided the most cost-effective way, with the best odds for a successful result, was Joe.
Jealousy didn’t come into it, Ellie insists. This was not making love, it didn’t even feel like sex, it was going to be an emotion-free clinical procedure, akin to going to the dentist.
But what about the potential threat to her sexual health? With Joe having regular, unprotected sex with countless strangers, surely this was something Ellie was worried about?
Apparently not. Why? Because Joe was full of reassurances. He told her he has regular STD tests, and his ‘clients’ are monogamous women. This was enough for Ellie to go ahead with the plan, albeit with some trepidation. On the day of Joe’s first visit, her partner took Ellie’s daughter to the local park ten minutes before Joe Donor arrived to find her nervously pacing up and down her living room.
‘When I opened the door to Joe I was so flustered I couldn’t even look at him,’ recalls Ellie.
‘I just didn’t know how it would go and what would be expected of me and said: “I can’t do this right away”, so we sat on the end of my bed and he spoke to me calmly. I don’t remember what he said, other than that if I didn’t want to do it, that was OK.
‘After ten minutes, we laid on the bed, in the missionary position, and it was all very clinical — no emotions, no kissing or foreplay — which was just as I wanted it. Afterwards, Joe told me to lay on my side for 20 minutes and then he left, letting himself out.’
That evening, as agreed, Ellie and her boyfriend chose not to speak about it. When, two weeks later, Ellie found out she wasn’t pregnant, they agreed to repeat the procedure. And this time it worked.
‘My partner and I were so happy to get a positive pregnancy result two weeks later,’ recalls Ellie. ‘We were excited about having a new baby in the house — and that my daughter would have a sibling — and began thinking of names.’
However, three weeks after that, Ellie started bleeding and, fearing she was miscarrying, tearfully took to her bed.
Her partner struggled to cope with this turn of events and, feeling unable to support Ellie, moved out. Ellie was at a desperately low ebb when Joe sent a message asking how the pregnancy was going and poured out her heart to this virtual stranger, who also happened to be the father of her unborn child.
‘Joe said he was sorry and would come and help. He did some shopping, ordered food and looked after Olivia, which took a huge weight off my shoulders.’
The bleeding stopped and an early scan revealed the pregnancy was progressing normally — but her partner chose not to return. The damage had been done.
Ellie insists the insemination with a stranger had nothing to do with their split and that her partner had his own ‘private’ reasons for wanting out of their relationship.
Meanwhile, Joe continued to visit Ellie and the two grew closer, exchanging their first kiss in March, three months after they had first had sex.
‘I was curious about his life and asked: “Would you like to settle down with someone?” And he said: “I’d like to settle down with you, if you’d like to,” remembers Ellie, a shy, self-conscious young woman, smiling at the memory.
‘I’ve always wanted to be married and he’s really caring and supportive, someone I can imagine spending the rest of my life with. I really trust him. There’s a bit of an age difference. I’m 21 years younger, though he doesn’t seem 50.’
But, given their inauspicious, and relatively recent, start, is this really a true love story, I wonder?
‘Yes, I would say so,’ says Ellie matter-of-factly. ‘He tells me he loves me and I tell him I love him. I’m attracted to him and like the fact he is strong and decisive.’
For his part, Joe feels lucky to have this attractive young woman in his life and is determined to marry Ellie.
There remain, however, very many ‘elephants in the room’ in this growing family. Joe says there are currently ten other women in the UK who are also pregnant with his progeny.
That is in addition to the 150 or so children Joe, an American now happily settled in Norfolk after moving to the UK last year, has sired around the world.
And he sees absolutely nothing wrong with what he has done — and continues to do.
As well as the expenses he receives in exchange for his sperm — he charges mileage to travel to clients’ homes and shipping costs to those who opt to receive his semen through the mail — Joe describes himself as ‘an entrepreneur’ who runs other online businesses, including providing copywriting services, which enable him to settle, and work, from wherever he chooses.
‘Natural insemination is more effective so, if I do it that way, it means I’m travelling less and the woman will get pregnant sooner,’ says Joe, with striking nonchalance. ‘It’s the most expedient method, though lockdown has made meeting people harder, so artificial insemination has been more popular recently.
‘I love seeing photos of the babies when they’re born as a lot of them do look like me.
‘I don’t financially gain from providing my sperm to women — and my name doesn’t appear on the babies’ birth certificates — I just enjoy helping people. I feel like the luckiest man in the world.’
If he’s the luckiest man, then surely Ellie is the most easy-going woman.
It’s easy to understand why neither Joe’s family, nor Ellie’s grandparents, who raised her, are supportive of their life choices. Joe and his identical twin were adopted as toddlers by a couple who were unable to have children of their own and, tragically, his brother died aged 20 in a motorbike accident.
Joe was living in the UK — in Ilford, Essex — when Ellie got in touch. He has lived all over the world, including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Argentina, China and Italy over the past decade, where he has donated sperm through private arrangements via Facebook.
Joe has children in their 20s and teens from previous relationships, and it was the ease with which they were conceived that provided an early sign of his high fertility.
He now rarely sees, or speaks to, his parents. ‘When my parents saw I could have all the children I wanted I think there were some very intense feelings of resentment, because of their own fertility struggles,’ he says.
‘I remember once showing my mum a photograph of her grandchild and her saying: “That’s not your child,” and I said: “It is because I did a DNA test,” and she said: “But you’re not married to the mother”.’ Joe has not yet told his parents about Ellie.
Ellie, too, had a difficult start in life. Her mother gave birth to Ellie when she was just 15 and has played only a minor role in her life since.
‘My grandparents became my legal guardians,’ says Ellie. ‘I love them, but they can’t accept my relationship with Joe.
‘They knew my ex-partner and that I had used a sperm donor, but not that we’d opted for natural insemination. They couldn’t understand why I’d want a relationship with a man who has fathered so many children.
‘They’ve met Joe and I’d hoped we could go out to dinner so they could get to know him, but they didn’t want a conversation with him. I hope they will come around eventually.’
Yet far from considering their family complete, Joe, whose name will appear on the birth certificate of this particular offspring, hopes it will be the first of many.
‘I was struck by how pretty Ellie was when she opened the door that first time, although attraction isn’t important to me as a donor, I thought: “Hey, I’ve hit the jackpot”,’ says Joe.
‘And I’m very happy to have the opportunity to spend my life with someone I care about and raise some children — not many women would be happy to settle down with someone who donates as much sperm as I do.
‘Who knows, we could have ten kids, Ellie is young enough and I’d be very happy to have a family of biblical proportions.’
Meanwhile, despite his own advancing years, Joe has no intention of quitting his donor role, nor does he believe there’s any need to put an upper limit on the number of children he sires.
‘I have no intention of stopping, I really enjoy helping people who might otherwise never be parents, and Ellie is happy with it,’ he says.
‘I operate a no returns, or financial support policy, which has worked well so far, but I’ve no problem with all of these children staying in touch, or tracking me down when they grow up.’
There is, of course, a lot more to raising children than being a sperm donor and one can only hope that they are both entering into their new life with their eyes wide open.