A man, hundreds of children, and a burning question: Why?
Vanessa van Ewijk, a carpenter in the Netherlands, decided to have a child in 2015. Like many women, she sought a sperm donor when she was 34 and single.
A fertility clinic would have been an option for her, but the cost was prohibitive. A website called Desire for a Child, one of a growing number of online sperm markets matching donors and recipients, led her to an ideal candidate. In particular, she was drawn to the profile of Jonathan Jacob Meijer, a Dutch musician in his 30s.
The handsome Mr. Meijer had blue eyes and curly blond hair. He appeared genuine to Ms. van Ewijk. He seemed gentle, kind, and well-behaved when I spoke to him on the phone,” she said. Besides listening to music, he discussed his thoughts on life. There was nothing strong about him. His appearance reminded me of the boy next door.”
Approximately a month later, she and Mr. Meijer met at Central Station, a busy railway hub in The Hague. To exchange his sperm for 165 euros, about $200, and to cover his travel expenses, he gave her his sperm. Several months later, she gave birth to a daughter – her first child and Mr. Meijer’s eighth. (Mr. Meijer declined to be interviewed for this article, but did answer some questions by email, and stated that he did not give permission to publish his name.)
When she decided to conceive again in 2017, she contacted Mr. Meijer again. Again, he met with her and, for a similar fee, provided a container of his semen; once again, she became pregnant and gave birth to a boy.
However, Ms. van Ewijk had already learned some unsettling news before that. A single mother who also used Mr. Meijer as a donor had connected with her on Facebook, and she learned from her that based on a 2017 investigation by the Dutch Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport, he had fathered at least 102 children in the Netherlands through fertility clinics, a number which did not include his private donations through websites.
Van Ewijk wanted her children to be full siblings, so she wanted Mr. Meijer to be the donor. Nevertheless, she was alarmed. The Netherlands is a small country, home to 17 million people; the greater the number of half siblings who are unknown to one another, the greater the odds of two of them meeting unwittingly and conceiving a child — a child with a higher chance of carrying hereditary defects.
In her fury, Ms. van Ewijk confronted Mr. Meijer. There are at least 175 children he has produced, and he admits that there may be more.
In his words, “I’m just making women’s biggest wishes come true,” the woman recalled. I told you: “You’re not helping anymore!” What do I tell my kids when they might have 300 siblings? ’”
There is a possibility that she knew only half of the story.
The perils of swiping right
Van Ewijk with her two children in Lisserbroek, the Netherlands. The question is, “How do I explain to my children that they may have 300 siblings?” she asked. Credit: Ilvy Njiokiktjien, The New York Times.
Despite the advent of in vitro fertilization in 1978, sperm donation has become a thriving global business, as fertility clinics, sperm banks and private donors strive to meet the demand of parents seeking to conceive.
However, it is poorly regulated as an industry. It is ostensibly to avoid introducing or amplifying genetic disabilities in a population that a patchwork of laws addresses who can donate, where and how often. There is a limit of 15 children per sperm-clinic donor in Germany; in the United Kingdom, there is a limit of 10 families with unlimited children. Dutch law prohibits anonymous donation, and nonbinding guidelines limit clinic donors to 25 children and from donating at more than one clinic in the country. There are no legal limits in the United States, only guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine: 25 children per donor.
Internationally, regulations are even scarcer. Donors can donate sperm at clinics in other countries or at global agencies like Cryos International, the world’s largest sperm clinic in Denmark, which ships semen to more than 100 countries.
Wendy Kramer, the executive director of Donor Sibling Registry, an organization in the United States that supports donor families, said there is nothing that prevents a donor from donating at more than one sperm bank. According to the sperm banks, they ask donors if they have donated elsewhere, but nobody knows for sure.
Few laws govern private donations, such as those arranged through the internet by Ms. van Ewijk and Mr. Meijer. As a result of these gaps, several cases have emerged of donors who have fathered scores of children, and of grown children discovering through social media that they have not just a handful of half siblings but dozens.
