On a recent Thursday morning, Laura Witjens marched along the over-full concourse of Waterloo station looking for suitable young men. She carried two white T-shirts, each bearing a block-capital inscription: “I AM A VERY SPECIAL MAN” and “I AM A SPERM DONOR”. The plan was to show unsuspecting commuters one followed by the other, to test a theory that might have seemed self-evident: men were happy to be seen as special, but they were less eager to talk about their sperm.
Witjens, a striking blonde Dutchwoman wearing a black-and-white striped dress, picked out a young man with slicked-back hair named Andrey, who was handing out samples of a new Dior perfume. Witjens said she’d take one if he spoke to her for 20 seconds.
“If I tell you you’re a very special man, how would you feel?” she asked.
“Well it can either go one way or another,” Andrey said, smile budding. “Arnold Schwarzenegger or disabled.”
Witjens held up the “I AM A SPERM DONOR” T-shirt. “If I call you this, what do you say?”
“I’d laugh,” said Andrey, who was starting to shift on his feet.
“Why?” He paused. “I think it’s what people do but don’t talk about.”
Witjens gave Andrey a glow-in-the-dark sperm key ring (“That’s awesome! That is going straight on my car key!”) and moved on to five men gathered around a pile of camping equipment and backpacks, on their way to a music festival on the Isle of Wight. They giggled and swapped gags about the superlative quality of their seed. “I haven’t actually gone anywhere and knowingly donated sperm,” one quipped. Witjens decided to change tack. Groups were too easily derailed by innuendo and self-consciousness. Better to target men on their own. She homed in on a young guy sitting on a bench, his bag neatly by his side.
“I’d happily be a sperm donor,” he said, unperturbed by her T-shirt routine.
“Have you thought about it?” she asked.
“Yes, when I’ve been really low on cash.”
They chatted for a while, Witjens enthusiastic and excitable. She pressed the sperm key ring into his hand, and gave him another handful for his friends.
“You know why I saw you?” she said, pointing to his chest. “I saw ‘Holland’ and I’m Dutch and I thought, yeah! That’s a good guy.” He looked a little bemused – he was wearing a black ‘Mulholland Drive’ T-shirt under his checked shirt – but smiled anyway.
Witjens is used to having these conversations. As the chief executive of the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT), a government-funded charitable body, her job is to promote egg and sperm donation in the UK. She raises the subject whenever she can: with taxi drivers and fellow train passengers – anywhere men can’t easily escape. A friend of hers told me she’d recently accosted someone at a party: “You do have to rein her in sometimes.” In return, Witjens hears “everybody’s personal, sexual or erectile dysfunction. Sometimes it makes me grin, sometimes I just switch off.” A few years ago, just after the NGDT launched another campaign to attract new donors (“Have you got the balls?” was the tagline), she went to a rugby club in Rochdale, offered the team curry and beer after the game, and then surprised them with a multi-speaker presentation on sperm donation. At nearly 50 – married to her second husband – Witjens thinks she can broach the subject with impunity: “I’m the age where they know I’m not coming on to them,” she told me. “I could be their mother.”
* * *
In Britain, donor sperm is a scarce commodity. In 1992, the first year that records were kept, there were only 375 new sperm donors in the country. By 2004, the year before the law was changed to forbid anonymous donations, the number had fallen to 239, as potential donors melted away at the thought of being confronted by future children. Jane Stewart, a consultant who runs a sperm bank and fertility clinic in Newcastle, told me she had to shelve her entire donor bank in 2004 and start again, as not one of her donors was willing to become identifiable. In 2010, the last year for which numbers are available, there were 480 new donors – an apparent improvement, but one that has failed to keep pace with the enormous increase in demand for sperm, mostly from lesbian couples and single women. According to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), between 2010 and 2011 there was a 24% increase in the number of lesbian couples undergoing donor insemination.
