I did wonder when anyone would ever use this type of title. Wasn’t expecting it from The Sunday Times but it made me grin nevertheless.
She’s on a mission to get men’s juices flowing
Laura Witjens runs Britain’s national sperm bank, which has recruited only nine donors in a year. Herself an egg donor, she tells Margarette Driscoll how humour will help find the right volunteers
THERE were sniggers all round last week when it was revealed that after almost a year in existence the British national sperm bank in Birmingham has nine registered donors. That many? It’s sad but true that if one woman helps another to have a child she is hailed as a warm-hearted heroine, but if a man admits to donating sperm his friends joke about him not being able to afford his own porn magazines. Laura Witjens aims to change that outdated attitude.
Witjens, 50, was born in Holland but has lived in Britain for more than two decades and has the distinction of knowing more about erectile dysfunction among London cabbies than probably anyone else. “If a driver asks where I am going, I never say, ‘to a board meeting’, that’s boring,” she says.
“I tell them I am going to talk about sperm. You can hear the pause, then it’s, ‘Excuse me, really?’ Nine times out of ten it turns into a lovely conversation. People share their lives, they tell you they had to be treated for infertility or their sister or friend is having IVF. Actually, everyone knows someone who has had difficulty having a child and they love to find out you are trying to help.”
Witjens, a former marketing executive, became involved in infertility treatment when her twins, Tessa and Sam, now 17, were a year old. She saw an item on television about women donating eggs and was inspired to do the same.
“When I was 20 I had made a list of all the things I wanted to do — live abroad, start my own company — but being a mother was at the top of that list. I knew I would have done anything, illegal or immoral or unethical, to have a child, but luckily I didn’t have to. I thought: OK, these are my spare bits, I can help someone who isn’t as fortunate as me.”
She had a physio appointment for a bad back at a hospital in Reading and, while she was there, walked into the fertility unit: “I’ll never forget the surprised look when I said: hi, how do I become an egg donor?” A year later she wanted to donate again but, at 36, was too old so she began working with a charity to promote egg and sperm donation and the crusade gradually took over her life. She is now chief executive of the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT).
A year ago, with a one-off award of £77,000 from the government, the NGDT set up a national sperm bank with the Birmingham Women’s Hospital. There are about 600 sperm donors in Britain, but most have been recruited by individual clinics. Some clinics are less successful than others: if you are seeking donated sperm and are an NHS patient in Slough or a private patient in Cardiff, says Witjens bluntly, “you are stuffed”.
Some clinics buy from other nations where sperm donation rates are much higher — notably Denmark, which has staged a new “Viking invasion” since donors were stripped of anonymity in Britain 10 years ago and donation rates collapsed. The national sperm bank aims to supply clinics all around the country. At £300 a treatment, the bank should be self-funding by the time it has 15 donors.
Would-be donors — aged between 18 and 41 — have to attend the clinic twice a week for six months and are paid £35 a session. Only one in 10 will produce sperm strong enough to survive the freezing and thawing process and each donor is limited to donating to 10 families. One-third of the recipients are now same-sex couples.
Six-foot tall doctors and barristers are top of the wish list as potential fathers, but the actual donors tend to be more run-of-the-mill. “The point about donors is that they are kind people who are willing to put themselves out to help others. Kindness is an underrated quality,” says Witjens.
“High intelligence is all very well, but the common factor among serial killers is high intelligence: without kindness it doesn’t mean much.”
She is planning to launch a recruitment campaign later this year to try to raise the Birmingham numbers. Only a small amount of government funding could be spent on communication and that went on creating a website: now the bank is to start generating money it can really get going.
The theme hasn’t been decided yet, but Witjens favours humour over the “be a superman” drive that has been successful in America and Scandinavia: “I am uncomfortable linking fertility with masculinity, because you’re saying the men who are infertile are not masculine, yet they could be infertile because of war injuries or chemotherapy,” she says.
“It’s about finding the balance . . . a brochure full of babies will get egg donors through the door but not sperm donors. We need to use a bit of humour to get through to the male psyche.”
Some men need little encouragement. She has been horrified by some of the “freelance” sperm donors who offer themselves online. One calls himself “the Sperminator”; another claims to have fathered 50 children. “If it’s true, that will be offspring in a 20 to 30-mile radius who are all in the same two or three-year age bracket. Imagine being the teacher in the nursery school where you realise the children resemble each other,” says Witjens.
“Some of these men admit lying about their age. They have a warped sense of self-belief, that they could stand next to a woman and she’d fall pregnant. Women are naive or stupid, they meet a donor on Gumtree or whatever and meet them in a motel. The guy says, I can’t do it here, it’s too clinical an environment, you have to help me . . . I spoke to a lesbian who wanted to have a child, she’d never had intercourse with a man before. She said, ‘I had my back against the wall [metaphorically], it was my fertile period and this man said we need to have natural insemination and I stupidly agreed.’ Is that rape? He knows she won’t report him but she feels violated.
“I sometimes can’t believe how little care women take for their safety. They say they can’t afford the £1,500 for a clinic and I think, ‘OK, but you have bought the biggest pram, you go on holiday to the Canaries for a week and you can’t afford to guarantee your own and your child’s medical and legal safety?’ Sometimes you can’t help thinking, ‘You cow’. I still help them . . . but when this goes wrong it goes spectacularly wrong.”
She is hoping that her own donation will turn out to have been spectacularly right. Any day now, a child conceived using her egg might get in touch. Although Witjens donated under the old law when all donors remained anonymous, she thought it “only right” to add her name to the voluntary register that was created in line with the current law (all donations are anonymous at the time of conception, but children can look for their biological parent’s details when they reach 18 — or 16 if they intend to marry and want to be sure they are not related to their intended spouse).
“I have one concern and maybe it’s strange, but I am concerned about the mother,” she says.
“After I’ve said, ‘Welcome to my life’ I’d want to speak to the mother to reassure her that I’m here for her child, but it’s still her child. I will open up my whole life, my heart, give the child access to my family, to my mother — their grandmother — and knowing my family their reaction will be, ‘Yes! We have another grandchild.’ But that doesn’t make me the mother, I’m very clear about that.”
Doesn’t she ever look at teenagers in the street and wonder? “No, never,” she says. “My mother was talking about this many years ago and said, ‘That’s my grandchild’ and I said, ‘No it isn’t. It isn’t my child, it’s not a grandchild’ but she was more curious of the two of us.
“Maybe I’m just very protective of my own children. They have always known there is the possibility of a half-sibling out there, but when they were young they just wondered whether that would mean they got more Christmas presents. Neither of my children look like me, it would be interesting to see if this child looks like them . . . but as much as you talk about it or think about it, I don’t think life really ever prepares you to get that call.”