A year after it was established, Britain’s national sperm bank has admitted it has only nine registered donors – prompting its boss to urge men to prove their manhood by donating sperm.
Laura Witjens, the chief executive, says the sperm bank will launch a drive to recruit new donors later in September, inspired by the success of Denmark’s booming sperm banks which market themselves by appealing to male vanity.
“If I advertised saying ‘Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are’, then I would get hundreds of donors,” she said. “That’s the way the Danish do it. They proudly say, this is the Viking invasion, exports from Denmark are beer, lego and sperm. It’s a source of pride.”
The UK’s national sperm bank, funded with a one off award of £77,000, was set up a year ago as a partnership between the National Gamete Donation Trust and Birmingham Women’s hospital, to counter a serious shortage in sperm donors in the UK.
In the 2013 research, the HFEA found imported sperm has steadily increased year-on-year to meet the rise in demand and formed almost a third of new registrations, mostly from the USA, followed by Denmark.
Witjens said the “superman” theme to be used by her promotional campaign had a serious message – donors must ideally have exceptionally strong sperm in order for it to have the best chance of surviving the freezing and thawing process. That is one of the reason the clinic has so few on its books after almost a year.
“If 100 guys enquire, 10 will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys,” she said. Getting an approved donor on the books requires a man to come to the clinic twice a week for up to four months, refraining from sex or masturbation for two days before each visit and then be tested again after six months.
Scarcity in demand does not stop families being demanding, Witjens added. “We get asked for six-foot tall donors, when the average height is 5ft 7in in Britain, so you are effectively ruling out 90% of the donors. And they all want doctors or barristers, but the reality is the majority of those professionals have not got time. So you actually get young guys with flexible jobs.”
Donors receive just £35 per session but Witjens said better advertising was key, not giving donors more money: “We might get more donors if we paid £50 or £100 per donation. But money corrupts. If you feel you can make £200 a week for four months, you might hide things about your health.”
Witjens said the details of the donor marketing campaign had not yet been finalised and that probably it would not be quite as brash as she would like. She said she would ideally like to use pictures of real men on her advertising material, but the proposed picture on the sperm bank’s leaflets is a cartoon superhero.
Nevertheless, the chief executive said she was resisting being quite as forthright as the Danish and some other European sperm banks because of her concern for children who are donor-conceived, who might find it upsetting if a campaign was linked to male pride rather than altruism. “Does that make it more complicated? Hell yes.”
After the initial campaign, a November advert is planned, asking men to consider giving an “alternative Christmas gift”.
More advertising will follow after the bank starts shipping its first batches of sperm to clinics nationwide from January 2016. Witjens said the income from that sperm would provide a chance to further increase advertising, Witjens said. “We want to print hundreds of thousands of leaflets. We can certainly envisage a billboard in the future, though the posters need to be in places where people can donate to a clinic, otherwise they can’t act.” Because of the clinic’s base in Birmingham, advertising will initially focus on the Midlands.
Witjens said she was keen to “kick the foreign banks out of business” because the UK system was far kinder to the donor-conceived, as it limited the number of families one donor can create. “We can stop people having to go to Denmark where donors might have 150-200 offspring. Then it’s always a very real fear for the donor-conceived, running into a half-brother or sister.”
Although there are only nine donors on the books on the UK bank’s first anniversary, Witjens said that should be put in perspective. “If we had nine donors, we could technically create 90 families, who otherwise would be forced to go elsewhere. I want to get to a stage where there is an abundance of donors, so no woman ever feels she has to go on Gumtree to get sperm. We can get there, we can have enough in three to five years. We just need the push.”