Over three decades, a cultural transformation had occurred: in the 1970s and 1980s, open discussion of fertility treatment was rare. One parent of donor-conceived children born in 1984 and 1986 told me that she and her husband were encouraged “not to think about” who the donor was, or to tell their children how they were conceived. Now, parents are advised to tell their children the truth of their genetic heritage from birth, and moral outrage over “alternative families” has become a relatively fringe pursuit. But while the shift in culture has transformed the demand, it hasn’t boosted the supply. While the public are broadly comfortable with the idea of potential parents conceiving children from donated sperm, the discomfort around donation itself – the act that enables these new lives – lingers on. Allan Pacey, the outgoing chair of the British Fertility Society, called the persistent unease “masturbation guilt”. “Women who donate their eggs are heroes,” he told me. “Men who donate their sperm I still think are considered smutty because they have to masturbate. If we extracted sperm in a surgical procedure, I don’t think we’d have the same view of it.”
As a result, there aren’t enough donors to go round and clinics have to plug the gap with imported sperm. In 2005, one in 10 donated sperm samples came from overseas; now the figure is one in four. The sperm comes mostly from the US or from Denmark – the sperm capital of the world, as it is invariably known in smirking press reports warning of a “second Viking invasion”. But even when a clinic is importing, patients still have to wait at least a year for sperm to become available. Many resort to alternatives: travelling abroad for treatment or using informal introduction services such as the website Pride Angel, which operates like a dating site, matching patients with appropriate donors. Some resort to unregulated online infertility forums, where potential donors – with screen names such as geezer666, ShireHorse, RealMan, bigD and tadpolesready – offer their untested, unscreened and possibly unsafe sperm for free. No one has any real idea of the scale of this grey market. When I asked Juliet Tizzard at the HFEA, which regulates the sector, why they weren’t doing more to police such potentially dangerous activity, she shrugged. “There’s been a reluctance to intervene in that area, because it’s so close to normal human interaction … How far away is that from meeting someone in a bar in Shoreditch?”
To tackle the shortage, and provide a more salubrious alternative to the online underworld, a new National Sperm Bank, based at the Birmingham Women’s Hospital, will launch at the end of this month. (Its announcement, in early August, was greeted with a front-page Mail on Sunday headline: “NHS To Fund Sperm Bank For Lesbians: New Generation of Fatherless Families Paid For By YOU”.) Funded by the Department of Health, and run by Laura Witjens, the new bank will provide a central store of sperm for both private and NHS clinics, so they no longer have to buy from overseas. Witjens also hopes the very fact of its creation – and the attendant publicity – will by itself encourage more donors to come forward. She initially panicked at the Mail headline – until she spent a day defending the new bank on 24-hour news channels and radio phone-ins, and realised people were suddenly talking about sperm.
Plans for a National Sperm Bank have been under discussion, on and off, for a decade. The concept was first raised back in 2004, according to Pacey. Everyone in the sector knew the change in the law on anonymity would dampen donor recruitment, he said; it was thought that a national approach might help with the fall-off. A working group was set up in 2006, and a pilot project launched in Manchester in 2008. It was soon disbanded, though no one in the sector seemed able to tell me why. Witjens implied there had been a difference in view over strategy. Six years later, Birmingham was chosen in part because she has a good working relationship with the clinical team at the hospital. As she told me: “Birmingham was prepared to say, ‘OK, you tell us what can be done; show us.’”
I met Witjens for the first time on a sunny afternoon in August at her red-brick, gated house in Surrey. We sat at a table in her large kitchen and she told me how she wrote the proposal for the new bank last October in two days straight, after she’d seen the Department of Health had opened a new funding round. “I thought, ‘It’s now or never. I rang Birmingham and said, ‘Don’t ask me for the details because I don’t know them yet, but if I put in a bid, will you partner with me?’ And they said, ‘If it’s you, any day.’”
It had to be her. There’s no one else. The NGDT – the national body for sperm and egg donation – consists of Witjens and Pip Morris, the donor recruitment manager, who deals with inquiries from potential donors and patients. Pip is the “solid one”; Witjens tackles the “visionary stuff”. She often talks about herself like this. During a series of meetings and conversations, Witjens variously described herself to me as a “bulldozer”, “a bit in your face”, someone with “a much louder voice than quite a few people together” whose personality is born of her nationality, the “sheer force of her Dutchness”, as she put it – a combination of ebullient confidence and a bracing ability to straight-talk. Her LinkedIn profile sums it up: “A driven pragmatic no-nonsense change maker with a 3D approach: Dutch, Direct, Delivers.”
