The British Sperm Crisis

Not enough British men are depositing their loads in sperm banks, so we asked London men why so many of their countrymen are reluctant to give up their seed.

by Gareth May
Oct 20 2014, 6:35pm

Image via Pixabay user saulhm

If you’ve ever seen the movie Road Trip, you’d be forgiven for thinking sperm donation is as simple as cracking one off into a plastic cup, a glorified power wank at best, a brief and rather sordid love affair between man and Tupperware at worst. There is, of course, a little more to it than that. There has to be, right? After all, one person’s clinical deposit is another’s metaphorical stork, and one man's tossed-off semen is a baby to prospective parents even now waiting in an empty nursery for the phone to ring.

According to a recent report in the Guardian, that phone isn’t going to ring for a while—particularly if you’re waiting for a vial of semen from a Brit. The UK's sperm banks are in a sorry state. Donor records began in 1992, and that year a grand total of 375 guys made a contribution. Not a great starting point, and it doesn’t get much better. Just over ten years later, in 2004—on the eve of the 2005 law change marking the end of anonymous donations—that number dropped to 239.

Figures have picked up since, with the 2010 records (the latest available) revealing a sharp improvement—up to 480 new donors—but supplies are still struggling to keep up with demand. One in four sperm donations are now being supplied from abroad. So what’s the hoodoo surrounding donation? We spoke to men of varying ages across London in an attempt to get some insight into why so many are reluctant to give up their seed.

As it turns out, the portrait of the reluctant British sperm donor is pretty clear. We asked: "What is the main incentive for giving sperm?" As 22-year-old Essex boy George put it, “You get paid, innit.” He wasn’t alone. Cash was the main incentive given by around 80 percent of the 50 men polled. The other two? "Compassion" and "helping other people." Good lads.  

When we asked men—who were, it has to be said, not exactly falling over themselves to answer questions from someone whose opening gambit was, “Can I talk to you about sperm?”—what their main fears surrounding sperm donation are, answers ranged from religion (“There’s a lot of Muslims round here—don’t think they’re allowed to, are they?” said Tommy, a 35-year-old artist) to fears of missing out on the upbringing of their children (as 42-year-old father of two Glen from Kent put it: “You wouldn’t be able to watch your kids grow up, and that’s the fun bit.").

There were also fears surrounding infertility (“No one wants to find out they’re firing blanks,” Tommy added) and the ignominy of the whole process. “I don’t want to bust my load into a little cup,” said 34-year-old estate agent Richard, summing up the general thought process among those polled. Slightly less representative was 22-year-old student Oliver, who was worried that his sperm "might be experimented on.”

There were two overriding fears surrounding sperm donation that quickly became apparent in the men we spoke to. Firstly, the lack of anonymity—the worry is that one day, 18 years from now, the fruit of their loins would return to demand an explanation and a PlayStation 6. Secondly, a fear that came from a lack of awareness of the need for sperm donation, what it entails, and and who it is for. Why give if you don't know why, or how, you'd be giving it? As Rory, a 27-year-old teacher from Redbridge, said: “It’s not in the public domain in the UK. I guess we’re more focused on female fertility than male, like IVF and stuff.”

Of the 50 men we spoke to, no one was up for donating, which is significant in itself. “The way we are in England—it’s a taboo subject,” said one man we asked, holding his little son’s hand. 

I spoke with forensic and health psychologist Robert J. Edelmann to see what other reasons men might have for not donating sperm. He told me the small sample we'd collected pretty much matched up with the general reasons men are reluctant to wank into a jar to complete a family picture for someone, somewhere in the world.

"The most frequently cited reason for sperm donation is altruism,” said Edelmann. “Although, many would not donate if payment was not forthcoming. Some sperm donors report being curious about their own fertility, and some also believe that they are contributing what they regarded as their own good genes to other couples.”

Research also suggests less willingness to donate if anonymity is removed, he explained, saying that the “fear of [potential] future financial and other demands” prevail, as well as “concerns that a future partner may not welcome the idea of another child.”

