Britain has a sperm shortage. In fact, "shortage" doesn't do the situation justice – it's been announced this week that, a year after opening, the National Sperm Bank has had a grand total of only nine donors. That's enough to help 90 families, but it's still a pretty miserable effort from our menfolk. So what can we do about it?
Well, firstly Britain doesn't have a sperm shortage. Britain has lots of sperm. We produce billions upon billions of the little underachievers every day. If anything, we have too much sperm. We have so much sperm that, if we grew it all to maturity, we'd have a trillion-strong army of Brits conquering not just this world but a large portion of the galaxy.
What we have is a delivery problem. Instead of marching across northern France or waiting patiently in a sperm bank test tube for the cold pipette of destiny, Britain's sperm are stuck in balled up tissues, dissolving in laundry detergent, or being slaughtered by the million in the surprisingly hostile environment that is a woman's vagina.
So why is something so easy to make and so readily thrown away so hard to get hold of? Simple: donating sperm is ridiculously hard to do.
You probably have an idea about sperm donation from your favourite sitcom. Giving sperm is a scene we've seen on TV about a billion times, always played for laughs. Guy walks into a clinic. Guy shuffles awkwardly in front of the attractive woman at reception and is directed to a small room filled with dirty magazines. Nature takes its course, he comes out with a little pot of goo and a doctor tells him how many swimmers he's got.
It turns out it's nothing like that. Not even close. While it's certainly not as hard as donating eggs (a topic for a whole other post), donating sperm is so awkward and disruptive for such a limited chance of success that it's amazing the National Sperm Bank managed to get nine whole men to take part.
Let's assume you're a healthy male between 18 and 41. You then have to attend a clinic to pass an initial assessment and test. Since there are very few clinics around, and they tend to be in say, the centre of cities, you probably have an irritating and expensive commute to deal with. You fill in a questionnaire and provide a sample... oh, and did you remember to abstain from alcohol, sex or masturbation for the last 3 days?
The lab assesses your semen for sperm count, sperm motility and sperm shape, and carries out a test freeze to see if your wannabe babies are hardy enough to survive a stint on ice. Forty-eight hours later, you get the results back. Bang, 90 percent of you just failed.
The failures are the lucky ones. Assuming you pass, the clinic will take more of your precious bodily fluids – blood and urine this time – to test for any infectious or genetic diseases. Get through that and after two commutes to a clinic, several hours of your time and a couple of train fares, you're rewarded with the princely sum of £35, and the opportunity to begin the donation process itself.
Donating isn't just a case of turning up and making a deposit – getting an actual woman pregnant would be easier. You now have to turn up to the clinic twice a week, every week for three to six months. I live in Maidenhead, so for me that would work out at somewhere between £400 and £750 in train fares – to be paid for out of my £35 – and several hours per week of my time.
And before each of those visits, you need to abstain from any kind of sex or masturbation for three days. That leaves a narrow window of about 24 hours per week in which to conduct your entire sex life... for up to half a year.
So, that's what being a sperm donor means. Applying for a process you're 90 percent likely to be rejected from, so you can spend a large amount of your own time, energy and money, and cripple your own sex life for half a year, in the vague hope that at the end of it you might get someone you'll never meet pregnant.
All of these restrictions and demands can be easily justified. Clinics do need a lot of samples to be sure of getting a good batch. Abstaining from sex does help produce better quality sperm. Screening out diseases also makes sense if you can.
The problem is, while nine donors at the National Sperm Bank have met this gold standard, dozens – perhaps hundreds – of people they can't help are turning to the internet and social media to donate sperm privately. Sites with subtle names like "Donor Daddy" and "Tadpole Town" have sprung up, circumventing the professionals and satisfying demand directly. Only last month, the Mail reported on a lesbian couple who approached a man advertising his services on Facebook. The man in question, Kenzie Kilpatrick, has apparently helped nine women to conceive. That's the equivalent of one birth for every donor in the National Sperm Bank.
But these "services" are totally unregulated. There's no guarantee as to what you're getting or who you're dealing with, or what the quality of the sperm is likely to be. Of course it could be argued that the same is true for most non-donor pregnancies, but the potential for abuse is huge. The Mirror reported in 2013 on the case of a sperm donor professor who'd fathered 49 children, but was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault after complaints by a number of mothers.
Which raises a question – if the result of restrictions on sperm donation is just that people ignore them and go elsewhere, are they really doing anything for public health or safety? Would it be better to make the process easier and bring more people into contact with professionals, rather than continuing to run a system that most people simply bypass? I don't know, but people seem to be making up their own minds.