Witjens’s father was a rear admiral, her mother an artist: “I got the touchy-feely from my mother, and the drive and determination from my father.” After studying law in Amsterdam, she worked in sales for IT firms, and then set up her own company, Multiplexx Technologies, with a business partner, which, she said, made her “shitloads” of money. “It’s fair to say that I was always the head of class girl.” But more than any professional success, she wanted children.
Even as a 20-year-old, Witjens said, she realised she would have done anything – “illegal, immoral, unethical” – to have them. Fortunately, she didn’t have to: in 1998, she gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. When they were still young, Witjens saw an item on television about egg donation and decided to become a donor, keen to help anyone who wanted to have children as much as she had but wasn’t able to do it naturally. It was an “amazing feeling”, she said – not the injections, the invasive procedures, the simulated menopause – but the realisation that she could transform lives. Afterwards, having felt unsupported through the process, she hunted out the NGDT, which at the time was fairly low profile, and didn’t have a website. She made one, changed the logo, became a trustee, then interim chair, then chair. Head of class. “Somehow it went from five hours to 10 hours to 15 hours”, she recalled, until she realised she could no longer combine her work for the NGDT with co-running her company. She sold her share, and after eight years of working for free for the Trust, became chief executive in 2012 and began receiving a salary (“in the £40,000 range”).
Compared with her former lifestyle – “big cars, fancy life, huge income” – it wasn’t much. But the work made up for it: “I’m often seen as the ball-breaker, but I came into this business as an egg donor. I’m still the one who at the weekend speaks to the patients and cries with the patients, the one who’s got baby pictures on my desk because babies are named after me.” When she put in the proposal for the new bank she told the Department of Health that if they didn’t stump up the cash, she would do it herself. As she told me this, she gestured expansively. “You see my house.”
The budget that Witjens has calculated for the first year of the National Sperm Bank amounts to £77,000. She thinks the bank can become self-financing within a year, covering its costs by selling sperm at £300 a sample to other clinics. There will be no new glass-and-steel building with vaults of sperm marshalled by white-coated laboratory assistants, no tellers doling out samples over the counter. The bank will be housed at a pre-existing fertility centre and sperm bank at Birmingham Women’s Hospital, run by Dr Sue Avery. It will be staffed by those who work at the Birmingham bank, all two of them: Maureen Marrs, the donor recruitment co-ordinator, and Rachel Jennings, the fertility preservation practitioner. Marrs showed me round. The “bank” itself is simply one small room containing a handful of metal tanks where sperm samples are frozen in liquid nitrogen at around -196 degrees.
If there’s no new building, no new staff, what is it? Witjens described the project to me as “building a bit on the front and a bit on the end” of the existing Birmingham bank. That is, launching a donor recruitment campaign and quickening the distribution to other clinics. It is, she said, a “sales and marketing” challenge – her strength. Recently, she was shortlisted in a national Specsavers competition to find the “Spectacle Wearer of the Year 2014” (she submitted her picture while bored one afternoon). She thought that if she could reach the final she might persuade the host, TV presenter Gok Wan, to become an ambassador for sperm donation. This is how she works, more flair than forensic, a committed opportunist. (It doesn’t always go down well: as another player in the sector put it to me, “fundamentally, she’s a businesswoman”.)
Discussions about how the new bank will work alongside the Birmingham clinic are still ongoing. A new text service and website for the National Sperm Bank will soon be launched: donors who make contact through these portals will be directed to the national side, while donors who come through the Birmingham website will go to the local bank. If they’re inundated with potential donors, Witjens told me, they’ll recruit extra staff. But whatever happens, there will be nothing new to see when it launches. The National Sperm Bank is essentially an advert – an attempt to bring the public conversation about sperm donation into line with a culture that’s no longer so squeamish about conceiving children by “artificial” means.
