Mother who had daughters with a sperm donor tells FRANCES HARDY

How could they all be so reckless? Mother who had two daughters with an unregulated sperm donor she found on social media tells FRANCES HARDY she failed to read the small print which warned of his incurable genetic condition

Leah is almost four, but her vocabulary is that of a much younger child. So delayed is her speech she can still say only a few words, one of which — helpfully — is Mum.

She knows several variations of this: Mummy, Mumma, Mum; which is useful because there are three young women in her life who answer to the name.

One is her birth mother Cara, 24; the other is her self-styled stepmother Gemma, 27; the third is Cara’s former partner, 26-year-old Sarah.

The little girl regards all of them, Cara insists, as maternal figures, although Cara is the ‘special’ mummy.

However the man who fathered her — sperm donor James MacDougall — will not, despite his strenuous efforts to do so, ever feature as a paternal influence in Leah’s life.

James MacDougall fathered 15 children to lesbian women without telling them that he has a genetic condition

Cara — we’re using pseudonyms to protect her and her children’s identity — has two children: Leah and 18-month-old Milly, both from MacDougall, 37.

MacDougall is at the centre of a furore after a family court heard how he had fathered 15 children to lesbian women without making clear to them that he has an incurable genetic condition.

MacDougall went to a family court last month to seek access to Cara’s children and one other he had fathered — a move their mothers vehemently opposed. And judge Mrs Justice Lieven agreed with them that he should be banned from involvement in their lives. She also took the almost unprecedented step of naming him to deter others from using him as a donor.

MacDougall, who is autistic, has Fragile X syndrome which causes a range of developmental problems including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment.

Cara, who was unaware of this when she twice used his sperm to self-inseminate, fears Leah, who has symptoms that indicate the condition, could have inherited it. In a further troubling twist, Cara’s former partner Sarah also went on to use MacDougall’s services to have a child of her own.

You may consider it astonishing that MacDougall, who advertised his services as a donor on social media, could have been so cavalier about a serious health condition.

Equally you may wonder why Cara, when considering the credentials of a father to her children, barely scanned the closely-typed three page document he presented her with — in which was buried the fact that he has Fragile X — before agreeing to pay him £5 travelling expenses for supplying his sperm.

‘I gave him a fiver for each donation,’ she says blithely. ‘He only wanted the money for petrol from his house to mine.

‘You could say my children cost me a fiver each — although it was maybe £15 because I had two or three tries before I fell pregnant.

‘Most people will use donors on social media if they’re in a same sex relationship, because it costs so much to go through a private clinic. James took advantage of the desperation of girls like me. He preyed on vulnerable young women.

‘I didn’t read the document he gave me. I just flicked through the first page but I do struggle to read. I have learning difficulties myself.

‘It was irresponsible but when you’re desperate for a kid it makes you reckless.

‘Maybe I should have gone to a solicitor but it would have cost £500 to get everything drawn up and signed. So instead we did it all on the same day. It took about 20 minutes. My (then) partner and I signed, then he went into the toilet and came out with the sample.’

And so the chain of events that led to MacDougall passing on his compromised genetic blueprint began.

‘I didn’t realise he had Fragile X until it came up in court and I hadn’t a clue what it was,’ says Cara now.

‘He didn’t mention he had a condition that could impact on the children. Of course, he should have: I was angry he didn’t. But we got what we wanted: a child. And then I had a sister for her and I love them more than anything.’

Surely, one would think, there is a part of her that regrets her own recklessness? ‘I think I probably still would have gone along with it if I’d known because you wouldn’t change your kids, would you?’, she says. ‘If Leah’s got it, she’s got it. You just deal with it.’

Leah has her birth mother Cara, 24; her self-styled stepmother Gemma, 27; and Cara’s former partner, 26-year-old Sarah to help raise her

In this salutary saga of modern day families there appears to have been a potent mix of carelessness, opportunism and haphazard regard for the truth — on both sides. None of the dramatis personae emerges entirely unscathed.

