He's fathered about 21 children in Australia, with possibly more on the way. Now a Perth man is planning to campervan around New Zealand, donating sperm to create Kiwi babies, writes Alanah Eriksen.
When Alaska-Rae Paul-Smith is shown photos of Adam Hooper, her mums tell her "that's your DD" or "Donor Daddy". She's only 2 years old but one day she'll understand she is the product of one Australian man's crusade to help women get pregnant around the globe and that she has about 18 diblings (donor siblings). And there are likely more to come.
Hooper, 36, estimates he has donated sperm to 15 families, resulting in 19 babies. He also has two daughters with his ex-wife. A Swedish woman is also waiting to find out if she is pregnant after an embryo transfer using his sperm, and he has flights paid for to Mauritius to use when the borders open to help a local family there. Alaska-Rae's Perth-based Kiwi parents also hope he will complete their family with two more children.
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And that's just his personal donations. Via Facebook pages he's set up to connect other donors with women, he estimates he's helped facilitate 5000 births over the past six years. Last year, 437 babies were born via his Australian group.
"I was happy to just donate to five families and that be it," he tells the Weekend Herald. "I helped the majority of my families in the first couple of years and I haven't really advertised since. But people ask for advice ... and then they go: 'We've been at it with our donor for nine months ... do you mind if you help us this one time?' And it works first go and all of a sudden I've got another family.
"Sometimes I get roped in, a bit of the emotional twist of the arm. But they are good people, that's why I do it."
Now Hooper is planning to spend August in a campervan travelling around New Zealand, which has a major sperm donor shortage, hoping to donate to women should their ovulation cycles line up with his plans. But he jokes they'll only ever be eligible to play for the Wallabies.
"I feel that I've got enough children in Australia that I'm content with, so if I can help a few families internationally and inspire their country to get more donors there, that is a feel-good story for the community and also personally. It would be nice to go away with a child that's born from a lovely couple and give me amazing memories of that town or city."
A week after he put a shoutout on Facebook to Kiwi women, in which he boasts of a sperm count of over one billion (one of only two donors in Australia who has one that high, he says), he has had about 16 local inquiries. He is considering setting up a meet and greet in Auckland for them all.
An increasing number of desperate couples and single women looking for donors are moving into the murky world of private sperm donations, finding their suitors on social media, as a quicker alternative to fertility clinics where there are waiting lists of more than two years and big costs.
But being unregulated, there is no limit to how many families men can donate to, increasing the risk of siblings living in the same communities and unwittingly getting into sexual relationships. Experts also warn of custody issues, financial obligations, sexually transmitted diseases and genetic problems.
'I know who everyone is'
Former construction worker Hooper was with his wife at a work function in 2014 when he got chatting to a same-sex couple who were looking at starting a family but were complaining about how hard it was to find donors. At the time, Hooper had one daughter of his own and the second on the way.
"It wasn't until I became a father that I really knew how special being a parent was. And I consider myself pretty mentally head strong, so I thought this was something I could give back."
A few months later he seriously started looking into donating, first via fertility clinics.
"But there was no guarantee who would pick my sperm from a sperm bank, no certainty I that would ever find out who they were, or that my daughters would find out who they were. They could be walking around going to the same school as each other without knowing. That didn't sit well with me."
In New Zealand and Australia, children conceived using a clinic can request the donor's information after they're 18. That is, of course, if they know to ask. Hooper points to the case of ABC presenter Sarah Dingle, who at age 27 learned she was donor-conceived and, years later, that a friend was actually a half sister. Dingle uncovered that the Sydney clinic where she was conceived deliberately destroyed donor-conception codes, which were used to identify who children came from.
"For me, their registers were not up to scratch," Hooper says. "For me, it was about talking to people and getting to know them and seeing if their morals and values resonate with mine and both parties being happy with who they've picked."
But Dingle says she does not support Hooper's methods and that "the last decade of work done by me, including speaking at the United Nations about donor conceived people's human rights, revealing record destruction at my own clinic and across Australia, and publishing a forensic investigation into the global fertility industry does not in any way condone or excuse the behaviour of men who vend or supply their own sperm online outside any formal Government systems and without proper controls for the safety of women and children, including Adam Hooper".