* * *
Recruiting sperm donors is both laborious and complicated. For every 100 people who contact the NGDT about sperm donation, only one goes on to become a donor. Some are weeded out early after their samples fail quality tests – for shape, concentration and motility. Others drop out once they understand the implications. As Andrey in Waterloo station put it, “I don’t want to be one of those people in 18 years where it’s like, ‘Hi Dad’.” Donor sperm can be used to create up to 10 sets of children; parents are allowed to use the same donor to create siblings. One donor-conceived young woman I spoke to knew from the records held by the HFEA that she had 15 half-siblings. That’s quite a queue.
Interested donors also fall away once they learn what giving sperm actually involves. Donors are obliged to visit a clinic between 10 and 20 times (depending on the concentration of high-quality sperm in their ejaculate) over a period of three to six months. Clinics request that a donor refrain from sexual activity for three or four days before a visit, which can amount in some cases to half a year of near-celibacy. Donors are paid a regulated flat fee of £35 per visit: £20 at the time of each donation, and the remainder as a lump sum at the end, to stop people dropping out halfway through. The payment is purposefully small, to discourage donors from doing it only for the money. One donor I met at the Birmingham clinic, called John, told me that he decided to donate after his mother died. He had no children of his own, and wanted her, in some way, to live on. John was typical: after the law on anonymity changed, the profile of donors shifted from younger men, mostly students doing it for a bit of extra cash, to older men who signed up for altruistic reasons. “It sounds trite,” said John, a quiet 40-year-old, “but you’ve done something good for the day.” When he completed his donation cycle, he took his final sum of £100 or so and bought a new golf club.
Visits, donations. This is a world heavy with euphemism. Many clinics call the room where men go to give their sperm donation the “production room”. In Birmingham, it’s known as the “procurement room”, and Marrs showed it to me on our tour. There’s a sofa, a toilet, pictures on the wall of a starfish and a jetty. Outside there’s a doorbell for the men to ring when the sample is ready to be collected by staff. Donors can enter through a back entrance so they never need come into contact with patients. The only hint of what takes place inside this clinical chamber is the blue ringbinder of porn magazines placed discreetly to one side. The pages are laminated.
The weight of what Pacey called “masturbation guilt” is not to be underestimated. Another donor, a 42-year-old man who I’ll call James, said his decision was a deeply private one. I’d found James on an online infertility forum, offering advice to women seeking informal donors on how to go about it safely. In what can seem like a seedy demimonde of sperm exchange, where men offer to “naturally inseminate” women – in other words, to meet up and have sex with them – James seemed like a sensible voice. We met in a Costa Coffee off the M5, and he came carrying a packet of photos of two baby girls born from his donations. James was unusual: he’d donated officially, through an NHS clinic in the south-west, as well as privately, through a co-parenting website that matches couples with donors. The babies, who he has met and held, were the results of informal arrangements – he’d remained in touch with the parents, and they’d kept him updated on the pregnancy, birth, growing up. Three other women to whom he has donated are pregnant.
James showed me pictures of the babies swimming and playing, one dressed up as a pink rabbit. He was visibly proud of what he’d done, but he didn’t want me to use his name, say where he lived or even name the NHS clinic where he’d donated his sperm. He’d never told his family – strict Catholics who would doubtless be horrified – and after he told a close friend, who was “mortified” and told James he’d end up a dirty old man, he decided to keep the fact that he’d helped create five new human lives a secret.
* * *
The world’s largest sperm bank, Cryos International – in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city – exports sperm to more than 70 countries; its website boasts that it has more than 400 donor samples on ice, ready to deliver right now. The bank was set up by Ole Schou in 1987 after he had a dream about frozen sperm which (understandably) intrigued him. Afterwards, Schou read everything he could on the subject and recognised an opportunity. There was rising demand for sperm and a limited, inefficient supply. For a graduate student in business, it wasn’t difficult to see.
