The fertility clinic is like any medical office: bright, clean, and quiet.
Women scroll through their phones, glancing around every so often to size each other up. Single women eye the partnered ones; flat stomached ladies look longingly at those sporting perfect, round baby bumps.
The clinic is sterile, but the room is brimming with hope.
I was optimistic the first time I took my seat in that waiting room. It was a long road for myself (and even longer for my bank account) to reach the point where I was ready to make my first attempt at becoming a solo mother by choice. I had a plan: see the specialist and go through all the mandatory testing, counselling, and payments so I’d be ready to choose my donor when I had holidays the following month. I would gather my mum and my sister around the computer with a bottle of wine while we scrolled through the donor lists to pick the man whose sperm I would use to create my child.
You know what they say about plans though.
When you sign up to be a patient of the fertility clinic, there are three hurdles to jump before your procedures can begin: appointments with a nurse, a counsellor, and the donor team. They scheduled all of these on the same day and it was horrible. The nurse didn’t have me in her books and made me wait for hours; the counsellor spoke at me aggressively for 45 minutes about how to tell my as-yet-unconceived child about their origins. This had to be done, he stressed, in a way that would keep them from feeling a sense of disconnect and loss as they grew. But there was no room in his speech for me to discuss my own origins which, despite coming from a mum and a dad who have been together for 37 years, are complicated and full of disconnection. He kept talking about my future and saying ‘hopefully, then, you’ll have a husband,’ which made my independent feminist blood boil. I don’t think he stopped once for breath, and I hated him every minute I was in that room.
In comparison, the donor team meeting was wonderful. I met with a young woman who had a friendly face and a great sense of humour. I unloaded about the counsellor and his assumptions, and she made me feel better. Once I’d calmed down, she ran me through what the online database would look like, how to open profiles and navigate the system, and where to click once I’d made the big decision.
‘Any questions?’ she asked.
‘I’m Aboriginal,’ I said. ‘Are there any Indigenous donors?’
All the laughter of the last few minutes left her face, and I knew it was going to be bad news. ‘No. Never. Well, there was one, like, ten years ago. But he’s all gone now.’
I made a joke to try and mask my disappointment, and we moved on. Even though it was my most positive appointment for the day, the conversation left me with a low burning anxiety that held on long after the bitterness about the counsellor had all but disappeared.
My family carries the ongoing trauma of colonisation and the Stolen Generations, and I have very little interest in conceiving a child – even by donation – with a white man.
I’m a single, overweight 36-year-old woman, and my age, weight, and not having a partner are the only factors that might prevent me from conceiving. I had the option of choosing Intra Uterine Insemination (IUI) – a more accurate version of the turkey baster method – or going straight to In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) – the more complex, more expensive version where eggs are harvested and fertilised with donor semen outside the body, then embryos are implanted. Even though I was a good candidate for IVF, I opted to go for the less expensive IUI for my first attempts.
But the reality of sperm donation in Australia is that – in the clinics at least – there isn’t much of it, and choosing IUI more than halves the list of possible donors. There are some complicated reasons for this, most having to do with the morphology (health and shape) and motility (speed) of the sperm. Because motility can be an age issue, choosing to have an IUI means that not only are there fewer donors for me to choose from, it also eliminates most Australians from the list. Aussie men who donate are typically older and have less motile sperm – generally fine for IVF, as those little guys don’t need to be able to swim when they’re being injected directly into the egg. But IUI sperm must be super motile, because even though they are injected close to their destination, they still need to swim up through the fallopian tubes. Donors in the US can be paid, which makes donating attractive to those young fellas with the fast swimmers who are happy to, as my fertility specialist put it, ‘come in a jar’ for some cash. Australian law, though, prohibits donors from receiving payments for biological material, and will only allow a reimbursement to cover ‘reasonable expenses’ related to the donation. All of this means that donation is not as attractive to young, fertile men in Australia, and why the vast majority of donor semen in this country is imported from overseas.