The costs through a clinic are big, too. At New Zealand's biggest clinic, Fertility Associates, Intrauterine insemination (IUI) costs about $3500 per attempt or between $13,000 and $15,000 for in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
Hooper also points out that the oldest IVF baby, English woman Louise Brown, is only 43 years old so there is still a lot to learn.
"We don't know the life spans of these children yet ... we don't know if she's going to grow old to 80 or 90."
So with his wife's blessing, he started doing private donations and also started a Facebook page and website for Australians wanting to donate or find donors.
"I wouldn't have done it behind her back. If she didn't agree to it, this community wouldn't exist right now. She helped with the website in the early years but we just grew apart."
His wife wasn't interested in meeting the recipients but allowed him to make his deposits while she stayed home with their children.
"The way I'd set it up was, if someone wanted a donation, they'd have to pick a hotel close to me. I'd go have a chat ... the following day I'd go make the donation. I'd be there 15 minutes and come back with the milk. It didn't take a lot of time out of my day so it didn't really impact family that much."
The woman would then inseminate herself at the hotel with the fresh sperm.
He has tried to explain to his own daughters, now aged 10 and 7, from the very start what he does.
"They go: 'My dad's got 20 kids'. They don't care, they're all cool. I wanted to tell them young so they didn't develop shock when they got older and got weirded out from it and see it as a negative thing."
One of Hooper's donor babies looks exactly like his youngest daughter.
"I used to stir my oldest one up and show her photos [of the donor baby]. She'd go: 'That's not fair, why did you take her to the zoo and not me?' thinking it was her younger sister. And then I'd show the younger one and she'd go: 'Oh that's me. Did I go to the zoo? There's been a few laughs along the way."
His children have even met some of the donor children, including a baby boy, Theo, last year. Hooper also donated sperm to help Theo's two mums conceive his older brother, Elijah.
"They were cradling him ... I was like: 'Time to go home now', and they were like: 'No, can we stay for dinner?'
"I'm not taking away any parent role from any of the recipients but it gives the child a good sense of identity from a young age ... when you're younger you can be exposed to any environment and it's no big deal."
Hooper and his daughters were due to meet Alaska-Rae at a park in Perth today. Her mothers, Woolworths warehouse operators Nadia Smith, 34, originally from Taupō, and Martha Paul, 28, from Auckland, haven't seen Hooper since he came to their Perth home to donate in December 2017, although they keep him updated via Facebook Messenger with photos.
"Our daughter is almost 3 so she is still a little young to understand but we are very open and honest with everything," Smith says. "She doesn't have a relationship with Adam just yet but when she is big enough to understand it all we are more than happy for that to happen. Whenever I see Adam post to the page and he's doing an interview or something I show her and tell her, 'That's Adam, that's your DD', and she's happy as. We are happy for her to see him as an uncle-type figure."
Smith found the Sperm Donation Australia page through a friend who wanted to be a single mother. Sceptical at first, she watched it for months while she did her own research on private donations. The couple of nine years eventually connected with two donors, including Hooper.
The first try was with the other donor at their home in October 2017.
"He turned up to our house on my peak ovulation day, said hello then went straight into the bathroom and did his thing then left," Smith says. "That whole process was probably 10 to 15 minutes. As soon as he left I used the syringe to suck up his sperm ... and then Martha inserted it inside me and I put my legs up afterwards for about 30 minutes or so. He came back the following day and we did the same process."
Smith didn't get pregnant but they repeated the process with Hooper and it worked on the first go.
"The way we have chosen to have a baby is so easy and stress-free and it doesn't cost a cent," Smith says. "The only thing we paid for were the specimen cups, syringes, ovulation and pregnancy tests. The other donor only asked us to cover the cost of his petrol to get from his house to mine and then home again and we were more than happy to cover that cost for him."
They don't know the other women Hooper has donated to but are open to meeting them.
"We have told Alaska that there are diblings out there. I think Adam is amazing. We are so grateful for him and what he is doing to get sperm donation out to the world."