At the start, Schou rented a nine-metre-squared office and cycled round town pasting up posters calling for donors. His marketing line is the same now as it was then: earn money and help infertile couples. Today, he told me, he has several donors who have enabled well over 100 births around the world. Schou’s rapid expansion was helped by Denmark’s cultural openness (“it is not difficult in this country to talk about sperm donation”) and social spirit. “We share everything,” he said. But he was also enabled by Danish law, which required donors to be anonymous; they were much easier to recruit. Now donors can choose to be either anonymous or identifiable – but that’s only because Schou lobbied for a change in the law so he could recruit non-anonymous donors for export to countries such as the UK.
Recruiting these donors is still challenging, but Schou told me he’d found a loophole. The British rules on anonymity don’t apply if you deliver directly to people’s homes, rather than to clinics. Schou sends his sperm round the world, with a home-insemination kit (“one adaptor, one syringe, one alcohol pad”) included in the package. Two straws of raw, anonymous sperm cost €178 (excluding VAT). Non-anonymous sperm is more than double, at €398, and the prices increase depending on the chosen delivery method. If you pick up dry-ice stored sperm from the bank, you pay an additional €39; a European delivery in a nitrogen tank is €219. Then there are the variations according to quality – purified sperm (which has been “washed” of seminal fluid) is more expensive, as is sperm from donors with higher motility. An exclusive donor, meanwhile, would cost €12,000. “Every day”, Schou told me, he receives orders online for sperm from British clients opting for home insemination with sperm from a donor they’ll never have to meet.
Every British expert I talked to was appalled by Schou’s loophole. “He’s running right up to the wire,” said Olivia Montuschi, the founder of the Donor Conception Network (DCN), a group that supports families created through donation. “He makes me want to spit with anger … he never thinks about the children.” (It’s true that amid all the marketing strategies and global competition, the children can be overlooked.) Sue Avery pointed out that Schou’s loophole only remains legal if the recipient inseminates immediately after receiving their package from Cryos. Anyone found to be storing sperm in the UK without an HFEA-awarded licence is breaking the law. Last August, a case was reported of a mother who forced her adopted 14-year-old daughter to home-inseminate with Cryos-bought sperm after she was prevented from adopting any more children. The woman was sentenced to five years in jail after admitting child cruelty. Schou was unmoved: she could have got hold of free, unscreened sperm on the internet if she’d wanted to, and anyway, “it’s not the weapon that harms, it’s those who use the weapon. And you can easily get weapons.”
Schou, the arch-liberal of sperm donation, told me that Britain’s problem was overly burdensome regulation that pushed people overseas or to the grey market – the murky online world of ovulation-day hook-ups. He compared fertility treatment to abortion. No one wants to have it, but given that people always will, why not make it as easy as possible? “People create lives every day without interference from the state.” So long as regulation in Britain remains tight, he couldn’t see how the National Sperm Bank would succeed: in his view, they won’t be able to recruit enough non-anonymous donors to become self-sustaining. In 2010, Schou wanted to set up a branch of Cryos in the UK to meet the growing demand, but only on the condition that he could also recruit anonymous donors for export. He put the proposal to the HFEA, which refused. Schou backed out. “We calculated from a business point of view that it was simply not feasible.”
* * *
Beneath the inevitable snickering when sperm donation comes up in conversation lies a Victorian legacy: a peculiarly British cocktail of sexual awkwardness and moralising piety. “Religious roots,” Allan Pacey said. Birmingham was a prime candidate for the National Sperm Bank not only because there’s a successful clinic at the hospital but also for its demographics. The shortage of ethnic minority donors across the UK is severe – according to Witjens, South Asian couples have to wait five years or more for sperm – and Birmingham’s population skews young, male and Muslim. They’re hard to reach. “Different imams have different teachings,” explained Sue Avery, but “sperm donation for Muslims is not generally accepted. The problem for a lot of religious groups is that the concept of donor sperm comes under the heading of adultery.” Avery, who has been in the fertility business for 30 years, remembered being visited by an Orthodox rabbi at the central London clinic where she worked in the early 1980s. He’d come to bless some donor sperm for a Jewish couple’s fertility treatment and “took the view that if he blessed the sperm, they could use it”.
