Jan. 13, 2012 — -- Like millions of couples, Beth and Richard are on a quest to have a baby. But unlike most, their labor of love is launching them on a cross-country odyssey that has been 10 years in the making. Their destination? A Maryland hotel room and an intimate encounter with a man they met on the Internet.
Their saga began when they discovered a vasectomy that Richard underwent years earlier could not be reversed. The news was unfortunate, but it did not deter them. They opened their home and hearts to more than 60 foster children through the years and even adopted two of the neediest. However, Beth, 33, told "20/20" that she still wants to give birth. "I sit around with my sisters and the rest of my family and they tell me about their experiences and I just want to know what does it feel like… to have that baby inside you."
The couple, who asked their last names be withheld, purchased sperm from sperm banks and tried artificial inseminations but after $14,000 and still no pregnancies, Beth was beginning to lose hope. Then she went on the Internet.
"After so many tries and spending so much money, I thought there's got to be a better way," she told "20/20." "I mean, people go on the Internet for sex, why can't I go on the Internet for sperm?"
She sat down at her computer and Googled "free sperm" and discovered an entire online universe devoted to free sperm donation. One of the sites she came across,FreeSpermDonorRegistry.com, offered profiles for men willing to donate sperm for free to thousands of women desperate to conceive.
'A Weird Blend of Facebook, Match.com and a Traditional Sperm Bank'
The website has since changed name to www.knowndonorregistry.com. Beth Gardner, a woman also frustrated with her options, founded the donor website in January 2011. "I think where we come from with the website, is that there is an element of freedom of choice, that people should have a choice."
Gardner's partner is now pregnant by a donor they met online.
Tony Dokoupil, a senior reporter for Newsweek, spent months investigating this new online world. He characterizes the site as "a weird blend of Facebook, Match.com, and a traditional sperm bank…. Where you get all the sort of medical information about the health and fitness of this person you might procreate with."
Dokoupil estimates thousands of people use this site and others like it. His research took him to some unexpected places where people donate sperm.
"A fairly common location for the exchange is Starbucks," he said. "Right in that one bathroom they always have…they'll use a sterile cup. You can get them at a drugstore. …Hand the cup to the recipient. ..Who will then go into the bathroom… and then you can walk around freely, while nature's taking its course."
Drew Sollenberger, a 26-year-old single software engineer who does work for government agencies, donates to several charities and even donated a kidney to a child. He is also an active donor on Free Sperm Donor Registry. He told "20/20" that he has no interest in monetary gain for donating his semen, and views this as a way to help women and bring children into the world without the responsibilities of marriage or fatherhood. "I would love to have a standard, nuclear family. But to do that, I have to get married and I decided that I was not going to get married… I still wanted to have a child."
Beth and Drew met on FSDR and she says she had a good feeling about him from the beginning. "I knew he wasn't there for the wrong reasons…I just knew he was a good guy and I knew that I wanted to work with him." She said he is tested regularly for sexual transmitted diseases and gives her the results.
After a couple of months of chatting and e-mailing , Beth and her husband, Richard, flew from Wyoming to Maryland, where they would finally meet Drew in their hotel room. They greeted each other with smiles and hugs, shared some stories and photos, and then it was down to business. Drew retreated to the bathroom with a sterile cup while Beth and Richard waited in the hotel lobby until Drew sends Beth a text, simply stating "I'm done."
Then it was time for the couple to do their part of the process. Beth prepared the semen in a syringe, lay down on the hotel bed, and Richard injected her. Beth remained still for about 15 minutes while nature took its course. Or so they hoped.
Beth admits that this method is a "little bit different" but overall, is comfortable with the process and hopeful it will work. "It is a leap of faith… but it's what's best for us."
"When you look at these babies that we've adopted, and all the struggles that they've gone through -- we love both of our babies so much, and we love their mothers for choosing us, " she said. "That's how I feel about Drew at this time, too. He's giving me this gift, that, how many other people would, would freely give?"
Unlike sperm banks, private sperm donation is not formally monitored by the US Food and Drug Administration and recently one online sperm donor made national headlines for not complying with federal guidelines. The FDA paid a surprise visit to inspect his home and issued a "Cease Manufacture" order to California donor Trent Arsenault. He could potentially face jail time and a $100,000 fine and yet he continues to do as many as three donations a week from his home.
To conform to guidelines, "you need to have a battery of STD tests," Newsweek's Dokoupil said, "and these tests…are more than a thousand dollars per attempt…Those standards are so arduous as to make it… impossible for somebody like Trent Arsenault to meet."
Arsenault, a 36-year old computer engineer, has been donating his sperm since 2006 and says he has fathered 14 children, including a set of twins. He posts pictures of himself and his offspring on his website.
The FDA declined ABC News's request for an interview but in an email said: "Human cells and tissues intended for donation… are regulated…regardless of whether they are for sale or free of charge."
To insure that Arsenault gives his recipients the healthiest and most potent product, he has a strict physical regimen and a diet that includes organic foods and his homemade "fertility smoothie" twice a day. (See the recipe here.)
"It has all kinds of ingredients," he said. "Lots of anti-oxidants, amino acids, fructose….which I think all play a part in improving sperm count and fertility and hopefully making healthy babies." Whether it helps or not, he claims to have had his sperm count tested and that it is "approximately four times higher than the average man."
Arsenault says the goal is not to create hundreds of copies of himself, instead he is doing this to "help the community." One woman he is trying to help is Krista (whose asked that her last name be withheld), a finance professional who previously spent $10,000 on unsuccessful frozen sperm inseminations and decided to try a different route.
She says she trusts Arsenault, who posts his medical history and STD tests online. Krista and her partner scheduled appointments with him during her ovulation cycle. He hands off a cup of his fresh semen from his front porch and she inseminates lying in the back seat of her car, or at home, because semen start to die in a matter of minutes.
Early attempts with Arsenault were successful, but Krista miscarried. Yet, she still believes in this method and does not think the FDA should control private sperm donation.
"It's not up to the government to determine who the father to our child… should be," Krista said. "If someone has the right to go to a bar in the evening and wind up having sexual intercourse, why is it they can do that and I can't choose to have this person be the biological contributor to my child."
But beyond the legal issues, there are alarming questions about how much the women really know about the online donors. It turns out that over the years Arsenault has posted dozens of graphic videos of himself online. He defends the postings, saying they are "part of his donation process." But they raise concerns. Fertility experts point out that at traditional sperm banks, semen is not only tested for diseases, but donors are also screened for possible psychological problems.
Krista said she is aware of Arsenault's postings, but may continue to work with him, in addition to contemplating adoption or in vitro fertilization. For women eager for children who have already spent thousands of dollars, there are few easy choices.
"I know that I will be a mother someday," said Krista. "I just don't know how yet."