For me, there are a couple of reasons that eliminating Australian donors from the list further complicated my plans. Firstly, there’s the cost – Australian sperm costs significantly less than semen collected overseas. Faced with a less than 12 per cent success rate with the procedure, the lower cost makes a huge difference; it’s likely I’ll have to try a few times.
But secondly, and to me more importantly: I am a fair skinned Aboriginal woman, descended from the Wakka Wakka and Bigambul peoples. My family carries the ongoing trauma of colonisation and the Stolen Generations, and I have very little interest in conceiving a child – even by donation – with a white man.
My biggest issue is culture. There are generations and generations who are displaced; who have no sense of community or identity, their family stories or where they come from. In my own family, Nan denies our well-documented identity as Aboriginal people because – as far as I can gather – her parents, who met and married on Barambah Mission in Cherbourg, raised their children as white out of fear created by Queensland’s Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act. Every day is a fight to try and regain some of what has been lost, and every single one of us carries the scars of ongoing colonisation. When we get together, blackfullas are always identifying our mobs; those of us who can list off our family trees form connections through those long, long lines of ancestors. For many of us who weren’t raised with our people, this is how we put ourselves back together. Donor babies get just one side of a family tree, and as far as I know, there’s no way for the donor to choose who receives his sperm. When you take all of this into consideration, what Aboriginal man is going to donate his genetic material to create children who may be even more disconnected than we already are?
The clinic recommends Facebook groups to join; safe spaces for single mothers by choice to find support and understanding about a decision we don’t (and often can’t) talk about publicly. Instead of supported by these groups, I found myself marginalised and the target of lots of unexpected racial aggression. There were gross conversations about ‘designer babies’ and ugly debates where race was discussed in aggressive, privileged ways; plenty of ignorance of the range of unique reasons people seek fertility treatments. There were also many who, after successfully conceiving, used the groups to share donor numbers and connect their children with donors and donor siblings well before their identities could legally be released.
What Aboriginal man is going to donate his genetic material to create children who may be even more disconnected than we already are?
I only managed to speak up once; in the Facebook comments of an article that encouraged women to choose a donor ‘from your own culture.’ It wasn’t a bad article, especially in the context of the designer baby conversations I’d been seeing. The writer encouraged parents to choose a close racial match because it would help with a range of potential issues, such as bypassing questions around whether the baby was adopted, mitigating the potential disconnect, and removing the need for a parent to research and teach a culture not their own (or worse, ignore their child’s culture altogether).
Though it raised some reasonable points, the author, like the women in the support groups, had failed to consider a non-white perspective of what choosing a donor was like. By pushing parents to consider the implications of choosing a donor of another race, she’d made hard and fast rules that complicated the situation for those of us with few – or even no – matching donors to choose from. The last time I logged into the donor system, there were ten IUI-compatible guys available: two Indian, one African American, one Chinese and seven white guys who were either German, British, or Norwegian.
‘Believe me,’ I typed, ‘I want to find a donor who is a good cultural match. But what do you do when you’re Aboriginal and there are no Aboriginal donors?’
The ‘typing’ ellipses danced at the bottom of the comment box for a particularly long time. Why don’t you try a known donor?
I took a deep breath, because this was yet another way in which my experience differed from the majority. Because of the circumstances surrounding my great-grandparents and how they raised their kids, I was not raised in culture. I don’t think my situation as an Indigenous person is unique. I don’t remember ever being told I was Aboriginal, but I do remember trying to explain to a teacher at my Tasmanian primary school that I was from ‘Australia’; she was confused because she thought I meant the mainland. I had special maths tutorials with other black kids, got invited to ‘Aboriginal Breakfast Club,’ and one extremely joyful summer, I went on Aboriginal camp. But all those invitations dried up after the school asked my mum for my Certification of Aboriginality (CoA) because we were Queensland mob, not their mob. She didn’t know how to go about getting it, so we just stopped identifying.