The convolutions of Cara’s story — and the even more perturbing ramifications of MacDougall’s —highlight the dangers of resorting to unregulated sperm donors now proliferating on the internet. Since the pandemic, regulated fertility clinics have reported a dramatic downturn in the number of sperm donors — just 671 registered in the UK in 2020 compared with 776 the previous year — which in turn has fuelled an increase in men offering their services for free through sites such as Facebook, as MacDougall did.

While he has already fathered 15 children, men who give sperm to licensed clinics can only donate to up to ten families, reducing the risk of two children from the same sperm donor forming a relationship and unwittingly committing incest because they do not know they are related.

MacDougall had been turned down as a donor by a clinic, which are overseen by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and required by law to screen sperm for infections such as HIV and hepatitis as well as hereditary illnesses.

Knowing this, as Cara justifiably points out, he should never have offered his services on the internet, although, extraordinarily, there is no law forbidding him from doing so.

And Cara’s yearning to have a baby, allied to her own inadequate grasp of the risks she was taking, made her situation combustible.

This week, when I visited the neat and orderly council house she shares with her two daughters — and intermittently with her current partner Gemma — one fact seemed unassailable: she clearly adores Leah and Milly.

She began a relationship with Gemma, who has two daughters with a former male partner, three years ago.

But we must track back four years, to 2018, to learn how Cara first encountered MacDougall. She was then barely 20, working in a factory and in a relationship with jobless Sarah, when they decided to try for a baby together.

Their first attempt, via another donor they found on social media, resulted in Cara having a miscarriage. Then they looked on a lesbian sperm donor site and MacDougall’s advert caught their eye.

‘It just said the town he lived in and that he had brown hair and blue eyes. There were pictures of him as a baby and he said he wanted to help same sex couples have a family. We invited him round to the house and I thought: “He’s got problems,” but I thought they were minor.

‘We agreed he should come back when I was fertile and he gathered the sample in the toilet then Sarah inseminated me with a syringe.’ After a couple of attempts, Cara, to her delight, was pregnant. They all agreed that MacDougall would play no part in the child’s upbringing — the document they signed had pledged that — and she and Sarah looked forward to the birth: Leah arrived in October 2018.

‘And I was so happy. She was mummy’s girly; she slept brilliantly. I’d got what I wanted,’ recalls Cara. ‘Then I started to notice she wasn’t hitting her milestones. When she was two she could only say a couple of words and that worried me. She still can’t talk and she loses her temper when she can’t explain things. It scares me.’

Leah was only a couple of months old when Cara’s relationship with Sarah broke down. ‘I think we just fell out of love,’ she says, and in this world of expendable affiliations they separated and Cara moved into a flat alone with their baby. ‘But Leah still sees Sarah and thinks of her as her mummy.’

I point out that Cara must have felt isolated as a young single mum on benefits living alone with a small baby. And she admits it was then that she texted MacDougall.

‘When I was moving out of Sarah’s he lent me £150 and helped move my furniture,’ she says.

Recounting the tangled saga of their intermittent encounters, MacDougall alleged in court that he had, in fact, lent Cara £7,000.

Although he is on benefits, his parents, June and John MacDougall, a retired council engineer, both 73, have been generous to their adopted son, who shares their neat semi in a Nottingham suburb.

Leah’s parents said: ‘Most people will use donors on social media if they’re in a same sex relationship, because it costs so much to go through a private clinic’

Cara insists the sum was considerably less and some of it was repaid, although the court did not accept her evidence on this.

But it is clear she had reasons for maintaining a link, of sorts, with her sperm donor and they became apparent after she met her current partner Gemma in a nightclub in August 2019.

Gemma had never had a gay relationship before but was attracted to bisexual Cara — who is tall and strikingly pretty with doe-like eyes — because of her dazzling smile.

Within a month of meeting they had begun a relationship. ‘And then during lockdown we decided we wanted a baby together,’ says Cara. ‘I already had Leah and I wanted her to have a full sibling. So I wanted James to be the sperm donor again.’