Sperm under the microscope. Image via Wikimedia Commons

“I think people in our society have difficulty in talking about sperm donation without conjuring up endless double entendres,” said Dr. Allan Pacey of the British Fertility Society. “I think we are still holding onto our negative Victorian values about sex and masturbation, and that there is a popular belief that women who donate eggs are heroes because they have to undergo a medical procedure, whereas men who donate sperm have to undergo a sexual act and are in some ways seen as smutty by many people. That debilitates the debate.”

Sperm donation isn’t just a quick, five-knuckle shuffle, though. As I learned from an informal chat with a representative from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), for every 100 men who start the process of being assessed as a sperm donor, around four are accepted, and that’s largely due to sperm quality (it doesn’t freeze very well) and medical history.

All this suggests that more needs to be done by the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT), a government-funded body set up to promote egg and sperm donation in the UK. The NGDT’s tactics to get men to donate (such as 2007's “Give a Toss” campaign) do seem to cater to the lowest common dominator. In fact, some of the practices to promote donations, cited in the Guardian, are both crass and patronizing. For instance, I doubt any man is going to donate sperm because he wants to feel "special." Men are capable of empathy and that altruism, if portrayed in the right way, is reason enough.

Empathetic or not, the issue of identifiability looms large. Ole Schou of Cryos International in Demark, the world’s biggest sperm bank, told me that the UK’s problems can be solved in one move: offering anonymity to donors, as is the norm in Denmark.

"The most important reason men don’t donate in the UK is because only very few men want to be identifiable," he said. "Anonymity has been introduced for good reason—for ethical reasons, in order to protect the child’s interest. But the problem is that nobody takes responsibility for the real outcome and the consequences of a lack of identifiable donation."

However, it doesn’t stop there. According to Schou, British bureaucracy also gets in the way. "In UK, the legislation is very strict. The HFEA is a burden," he said. "There’s additional screening requirements, additional documents required and, until now, no Laura Witjens [chair of the National Gamete Donation Trust and, as it says on her Twitter bio, "cage rattler and change maker in egg and sperm donation"]. I really admire Laura Witjens. She has all the skills and motivations to make it a success, but I’m afraid that it's not possible to attract enough donors under British laws and restrictions."

Human sperm cells (spermatozoa) magnified 3,140 times. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Schou says that the only way forward is to reintroduce anonymous donation, citing nine other countries with a similar problem. Sweden, The Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Finland all suffered at least 85 percent of all donors withdrawing their sperm after laws banning anonymous donation were introduced.

The result, Schou said, is twofold. Firstly, a "gray market" emerges, with infertile couples, single women, and lesbian couples traveling to Denmark for insemination from sperm held at Cryos, in order to get around UK laws. Secondly, something Schou calls "cross-border reproductive care," which Denmark also monopolizes, have become the leading sperm producers on Earth. They are, in effect, the testes of the world, exporting a whopping 90 percent of their "production." Much of it makes it to British shores, as illustrated by the "Invasion of the Viking Babies" headlines earlier this year.

Schou believes the donor’s autonomy—the ability to choose either anonymity or identifiability—is the main reason Denmark i thse world leader in sperm donation. He also cites lesser limitations on offspring (in the UK, one man’s sperm can only be used to provide for ten families—in Demark that figure is 25), less waiting times, more consumer selection (here we have what Allan Pacey calls a failure to "provide for all ethnic combinations") and the perhaps far-fetched notion that Danes are just more altruistic and "keen to help each other."

I don’t believe that the Danes are more altruistic than Britons. I’d suggest the reality of fathering a child who may one day track you down will always outweigh the altruistic act of donation, regardless of nationality. But I also think more could be done to ensure a greater social value is attributed to sperm donation aside from a monetary kickback.

If men could be shown that someone, somewhere, just like them requires sperm in order to have a family, I believe more would, at the very least, engage with the idea of donation. Instead, it’s the old ideas of sperm donation that linger. And when put into context with a debate such as this, it all seems like such a waste.

Follow Gareth May on Twitter.