Witjens’s strategy for countering both the religiously opposed and awkwardly British is to refashion donation into something heroic. She wants men to be able to talk about giving sperm the way they might about giving blood or donating organs: proud, even boastful. The last thing they should feel is shame. Children conceived by donors agree. One I spoke to – Sam Gregory, a 23-year-old civil servant from Sheffield – thought donors should be far more visible in society. Gregory’s own donor is untraceable – he was conceived just before regulation, and therefore record-keeping. But he felt donors should be able to talk openly about what they do, as blood donors do. There should be posters on buses, like the ones you see for adoption. “I’ve never seen an advert anywhere for people to donate sperm,” he said.
In early September, I sat in on a meeting between Witjens and Diane Dykes, a marketing adviser tasked with refining the message of the National Sperm Bank. The pair were perched on bar stools in the kitchen of Dykes’s house in Basingstoke. They’d worked together before, Witjens told me, and Dykes was used to translating Witjens’s sometimes wayward ideas into concrete plans. “There’s lots of spaghetti that goes round,” Dykes explained. They had a laptop open in front of them and browsed other sperm bank websites, comparing different recruitment strategies. Simply Sperm Donors, a private bank in Essex, asked, “Who gives a toss?” Birmingham’s current sell was a picture of a piggy bank and the line, “We’re not just any bank”. They agreed that the pigs were confusing. “It’s almost having a sperm donation website without mentioning the word sperm,” Witjens said.
The pair moved on to discuss Witjens’s personal website (she needs to “manage her own brand, otherwise someone else will manage it for her”, Dykes told me). The draft version had large pictures of Witjens above the logos of the NGDT, the Donor Conceived Register (a database of all those born through donor conception, which she also runs), and the new bank. “It’s almost like looking at the Oprah Winfrey brand,” said Witjens. “She knows she’s the person in the middle, but in addition all sorts of things hang off it that actually help people … I want to do something very much like that in the donation world.” The businesswoman in her can see that the fertility world is rich in potential. While she likes the integrity and independence government funding gives the new bank, in the long term, she’d like to start up projects on her own – a sperm bank specifically for lesbians, perhaps. If it all sounds a little like The Laura Show, she’ll take the hit. “I am the name. It can work for me or it can work against me.” And if it doesn’t work? She smiled at me, as if the idea was amusing. “I don’t know!”
Witjens’s competitive spirit extends to her tactics. She believes she can challenge Birmingham men to prove they have the best sperm in Britain, and British men to prove they have better sperm than the Danish. “I want to kick the Danish sperm banks out,” she said. “I’m fed up with the whole Viking thing.” Ole Schou’s gloomy prognosis didn’t unsettle her. It doesn’t matter if most men don’t want to become donors. “We don’t need millions of guys; we only need thousands.”
In fact, according to her calculations, they only need to find 13 in the first year for the National Sperm Bank to break even. But to get those 13 means testing the sperm of 130, and to test 130 means reaching out to hundreds, thousands more. But ultimately, Witjens only wants the ones who are in it for the right reasons – altruism, not cash. The best donors are the ones who have thought the process through; the ones who are comfortable with the idea of creating children who might one day turn up at their door. The ones like James with his packet of photos, who told me that a year ago, he had a middle-of-the-night moment – wondering, as a single man in his early forties, what he was doing with his life. “I thought there are probably plenty of people who have met the person of their dreams, but for some reason they can’t have children,” he told me. “At least I can give someone that hope and that dream.”
Sam Gregory, the donor-conceived child, paused for a while when I asked him if he’d ever thought about donating sperm himself. “Strangely, I’ve never felt a strong urge to.” As he doesn’t have any medical information about his biological father, he thought he might not be allowed to anyway, and would be worried about passing on a hereditary illness he didn’t yet know about. All he knows about his donor is contained on a single sheet of paper – one sparse paragraph, which he emailed me after we spoke:
3rd year medical student
Intentions: country GP? Healthcare of the elderly (liked geriatrics)
Interests: Travel, sport (football and rugby), music, literature, theatre.
Published in The Guardian