Hooper has a register listing each of his children and their birth date.
"I know who everyone is. It's foolproof. Eventually we will have a big meet-up and get together with everyone."
Each Australian state has a different law about how many families men can donate to. There are no laws in New Zealand but each clinic sets its own limits. Fertility Associates caps it at seven with an unlimited number of children per family. The limit has been increased from five recently to try and reduce wait times.
Hooper says he hasn't exceeded the limits within each state and doesn't dwell on the numbers like some donors overseas who see children as trophies.
"I could easily have over 100 children if I was doing it for numbers. I didn't want to set up a community where it was about men being prolific donors."
A European trip
Hooper had to turn down requests to travel to Argentina, Malaysia and Singapore to donate in the early days as his own daughters were so young and needed him at home, he says.
But in March 2019 Swedish woman Johanna Fondell paid for him to go to Copenhagen where he donated to the European Sperm Bank for her. She had already travelled to Australia to try get pregnant by him but their attempt there didn't work and she discovered she needed an egg donor.
"We hung out for eight or nine days," Hooper says. "I went to Gothenburg where she lives. She showed me the school the baby was going to go to, where they are going to grow up. For me to go away and have that materialised in my head so that when I speak to that child, I can go, 'Yeah I remember being in your area', I can relate to their upbringing. It's a way of being able to emotionally connect with them when they are older. I met her friends, met her family. You make some really good friendships. It feels like an extended family, all these people I helped."
Fondell has suffered a number of setbacks, including contracting Covid-19. Her Russian egg donor contracted it too. But this week she took Hooper's sperm to Russia for an embryo transfer.
In April last year Hooper had planned to travel to Mauritius, a tiny island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, to donate to a local couple but four days out, the flights they had paid for were cancelled because of Covid-19.
"She was 36. She's now nearly 38 so Covid has really thrown a curve ball."
Meanwhile, Hooper's online community is expanding as Covid creates a boom because elective surgeries like IVF have been halted. After getting an increasing number of requests from the US via his Australian page, Hooper started a local page, followed by pages for Africa, the UK and the Philippines. He now has a New Zealand page and website after an influx of Kiwi women joined the Australian page because of increasing wait lists at local clinics, Hooper says.
Through his networks he hears many stories from women desperate to get pregnant, including one, aged 43, who arranged to meet a man on Tinder while she was ovulating. "He said 'Nah, I'm using a condom'. He used a condom and put it in the bin. She grabbed the condom… and inseminated herself with it. I'm just glad we've set up something where you don't have to trick someone. You've got single mums by choice who don't want to rush into a relationship."
One of those women is Hayley Hendrix. After a relationship breakup at age 39, she went on a two-year quest to get pregnant. Her failed efforts included a plan to get back with her ex, three intrauterine insemination attempts and some disastrous Tinder dates.
The Brisbane woman eventually turned to Hooper's Facebook page. "I had no time for nonsense and was very specific with my requirements such as his geographical location, health history, genetics, followed by his more social attributes and family values," she tells the Weekend Herald. "He also had to align with my bigger long-term picture in terms of parenting boundaries and - as he will always be attached to us through my son - he needed to deeply understand that he is my child's biological father. I also had to keep in check this was not someone I was going to ever date. He would be my donor and they are vastly different things."
After she chose a donor and got to know him through calls and texts and her ovulation cycle aligned, Hendrix flew to Melbourne to meet him. "Yes, it was weird. But exciting too ... over the course of 12 hours, he gave me three donations that far exceeded the half millilitre I would get from a clinic in just one IUI. Three weeks later I found out that my first insemination was successful."
Her donor has visited her son Remy and they "loosely stay in touch". The donor has his own child and has helped a few other women conceive while Hendrix has written a book about her experience, Desperately Seeking Semen.
'I have concerns'
There are about 1200 women on Fertility Associates' waiting lists at its clinics around New Zealand, which undertake about 80 per cent of the country's sperm donation work. Dr Andrew Murray, medical director of the Wellington branch, says they have enough donors to meet the women's needs in just over two years.