Through DNA testing, the Dutch Donor Child Foundation, which provides legal and emotional support to donor-conceived people and their families, and facilitates the search for biological relatives, determined in 2019 that Dr. In 2017, Jan Karbaat, a fertility specialist in Rotterdam who died in 2017, secretly fathered at least 68 children.
The Dutch sperm donor Louis has more than 200 offspring, many of whom are unaware of each other. As an IT consultant, Ivo van Halen, 36, discovered that he was one of them. He has connected directly with 42 of his half-siblings since then.
“It’s been a shock to learn how to integrate 42 brothers and sisters into my life,” Van Halen said. There are no books that explain how to do that. There are already 70 known children in our group, and new matches are being made every month.”
On Tinder, the dating app, he has encountered some of his half siblings multiple times. Half brother Jordy Willekens, who lives in The Hague, matched online with four half sisters. “Once, I swiped right on a sister and she swiped right on me at the same time,” Mr. Willekens said.
Before going on a date, the group refers to a list of potential siblings. In his new relationship, Willekens said he had been very careful when dating: “I have a very trained eye.”
‘It’s dangerous for the children’
Under the microscope at a Cryos facility in Denmark.Credit…Thomas Fredberg/Science Source
Like Dr. Karbaat, some sperm donors donate illegally, leaving their identities and the scale of their activities to be discovered many years later by their offspring.
There are other donors who are openly profligate. Ari Nagel, a math professor in New York, donates exclusively online and directly to recipients. He is known as the “Target Donor” because he sometimes meets women at Target stores to donate. According to The New York Times, he had 76 biological children. The BBC reported in 2016 that Simon Watson, a donor in the United Kingdom, has at least 800 children around the world.
Despite registering at more clinics than recommended, Mr. Meijer also donated privately.
As a result of her confrontation with Mr. Meijer, Ms. van Ewijk informed the Dutch Donor Child Foundation that he had many more children than he had initially claimed, and that he had been donating sperm at several clinics. Other mothers with the same complaint already knew about him.
In addition to the 102 children identified by the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport through 11 clinics in the Netherlands, the foundation determined that Mr. Meijer had privately fathered at least 80 children in the Netherlands. All Dutch sperm clinics were ordered to stop using Mr. Meijer’s sperm.
(The Dutch government has not publicly named Mr. Meijer as the donor in question because of Dutch privacy laws. However, the health ministry confirmed his identity by email to The Times. “Donors must sign an agreement with their clinic that they won’t donate sperm to other clinics,” Gerrit-Jan KleinJan wrote. As a result of his agreement with more sperm banks, 102 babies were born..”)
In the future, Ms. van Ewijk became friends with two other Dutch mothers who had used Mr. Meijer as a donor. Their children, both 9, looked alike after they realized they shared the same donor while working in the same preschool.
Both women, who requested anonymity in order to protect their children’s privacy, said they knew several other women in their city, Almere, who had used Mr. Meijer as a donor. The mother of one of these half siblings expressed concern about the possibility of some of these half siblings meeting and having a relationship by accident.
She said it was disgusting and was calling for an end to it. There’s a danger for the children here. A lot of brothers and sisters live in Almere, and they have a chance to fall in love with each other. There’s something wrong with it.”
A lawyer in the Netherlands who represented the families in the case of Doctor said he had been contacted by 12 mothers who had used Mr. Meijer’s sperm. Interested in taking legal action against him, they wanted to know if there was anything they could do. In the absence of laws, Mr. Bueter said there was little they could do.
It was shocking to hear that something like this was happening, Mr. Bueter said. This case involves children as victims. There needs to be something done to stop him. They can only go to the public and hope that everyone knows not to use this guy as a sperm donor.”
13 countries or more
Newborns at the Hotel Venice, a clinic owned by BioTexCom in Kyiv, Ukraine. Donated sperm is used for in vitro fertilization and surrogacy at the reproductive medical center. Credit…Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Joëlle de Boer, a volunteer at the Dutch Donor Child Foundation, has been tracking Mr. Meijer’s activities. Her research indicates he has been traveling throughout Europe, Scandinavia, and Ukraine for several years, donating sperm privately on the internet and at various clinics.
