Ed Houben has 99 children. Maybe 100 by the time you read this. Several more are already on the way. He has met many of them, but he has raised none of them. Scattered throughout the Netherlands—his home country—and the rest of Europe, they aren’t his.
Houben, 44, is a “charitable sperm donor,” devoting much of his free time (he is a tour guide by day) to helping lesbian couples, single women and infertile heterosexual couples conceive. When he began donating 15 years ago, he gave to a sperm bank. Now he prefers what he calls the “natural method”—that is, sex. Given his staggering rate of success, BBC News has wondered if Houben is “Europe’s most virile man.” But Houben dislikes much of the media coverage of his donor activity, calling it “sensational fodder.” Despite what has been reported, he wasn’t a virgin until 34, and there’s little that is sexy or glamorous about these appointments with hopeful women.
So we’ve decided to let Houben share his story in his own words. He spoke via Skype from the Netherlands. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
So what inspired you to first get involved in sperm donation?
Basically, when I was around 18 years old, I knew a heterosexual couple that had trouble getting pregnant. And they were quite open about it. At that age, it naively amazed me that good people who would obviously be good parents were not given the gift of children. It started a thought process of about 10 years.
That’s what’s missed a lot with this discussion. It’s too much of a bummer to anticipate the opinion of people who do not exist yet. You can try to deduce something from what adult donor children in the USA say. You can get a feel for what the range of feelings is. But even if some children say they don’t need to know it, a lot of children say they want to know where they come from.
When exactly did you begin donating?
That’s a thought process that concluded when I was 29, and then I went to a clinic in ’99 and became a donor at a sperm bank. I continued until 2005. But two years before I finished, I read an article about a lack of donors in my own country and that clinics decided more and more to help only heterosexual couples and not lesbian couples and singles. I thought that was not a right thing. Two women or one woman can also take care of a child in the right way. That’s when I went on a Dutch lesbian website, and they mediated between people who wanted children and donors.
So that was when you began to donate sperm the traditional method?
In 2004. I donated from 1999 to 2005, but at that time I didn’t know of the alternative of private donation.
I read that you now have 98 children. So do you have to be “on call,” sort of, if one of those children wants to meet their father?
There’s now 99. I do my best to avoid such a Hollywood situation—that somehow I sit here and stand by like a fire department. Even though it’s hard to plan an ovulation, it’s possible to. But I have some advance warning. And people try to test for ovulation in the morning and let me know if it’s negative or positive. If it’s positive, I try to indicate how late I can be at my place. Even though it concerns creating a life, which I hope will last 100 years, my boss wants to see me at work. It’s as simple as that. This is not a job. It’s not paying anything. So I cannot, for every so-called emergency, just walk away from my day job.
Oh, but I meant “on call” for the children who have been born. If they want to meet you.
Sure, but we just make an appointment. People don’t say, “Can I come by this evening?” They realize that I am—how shall I put this—a very busy person and say, “Can I come in two months’ time or so? Do you have time on the weekend?”
Your hundredth child will be born soon, right?
My only interest in numbers would be if there is something relevant because of the numbers. First of all, life No. 13 is just as valuable as life No. 3. Numbers never matter to me. But they matter to the outside world now that I’m reaching the 100 limit. Suddenly, oh, it’s 100. OK, and after that it’s 101. Five are on the way.
How old is your oldest child at this point?
The oldest one will be 11 in June. They are not old enough to take the initiative themselves a lot of times. A lot of the parents do not want their children ever to have the question. So from a baby age they meet me. Others say they wait until the child has questions.
Do you have to travel to women’s homes to help them conceive?
I don’t travel anymore. At least I try not to. The first two years I would travel on an average three times a week, and it was backbreaking for me. Of course, it was comfortable for them.
So I only travel if there’s a very special reason for it. I’m now talking to a female doctor in Austria, and she cannot travel here because she cannot plan any free time from her medical profession. And she’s very sympathetic to me, so I will travel for her for one time. If it doesn’t work, we will have to see next time who travels where. I made an exception also for her because she uses hormones to have the ovulation at a certain date.
You mentioned that you also have a job. Does your boss know that you do this?
If she ever opened up any newspaper or magazine or television program in the last 12 years, then yes. The people who are important to me, I informed them in a personal conversation of what I do. And gave them the opportunity to ask anything they want to ask. All of them were positive about what I do. And many of them even used the word “noble” in their replies. I was expecting a much more conservative attitude from some people. But especially those who had children or wanted children, they understood the pain of wanting children.
So your boss—
I informed her. My top boss, the director of my company, said, “It’s cool what you do. Only as a director I cannot have that influence our work. So I don’t want you to mention our organization, but in your free time you are free to do what you do.”
In your email you suggested that people often have misconceptions about what you do, or sensationalize the sex aspect of it. Can you talk about that?
A lot of people seem to presume it’s a guy, he’s alone, he gets to have sex. I never started out to do this for sex. I started out to help people. And that would be with either a clinical treatment or artificial insemination. I produce a cup and they use a syringe to insert it. But there were several women who had the courage—especially one American woman in Amsterdam, who had the courage to say as the first one, “This does not work for me. I’m an artistic person, and I never dreamed in my life that I would get pregnant with a 12-cent syringe. For me it’s important that in the creation of my child I’m as normal as possible, and I want warmth and intimacy.”