There’s a lot of life that comes in between that moment and now, heaps of trauma and lots of tears, but the gist of it is, I am accepted by my community and I proudly live my life as an Aboriginal woman. But because of all this intergenerational loss of culture and connection, there are just a few Aboriginal men in my life, and exactly zero who I would be comfortable asking to become my donor.
There are other considerations there too: using a known donor is more expensive than simply purchasing semen; a known donor would have to go through tests and counselling just like me, and I’d have to pay for it all. And then there’s the reason why I got so annoyed with the counsellor that day in the clinic for suggesting I might ‘hopefully’ find a husband or someone to co-parent with: I don’t want a partner and I don’t want to co-parent.
At the end of semester, a university writing student came up to me after class looking sheepish. I’d taught him for all three years of his degree, and he was about to graduate.
‘I want to, um…ask you a question,’ he said, and I knew, by the look on his face and the content of the class, what he was going to say.
‘You want to ask how I can be Aboriginal and not have black skin?’
He had the good sense to look embarrassed, and I was his teacher, so I was kind as I suggested he do a little research about the White Australia Policy and Stolen Generations. I remember touching my belly as he left the classroom and thinking of the IUI I’d had at the start of the week, and the baby I hoped was starting to form inside.
Having the financial means to seek fertility treatment requires a certain level of privilege. I scrimped and saved for well over year to get to a place where I could comfortably afford to both begin treatment and support my child if I was successful. I’m lucky: I have my health, work, and education, so I’m able to save for the things I want, like having a family. But in general, because of the cost involved, that sterile waiting room full of hope is also a waiting room full of relatively well-off white ladies.
I want to keep the history of our people strong and raise my kid with the pride that wasn’t safe for some of my relatives to express.
I left the Facebook support groups soon after I joined, feeling that there was very little commonality between our paths to becoming single mothers by choice.
Though we may not have the same challenges in choosing the race of our donors, we do share some of the same limitations. Australian semen available for IUI is like liquid gold, and the speed with which it’s purchased suggests that the cost of treatment is a more pressing concern than the donor’s race or profile. More than once I’ve seen a single position of Caucasian Australian donor semen land on the page in the morning and be gone by the evening.
One time, I contemplated hitting the button for a white Aussie guy who – incredibly – had four positions available. The rudimentary list of facts about him: Bachelor degree, accountant, healthy with no family history of illness, were not enough to get a sense of his personality. When I clicked onto his full profile, I saw a poor-quality scan of an 80s-era baby photo, a cherubic round face with bright blue eyes and thin white blond hair. He was undeniably cute, as all babies are. But what would choosing to combine my fair skin with a blond-haired, blue-eyed Australian mean for my black baby’s identity?
For me, with my dark hair and eyes and my pale skin, it’s sometimes difficult. I get people scrutinising my face, searching my features. There is undeniable privilege in passing, and traumas I will never experience because of how I look, but there’s so much loss too. For my baby, their identity would be complicated, no matter who the donor was and what colour their skin was, but still I agonised over the blond Aussie donor.
My mum was busy and couldn’t pick up her phone for that whole day. I rang and rang and when she finally picked up, I sobbed my way through an anxious pros and cons list to make my decision. Of course, when I finally clicked that button, all four positions had gone.
I don’t believe anyone who wants to have a child should be told that they must stay within their culture. But I want to. I want to keep the history of our people strong and raise my kid with the pride that wasn’t safe for some of my relatives to express. I want them to have the things I missed out on – which includes not having to justify their identity in the way that I have had to every day.
But here’s the thing. I’m going to be a solo mum; a single parent of a child who will be so much more than just genetic material. My baby will be my baby, an Aboriginal baby, and that means it’s up to me to provide them culture, belonging, and pride.
Note: Information about sperm donation and fertility treatment is based on the author’s personal experience, and may vary across clinics throughout Australia.