Netflix’s ‘Man With 1000 Kids’ puts a spotlight on the lack of international regulations for sperm donors

July 9, 2024
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A Netflix docuseries has put a spotlight on the unregulated world of sperm donation, particularly the lack of stopgap measures that might prevent donors who have been banned by one country from simply going elsewhere to donate more.

Released earlier this month, “The Man With 1000 Kids” explores the fallout from the case of serial sperm donor Jonathan Meijer, a Dutch man who fathered children around the globe via donations to sperm banks, as well as through private meetings he reportedly held directly with prospective mothers. The Dutch Society for Obstetrics and Gynecology prohibited him from donating sperm in the Netherlands in 2017, but he continued to donate to other countries afterward.

The result of Meijer’s actions is there are hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of half-siblings who may not realize they are related to one another. Their risk of accidental inbreeding is real: In 2021, The New York Times reported some of Meijer’s offspring had come across one another on the dating app Tinder.

“Once, I swiped on a sister and she swiped right on me at the same time,” said a half-brother, Jordy Willekens, who lives in the Netherlands. “I have a very trained eye by now.”

Experts and advocates for donor-conceived people say Meijer’s story is not an outlier. 

“There’s nothing keeping donors from donating anywhere. If a donor is banned in their home country, they just go somewhere else,” said Wendy Kramer, director of the Donor Sibling Registry, which she co-founded in 2000 with her son, Ryan, who was donor-conceived. The worldwide matching site has connected more than 26,000 half-siblings and donors so far, and Kramer said some people have found over 200 matches.

“There’s no regulation. There’s no oversight,” Kramer added.

Without any sort of global tracking system, donors who have been banned in one country are easily able to keep donating in other countries, said Jody Madeira, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law who is writing a book about fertility fraud by doctors and serial donors. 

“They shouldn’t donate. They promise not to. But ‘shouldn’t’ doesn’t mean ‘can’t,’” she said. “And there’s no lightning bolt that’s going to come down because there’s no international registry.”

Countries have rules for the number of offspring sperm donors can produce, though many are recommendations rather than laws. In the Netherlands, nonbinding guidelines limit clinic donors to 25 children. In the U.S., guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine suggest a cap of 25 children per donor in a population of 800,000. Norway limits donors to eight children, Spain limits them to six children, and Sweden limits them to 12 children across six families.

In an email, Meijer criticized such regulations, writing that in his experience as a donor for 17 years, “one of the trends I see is that countries with the highest government regulations for donors, creates a serious shortage of qualified donors.”

Meijer called himself “one of the best donors you can wish for” in videos on his YouTube channel and says the Netflix documentary, which he declined to participate in, is full of lies.

He also argued that he did nothing wrong by donating internationally.

“You have to realize that I follow the guidelines of the international sperm banks,” Meijer said in a YouTube video posted Thursday. “They don’t inform their recipients, the people that order the sperm from their stock — they will never inform the parents about the amount of offspring that they have created with the same one donor.”

“So you might say, ‘You had to inform the parents correctly about a number.’ But I was following international guidelines,” he added.

Two large international sperm banks that Meijer mentioned in his video, California Cryobank and Denmark-based Cryos International, did not respond to questions about their screening processes for accepting sperm donations. 

Cryos International says on its website that its donors cannot donate to any other sperm bank. In 2021, then-CEO Peter Reeslev told the New York Times that all Cryos donors are made aware of the exclusivity clause.

Equipment at Cryos International in Aarhus, Denmark, in 2016.
Equipment at Cryos International in Aarhus, Denmark, in 2016. Henning Bagger / AFP via Getty Images file

“Donors sign and commit in contractual terms to not donate in any other tissue establishments than Cryos before and undertake not to donate sperm to other sperm banks/tissue centers in the future as well,” he said.

On its website, California Cryobank says potential donors are rigorously screened, with less than 1% of applicants qualifying to become donors. It lists a number of accreditations and licenses it says it has, including from the American Association of Tissue Banks, which performs on-site inspections, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has rules about quarantining sperm donations and testing them.

But those rules do not address the number of offspring a donor can have or what happens when one country tells a donor to stop donating.

While no efforts are underway to create a worldwide registry of sperm donors, Colorado will implement a law next year that forbids anonymous sperm or egg donations, legally caps the number of families that can use a single donor and requires sperm and egg banks to keep permanent, up-to-date medical records on donors. It is the first law of its kind in the U.S.; Australia and a number of European countries already prohibit anonymous sperm and egg donations, giving donor-conceived people access to more information about their identities and family histories. 

Advocates say that the discovery of half-siblings always comes with a slew of emotions for donor-conceived people but that it can be especially fraught when the newfound relative is in a different country.

“Oftentimes these people are so excited to have found each other, and they want to meet, but distance is prohibitive because of cost and time,” Kramer said.

Language barriers can also make it harder to communicate important information.

“It’s really important to know your family health history, and also medical updates,” Kramer said. “Are you healthy? Do you have any genetic concerns? Because this can help with screenings and preventative medicine.”

Erin Jackson, founder of We Are Donor Conceived, a support group and online resource community that has about 3,600 members on Facebook, lives in California and was donor-conceived in Canada. She has found nine or so half-siblings and suspects she could have 100 or more she does not know about yet.

“I was born in the suburbs of Toronto, and I moved to San Diego,” she said. “I know that if I’m going to find more siblings, they’ll probably be in Canada. And there’s a sadness that comes from knowing I’m, like, a $600 flight away from any of them. It’s really not easy to just pop over and integrate myself into their lives, even if we both want that.”

As for Meijer’s voluminous number of sperm donations, Jackson said she was “disturbed but not surprised.”

“There just aren’t legal protections that would stop someone from doing this,” she said.

“There’s a lot of psychological damage that comes out of this type of situation,” she added. “I can’t imagine being one of this guy’s children.”

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