Life has been getting in the way of blogging this month and in recent days life has meant four days in hospital having parts of my insides repaired and rejuvenated so that I can dodder along a little longer. I’m not sure why operations are exhausting but they are, so rest and recuperation has been top of the agenda this week. However, I have been stirred out of inaction by the Long Read article in The Guardian yesterday about sperm donation and the setting up of the new national sperm bank. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/oct/09/-sp-desperately-seeking-sperm-donors
First of all it was BRILLIANT to see three pages (albeit with huge illustrations) devoted to this topic. Unlike egg donation, where women who decide to go through the invasive procedures in order to help another woman have a child, are treated like heroines or angels, sperm donation remains something of a tacky joke in the public consciousness. Even The Guardian sub-editors couldn’t resist, “Can the creation of a new National Sperm Bank stiffen their resolve” referring to the difficulty in recruiting men to donate. It is of course all down to the masturbatory act needed to produce sperm. As Allan Pacey, out-going Chair of the British Fertility Society says, “If we extracted sperm using a surgical procedure, I don’t think we’d have the same view of it”.
The central aim of the setting up of the new bank, based at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital, is to provide a central store of sperm for both NHS and private clinics, so they no longer have to buy from overseas. Currently many clinics rely on sperm imported from two large sperm banks in Denmark and another in the US. Cryos, one of the Danish banks, exploits a loophole in British law by allowing UK citizens to order sperm which is sent to their personal address for self-insemination. And the sperm can be from anonymous donors (against the law in the UK). The European Sperm Bank in Copenhagen only sends sperm from donors willing to be identifiable to licensed clinics. Ole Schou, the businessman who runs Cryos, is quoted as saying that Britain’s problem in recruiting donors is over-burdensome legislation. He does not believe that the national sperm bank will be able to recruit enough identifiable donors to be viable. But evidence from sperm banks in the UK, like the London Sperm Bank, show that if enough time, effort and care is put into recruiting donors then men are more than willing to come forward on an identifiable basis. What is needed first of all is education and awareness raising of the need for donated sperm. And this is where Laura Witjens, CEO of the National Gamete Donation Trust comes in. This is her forte, although her methods are not to everyone’s taste. Sophie Elmhirst, the intelligent and thoughtful journalist behind the piece, was clearly fascinated by Witjens, and she is something to behold. I’m not sure how I would feel if I saw this tall, blonde woman, usually dressed very strikingly, smiling broadly and heading my way on Waterloo station with a bunch of sperm shaped, glow-in-the-dark key rings clutched in her hand. And the fact that she originates from The Netherlands is soon obvious, not just in her slight accent, but in her Dutch, Direct and Delivers style. As I said, not to everyone’s taste, but she has moved the conversation about sperm donation on. Who knows if one of those sperm-shaped fobs on a bunch of car keys leads to a conversation between a man and his friend and together they decide to investigate sperm donation for themselves. Clinics and sperm banks will always weed out the clearly unsuitable (sperm count and failure to freeze/thaw well does that for most anyway) and all donors will be counselled in the new bank (as they are in most places). I suspect that most men will not fulfil Witjens wish to turn sperm donation into something heroic…that they talk to others proudly about. And to me this feels much too close to men boasting about spreading their seed/how virile they are. Donor conceived adults are not comfortable about that and rightly so. What we want are thoughtful and intelligent guys who understand the gift they are giving and also have some insight into the potential needs of the people (and helpful here to keep the focus away from babies) they are helping create.
The Comments section following the article revealed the usual parade of ignorance and tack but it was clear that the issue of anonymity was a problem for many men. This will be partly due to just not understanding what it might mean to a donor conceived person not to be able to have information about their donor and partly because they are just not the target population for donors. As Witjens says, we don’t need huge numbers of donors (the new bank would break even with just 13 new donors in the first year) but we do need the RIGHT people, and most men just don’t fall into this category.
I’m excited about this new sperm bank. The combination of Sue Avery at Birmingham Women’s and Witjens could be a dynamic and creative one. Let’s put those Danes out of business!
The National Sperm Bank was officially launched on 30th October 2014. Have a look at the wonderful new website celebrating and encouraging sperm donation http://www.veryspecialman.co.uk