My most romantic reply was if she had STD tests. Because somehow I had thought of the possibility that this question might come, and I would have to check if there were STD tests. But when it came, it came as a surprise. So I blurted that out. The people I help, they are college- or university-schooled. And maybe they know that it works faster.
Sex works faster than artificial insemination?
In my experience, the artificial method works after eight to 10 times and natural method in two to three times. But it sometimes it works faster with artificial, sometimes it takes 15 times the natural way. They come back. But how can I plan with my work and maybe something called a private life? In 10 years I want to be a mentally stable person still, who the children can meet. Like Jack Nicholson in The Shining, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. Even though this isn’t paid work, it does make a person dull in some aspects.
That’s certainly not how people think of it with the natural method...
It’s not like I am in the mood for sex and there’s a woman present. Some stupid thing was urinated upon and a line turned pink. The test doesn’t ask if I have been working 15 hours that day and am totally not in the mood. Usually it takes two hours for me in any situation to tune out of work, but sometimes it’s basically you come home and because she has other obligations, we have to try immediately and then she leaves.
Even though all triple-X-rated movies tend to say otherwise, with tons of Viagra behind it, it’s not always easy and direct fun. I get tested every half-year at a government health office. I explained to them what I do, and they fully supported and understood that I wanted to be tested and need printed proof to show to people. Of course, I am aware that this is not 100 percent watertight.
Do you worry that one of these parents will come after you for financial help because you’re the biological father?
I was not completely aware of all legal aspects in the beginning, but I somehow sensed that these people did not want to trick me into paying alimony. They wanted a child. I would start asking in the beginning what people had as an income, and then I would get honest answers with numbers double my income. Probably they would have to pay me alimony if it is ever claimed.
I do know that in the Netherlands a donor is not a legal father. There is a legal definition of a donor. We have both no interest in me gaining rights and having to pay alimony. If I have to pay something, I also get to say where the child goes to school, for example. So it’s always a double-edged sword. I think under Dutch law I am excluded under legal responsibility. Maybe not moral responsibility, but I do feel that.
How many of your children have you met?
Very roughly, over half. My feeling says easily two-thirds. That’s when I get to show my saved emotions, because I do feel for the children. But I know it’s not my role to be the person who raises them and is there for them. Which is hard to do. I sometimes feel like a mother who gives up a child for adoption, but I know the children are well off in their lives. I get updates. I get pictures. I had to say to myself in the beginning, I know what I’m doing and I have to accept that I will not let these feelings come so close to me that I cannot function anymore. Out of self-protection, I keep my feelings under control until I meet the children, and then the children sense that my feelings are authentic.
Do you want children of your own? That you raise, I mean.
The short answer is no. The long answer is my life plan, when I was still trying to plan life, I always thought, OK, I hope I will find a partner for life. And if she wants children, then I’m open to it. But I’m not lying awake every night like most people who want children do.
So you’re single, then. Would you continue doing this if you were in a relationship?
If I get into a relationship again, I would tell her, you know, “Just tell me straight. Do I continue or do I stop?” And if she says continue, I would ask her 10 times again. And then I say, you know, “You had your chance.” If I sense that she doesn’t mean it, that she wants me to stop, then I will stop.
Because it’s now time for my own happiness. After 12 years of doing something for others…I know Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa did a lot more, but I think for a regular guy I did enough.
So you think you’re ready to pass the job to someone else, then?
Maybe I’ll say the limit of helping a woman will be the age of 50 or possibly earlier. As long as the children born are still healthy. I do not want to risk a child’s happiness and health by finding out, OK, now they are getting physically handicapped. But so far they are just all healthy.
When I see the competition, I’m just not sure there’s someone ready to take the torch from me, with the same moral rules. Usually when I get into contact with donors, it’s rubbish.
You get stories from women. Like one lesbian couple, they had a donor with whom they conceived their first child through artificial insemination. And then when they wanted a second child, he blackmailed them and said, “If you want a second child with the same genes, it’s fine, but then you have to have sex with me.”
I was in contact with a heterosexual couple from Germany. They decided in the end to have a local donor. They said, “The guy keeps asking if it’s going well, which is nice, but we said no contact after conception.” I said, “No, that’s not normal, you should maybe change your email address.” But he’s a policeman. He could find them anywhere. In the months after that, he kept asking, “Is it a boy or a girl? If it’s a boy, John would be nice. Or Joe.” So he was getting all these mixed-up father feelings. Now this couple was very unhappy in their pregnancy. You see all kinds of stuff.
So you have to be careful who you’re dealing with.
It’s basically just trying to think of the children, who don’t have a voice yet. I think there are many donors out there who donate to no matter who. With one woman, I just had a bad feeling. It was just a gut feeling. I described what I saw to a woman I already helped, and she said, “What you describe are some of the symptoms of borderline [personality disorder].” They can be nice, but they don’t realize they are sick, and a child would probably have a bad life with that woman.
If the happiness of the children is really our goal, then we must think of them rather than ourselves.