“Two weeks ago I donated at BiotexCom clinic in Kiev,” he wrote on Facebook in June 2017, referring to the BioTexCom Center for Human Reproduction in Ukraine, which uses donated sperm for in vitro fertilization and surrogacy. “I helped a lady who used an egg-donor from Ukraine who will be fertilized with my sperm. The clinic experience was one of the best I’ve had! ”
Ms. de Boer has also tabulated Mr. Meijer’s online presence, including eight private donation websites in Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. She shared with The Times screen shots of private donation sites on which a donor with Mr. Meijer’s photo was accompanied by false names, including “Lukas” and “Martijn.” He advertised himself as a blond “musical Viking donor.” When asked to comment, Mr. Meijer replied, “I have never given money under a false name.”
As well, Mr. Meijer has registered with at least one international sperm bank, Cryos, which does not set an overall limit on how many children a donor may have, although it claims to adhere to the limits set by each country to which it donates. Despite this, a single donor could potentially produce hundreds or even thousands of children around the world, since each bank exports to dozens of countries.
Furthermore, international sperm banks typically register donors under an alias or a number, as opposed to Dutch sperm banks, which prohibit anonymous donations. They also rely on clients reporting births of their children when keeping track of sperm donor offspring, and this tally is not always accurate. Due to the lack of an international registry of sperm donors, recipients have no way of knowing where else their donors have donated or how many half siblings their children may have.
According to Ms. de Boer, she has been in contact with mothers who have had children by Mr. Meijer in Australia, Italy, Serbia, Ukraine, Germany, Poland, Hungary, Switzerland, Romania, Denmark, Sweden, Mexico, and the United States. The two Dutch mothers who are friends of Ms. van Ewijk confirmed their accounts with this reporter.
According to The Times, a German woman acquired Mr. Meijer’s sperm through Cryos; although he donated under an alias, she was able to identify his real name. She received a letter from Cryos in 2019 informing her that her donor had donated in countries outside of Denmark, breaching the contract he had with Cryos.
The letter stated, “This means that the donor has allegedly achieved more pregnancies than those registered in our system.” The company notified the Danish health authorities and stopped distributing his semen.
According to Mr. Meijer, he did not receive a notice that he was prohibited from donating at other clinics. “Clinics conducted intensive health and genetic screenings and interviews, and I passed all of them, but I do not remember this procedure clearly enough to comment.” He said in a second email that (until recently) sperm banks did not have strict agreements to ensure that donors had not donated elsewhere..”
According to Peter Reeslev, the chief executive of Cryos, a Cryos donor could not have signed up without being aware of the exclusivity clause. In an email, he replied, “NO.”. “Donors sign contracts committing not to donate at any other tissue establishments than Cryos and not to donate sperm in the future to any other sperm banks/tissue centers.”
“In general, Cryos does not support serial sperm donation due to the importance of not exceeding national pregnancy quotas” in each country to which they send sperm.
It is impossible to know exactly how many donor children Mr. Meijer has around the world. As Ties van der Meer, director of the Dutch Donor Child Foundation, and his colleagues have calculated, the number could run to several hundred, even 1,000, based on Mr. Meijer’s known patterns of clinic and private donations.
The conclusion was dismissed by Mr. Meijer in an email. Approximately 250 children live with me, he said. The assumption of 1,000 is absurd. The obsession with numbers disappoints me. My decision to become a donor was not motivated by numbers, but by my desire to help parents realize their dreams. There is no way I can comprehend how someone could only focus on numbers and see my donor children as numbers.”
Creating legal barriers
Various measures are being taken in the Netherlands to combat the serial-donor problem, including the creation of a central registry for sperm donors, which will prevent men from donating at several clinics simultaneously, according to Doctor, chair of the Gamete Donation Special Interest Group. Due to Mr. Meijer, the recommended limit of 25 children per donor at sperm clinics will be amended into law this spring, limiting one donor to 12 mothers.
However, challenges and loopholes remain at the international level. Mr. van der Meer, of the Dutch Donor Child Foundation, said there are no regulatory or legislative bodies for the international fertility industry. There is a need for international legislation and assistance for all families harmed by donors like this one.”