Gemma adds: ‘We let him into our lives a bit too much to try to get what we wanted. We needed him and he knew it. And because it was lockdown and his mum and dad were shielding, we let him stay in our house so Cara could try to get pregnant.’

Once again, they were careless to the point of negligence about paperwork. ‘We didn’t sign anything,’ she says. ‘But every time we asked James for a document he’d say he was ordering ink for his printer or make some other excuse. We trusted his word. And he promised he didn’t want to be involved with the children.’

If their complex ties of parenthood were not convoluted enough, MacDougall also provided sperm samples for Cara’s ex, Sarah, who became pregnant just a couple of months after Cara conceived Milly and now has a little boy.

Milly was born in December 2020. Cara says her family of multiple mums, two daughters and two ‘step-daughters’ — with a half-brother to Leah and Milly thrown in for good measure — is now complete. ‘Two kids. That’s it. I’m done.’

She hopes, eventually, that she and Gemma will marry.

Meanwhile, the consequences of allowing MacDougall to visit her home were troubling.

 Men who give sperm to licensed clinics can only donate to up to ten families, reducing the risk of two children from the same sperm donor forming a relationship

Cara told the court that she asked MacDougall to leave because she became concerned about his behaviour: making sexual comments to her, suggesting she leave Gemma for him, and rubbing himself against her. Allegations McDougall denied in court.

‘He started to behave weirdly,’ Cara tells me. ‘He’d push himself against me. He’d smack my bum. He’d be sat at the end of the bed when Gemma and I woke up in the morning. He became possessive and controlling. He tried to make me leave Gemma to be with him. He even told his parents he was in a relationship with me — which is all lies.’

Despite these incidents, Cara allowed Leah to visit MacDougall’s parents’ comfortable home with its sunny conservatory in a Nottingham suburb, even spending the night there a couple of times.

Indeed, although at first shocked their son had become a sperm donor, the MacDougalls even came to regard Leah as their grandchild.

Why did Cara and Gemma permit these visits if they had such severe misgivings about him?

Mr MacDougall has an incurable genetic condition called Fragile X syndrome which causes a range of developmental problems including learning disabilities and cognitive impairment

‘At the time we were trying to sweeten him up,’ says Gemma. ‘We wanted Cara to get pregnant.’

Once Milly was conceived there were darker allegations of physical assault: MacDougall is purported to have caused bruising to Cara’s neck when he visited to retrieve his belongings. He, in turn, claims she exploited him for money.

Gemma says, with the benefit of hindsight: ‘I regret using James, 100 per cent. Of course it was a mistake. I disliked him from the start. I saw him for what he was and I should have stopped Cara from using him again. I’m older and wiser than she is.

‘I was irresponsible. I accept that. Looking back, I’d have done it differently. But now we’ve got Milly and we wouldn’t change her for the world.’

Meanwhile, throughout the whole unedifying saga there has been no admission of his own culpability from MacDougall.

And it is this complete obliviousness to the effects of his behaviour that Mrs Justice Lieven recognised in her judgement: ‘He quickly becomes agitated, aggressive and loses control when not getting his way.

‘There is copious evidence of him ringing or contacting people on multiple occasions if they do not do what he wants, and he simply will not take no for an answer.’

Last week his parents gave a spirited defence of their son.

‘It has been a blessing we’ve had grandchildren. Our son has done nothing wrong,’ said John.

‘We do not want him crucified,’ he said, showing a blinkered allegiance to a man who could have inflicted intellectual disabilities on as many as 15 children.

Both Cara’s children have been tested for Fragile X. She and Gemma have yet to be told whether either has the condition.

Meanwhile, they celebrated the judge’s verdict with a meal out, taking all four daughters from their very modern blended family.

‘I thought, “Hallelujah!” when I heard he won’t be allowed round Cara and our children,’ says Gemma. ‘The court case was traumatic, horrible.

‘I’d advise any other women thinking of using a sperm donor to really look hard at the paperwork before signing anything.’

‘But I wouldn’t swap my kids for the world,’ adds Cara.

Which is, perhaps, the one saving grace at the heart of this unedifying story.

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