"We thoroughly understand that is way longer than is ideal. Many of the women that come to see us are already in their mid to late 30s, if not older. Through their age alone their fertility is compromised and that waiting time could potentially have an impact on the success rate for them."
Clinics put limits on donations for good reason, Murray says. "There is a potential risk that half siblings might meet each other later in life and get together as they weren't aware that they are related."
He strongly advises against going down the informal route. "I do have some concerns because at the heart of it all, this needs to be about the wellbeing of the child. The second is around the wellbeing of the women receiving the sperm.
"The real problem of providing a service through social media is it's very much reliant on a high-trust model. As far as I can tell, Adam's sole screening is looking at those guys' Facebook pages and seeing if they've posted anything dodgy and if they have, he rejects them but you need to do far more than that to determine if someone is a safe sperm donor. We know through our own experience that people are coming forward for less than altruistic reasons. They are either doing it to meet some un-met need in themselves or for some other reason that isn't actually in the best interests for the recipient women or the children."
He says clinics undertake extensive screening of donors, including for sexually transmitted diseases and genetic issues and provide counselling so each party understands what it means for the child. And if done formally, the donor has no custodial rights to the child. He also has no financial obligations to the mother and child.
Murray points to the case of "Tauranga Tony" (real name Tony Ross) who may have fathered 21 children by 16 mothers in New Zealand. The relationship turned sour with some of the mothers who claimed some of the children may have inherited health defects. Ross has said the women had stopped updating him on the children and he had filed in court for visitation rights.
"He wanted to be part of the children's lives, which was not the understanding of the women who used his sperm. It highlighted the risk of going off the range and doing DIY sperm donation. You are not protected by the same sets of laws that protect you when you're going through a clinic."
Murray believes part of the reason for a donor shortage is it is illegal to provide compensation to sperm donors and sperm importation into New Zealand is restricted. He's also noticed a massive increase in single women coming into his clinic over the past four years, comfortable with having a child on their own.
Hooper wants to arrange a meeting with Fertility Associates while in New Zealand to help set up a programme to encourage more men to donate. Murray says he is open to the idea provided he understands the guidelines he must work within to provide safe treatment for the women and potential babies.
He has a message to men considering donating: "Don't do it through Facebook, do it through a clinic. You're going to help just as many women but do it in a more safe way."
A fulltime job
Hooper says about 30 men per week join the Australian group which currently has 11,000 members. But he believes there have been about 30,000 members over time; some have their child and leave the group.
Each member undergoes a screening process. They are sent a document explaining the rules and Hooper asks them a series of questions. "We've never had any legal issues, we've never had sexual assaults. It's been a really good community."
He has banned people from the group however, including Brisbane man Alan Phan, who claimed to have fathered 23 children via sperm donation in one year both privately and through clinics, although Hooper doubts it to be that many. Last year Phan was investigated by the Victorian Assisted Reproductive Treatment Authority for exceeding the limits at clinics around the country. It meant one woman was unable to use her embryos, which had been created with his sperm.
"I felt like he wanted to go into hiding and didn't want to do his part in helping me by trying to save this woman's embryos," Hooper says. "This lady had one embryo left and she was in her late 30s so this was her last chance of having a child realistically. If that's the worst story in six years ... I always think, what if someone was murdered or raped from a community I helped set up ... how would I feel? That's why I have a screening process."
Hooper says running the online communities, a podcast on fertility, editing YouTube videos and travelling has become his fulltime job, although he picks up short fruit-picking jobs now and then.
"We've got 30,000 across all our communities and we're hoping for a couple of thousand in the New Zealand group through this tour. It will be 50,000 in a couple year's time."
He has also partnered with companies to sell insemination kits, underwear that claims to increase sperm count, supplements and DNA tests. And he says he has been approached by a production company in the US to act as a producer for a show that will follow sperm donors.
"There are so many stories. People could set up a reality show like the Bachelorette in terms of looking for a sperm donor. There are so many pathways I could go into. I never set out to do it as a money-making occupation ... over the years these sorts of opportunities have started to open up."