Other countries have also recognized the issue of serial sperm donation. Christina Motejl, a lawyer in Berlin, is a member of Donor Offspring Europe, an organization of donor-conceived adults in Europe. Group members are concerned about donors who travel around Europe trying to father as many children as possible.
“It’s disgusting in a narcissistic way,” she said. There is no sane person who would want 100 children or more. What is the big question? “Men like these want confirmation that they’re great guys and everyone wants them.”
It is often reluctance to regulate assisted reproduction more strictly than natural conception, according to Judith Daar, head of the ethics committee of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. However, in extreme cases, such as in Mr. Meijer’s case, it may be appropriate to limit how many offspring each donor can have.
Men who donate through social media without contacting a sperm bank or a doctor could end up facing devastating legal consequences.
““Donors should be aware that, according to state law, they may become legal parents of any subsequent offspring,” said Ms. Daar, who is also the dean at Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law and the author of “The New Eugenics: Selective Breeding in an Era of Reproductive Technologies,” also recommended women to verify a donor’s health and genetic testing with qualified experts rather than taking the donor’s word for it.
The donor lifestyle
Math professor Ari Nagel, who donates exclusively and directly online, in Hero’s Square in Owerri, Nigeria, on a trip to donate sperm.Credit…KC Nwakalor for The New York Times.
Why do sperm donors donate so generously?
An article by the Donor Sibling Registry in 2013 identified three main motives for average donors: money, generosity, and the desire to pass along their DNA.
The registry’s executive director, Ms. Kramer, suggested looking at No. 3, passing on their genes to have children. What makes some men do this? Is it in their DNA? What motivates a man to donate for six years? How long has it been? Each donation can create between four and twenty-four children. Why wouldn’t they think twice? ”
Although some countries offer modest compensation for donating, some donors have developed a lifestyle by accepting a nominal fee in exchange for travel expenses to meet recipients.
Unmarried Mr. Nagel, 45, said women flew him all over the world for his sperm, including to Israel, Southeast Asia, Ghana and the Philippines. By the time this reporter reached Mr. Nagel, he was preparing to fly to Mexico to assist with an insemination, then to Florida, Maryland and Virginia to meet with some of his children.
According to his Cryos donor profile, Mr. Meijer has also traveled widely, including to Argentina, China, New Zealand and Australia.
His profile indicates, under the required alias, that he taught social science after college and is now “working with cryptocurrency in a development and trading company.” His strengths include “my optimism and always joyful character.” His weakness: “Because I am a dreamer, I always have to focus on doing things the right way, or I’ll forget to do them.” Due to my sensitive nature, I sometimes need a lot of time alone to reflect.”
According to Mr. Meijer, his intentions were charitable, to help people who wanted to start a family. According to an email he sent, “the demand is still extremely high and the number of willing donors is low.”
Similar sentiments were expressed by Mr. Nagel. He said, “I love having kids.”. “I enjoy helping grow so many beautiful families, and seeing how happy and loving they are.”
According to Mr. van der Meer, who is donor-conceived and has donated sperm, some donors seem almost to be in a competition to see who can father the most children.
“I know people are quickly judging me or thinking that I donate for narcissistic reasons,” Mr. Meijer wrote in an email. However, I am quite humble about myself and I don’t think too highly of myself. My motivation as a donor is just to do something really big with a little bit of help, the appreciation of the recipients, and the warm feelings and memories I share with the children and the recipients.) I prefer to be honest with myself and see my weaknesses and my good sides.
There is no guarantee that the warm feelings will be reciprocated. An Australian mother who purchased Mr. Meijer’s sperm through Cryos and had a child said she was disturbed by how many children he had. In an effort to stop him from donating sperm, she and 50 or so other mothers have formed a group, Moms on a Mission.
In order to find out how many children he has produced, they hope to connect with as many other parents as they can, so that their children can contact each other as they grow up. Some mothers wonder how their children will ever be able to have a relationship with their biological father since he has so many other children. Additionally, the group advocates for the creation of an international database of sperm donors.
The Australian mother said, “That way these men can’t just donate whenever they want and create all these children in the world without parents’ consent.” “I can’t imagine what our son will think when he finds out.”