With male fertility rates falling for the past 60 years, Stylist’s Alexandra Jones went to meet Ole Schou, the man who runs the world’s largest sperm bank
Sitting opposite me is a charming 22-year-old man, blonde with startling blue eyes, talking about the future. “I’d be happy to have loads of children,” he tells me earnestly. “I mean, look at Genghis Khan. He had, what? 20,000?” I give him an incredulous look. “Not that I think I’m Genghis Khan,” he adds quickly.
Despite what it sounds like, I’m not on a spectacularly intense first date. I’m actually at the world’s largest sperm bank – Cryos, in Denmark – chatting to Noah*, a student and repeat sperm donor. Through its website, Cryos supplies sperm to women all over the world and has been responsible for the births of 30,000 babies in the last 25 years. It’s a grey Monday morning yet the clinic is steadily busy; Noah has just popped in on his way to the gym to make a deposit. He is one of 500 men who will wander in over the course of a week – I count three or four every hour, though it gets busier after lunch.
Given that last month it was revealed that the UK’s national sperm bank, set up in 2014, only has nine registered donors, it’s not hard to see why Cryos’s abundant supply and efficient system – you can have the sperm delivered to your home in a yellow aluminium box via UPS – is proving increasingly popular with UK women.
We perch on bar stools in the ‘donor area’, which looks like the brightly lit waiting room of a futuristic sexual health clinic – complete with plastic yucca plants, wall-mounted hand sanitizer and students in ripped jeans. It’s dominated on one side by a glass-front desk, behind which a team of lab technicians buzz between nitrogen vats, microscopes and centrifuges.
Away from the donor area, Cryos feels more like a tech start-up – the slick white office houses 63 finance, IT and sales staff, an apt reminder of the commerciality of its product. The only giveaways are the colourful canvases of pretty babies or giant photographs of sperm under the microscope.
Somewhat stereotypically, I’d expected the donors to all be strapping Viking types, but from what I see they’re mostly slight, bookish young men, like Noah, who wear New Balance trainers and a sport backpack.
Other than the chatter of the lab technicians, it’s quiet but the genial, easy-going atmosphere belies a serious business. According to Schou, the number of British buyers this year alone is “well into the thousands” and has increased by “over 100% within the last 12 months”. As a point of proof, he shows me a list of the British towns from which sperm orders have been placed overnight: there are more than 20, with orders from Glasgow, Manchester and even one from my own postcode in north London. For many childless women in the UK, it’s clear this is where they hope their dreams will come true.
For as little as €40 (or as much as €1,000, depending on if the sperm is from a non- Caucasian man – these donors are much more rare), you can buy a straw of cryogenically frozen sperm from the Cyros website (cryrosinternational.com), ready for home insemination or treatment at your chosen clinic. Just add it to your basket, click through to the checkout and it will be delivered in two days, complete with instructions and a link to an online ‘how to’ video.
Modelled on sites such as match.com, the Cyros site lets you filter donors by everything from eye colour to blood type. Choose a donor and, depending on their anonymity preferences, you could even hear a recording of their voice or see photos of them as a baby. Crucially though, Danish law allows donors to keep their anonymity, unlike in the UK where, to donate, a man must agree to be identifiable in the future so any offspring can contact him when they turn 18.
Browsing through the site, I’m struck by the very personal nature of many donor profiles. Everything is listed, from their parents’ careers to frank appraisals of their own bad qualities – “I lose interest in tasks quickly,” writes one.
“There isn’t one single type of man that all women go for,” 30-year-old lab technician Mette tells me as she places vials of semen in a smoking box of liquid nitrogen. “But sporty types do sell well.” Given that it’s one of the biggest decisions a woman is likely to make, selecting a donor, whose profile image is a picture of themself as a baby not an adult, proves difficult for many customers.
“So many people sent in celebrity requests we’ve added a lookalike field on each profile”
“Sometimes they call asking for help choosing between their top three,” explains 30-year-old sales and customer services assistant Sandra. “And often they ask if their chosen donor is good looking. I can’t answer either really – it’s all so subjective.”
“Generally people want a better looking, smarter version of themselves,” explains Schou. “Heterosexual or lesbian couples often send in pictures of one partner and ask us to match a donor to that person. Single women have sent us pictures of their fathers or brothers, asking us to find a similar looking donor. So many people sent in celebrity requests – from models to Bruce Willis – that we’ve now included a celebrity lookalike field on each profile.”
“We want it to be as natural a process as possible,” he adds. “In nature, the woman chooses who she will have a child with and often it isn’t based on looks. It is based on an instinct. We want to offer enough information for that instinct to kick in.”
Yet, however warm the atmosphere, there’s no escaping that this is an artificial environment. To the left of the white-washed waiting area, there are three small rooms with lights above the doors that glow red when they are occupied. These are the donor cabins, where the men masturbate. Each has a tasteful nude photograph on the wall and a less tasteful rack of porn mags, as well as a video screen and selection of porn videos, a sink and a wipe-clean bed.
“The first time I donated was problematic,” explains 25-year-old butcher Henrik. He’s been visiting once a week for the past six months after seeing a sponsored link on Facebook. “It’s not like at home. I was in a hot room, getting sweaty. Plus there’s a mirror on the wall. I just couldn’t turn myself on and I had to really concentrate.”
Sink or swim
Not that this puts the men off. Cryos currently has 460 registered donors and another 400 in quarantine [donations are kept for six months while a donor undergoes medical examinations before the sperm can be used], each is paid 500DK (about £50) per visit to cover ‘expenses’ – in the UK it’s £35.
Unlike in the UK where the mere mention of sperm donation is often met with sniggers and sidewards glances, Danes are such prolific donors that alongside beer and Lego, sperm has been wryly singled out by the media as one of their biggest exports, sparking claims of a ‘Viking Invasion’. It almost seems a matter of national pride; at the bus stop outside the unassuming redbrick Cryos building, I get talking to 30-year-old Victor and ask him why he thinks men are so willing to be donors.
“Danes donate because they are very altruistic,” he says. “And they have great Viking virility,” he laughs. Noah’s reasoning for becoming a donor is actually very sweet: “My sister was single and had a child using donor sperm. The child is such a happy addition to our family that I wanted to help people like her.”
Still, I point out, this might mean that in 18 years’ time, Noah could have scores, even hundreds, of offspring on his doorstep. “I would be happy to meet them,” he replies affably. For a donor, any children could be spread far and wide. Cryos exports to 80 countries – Germany is a frequent buyer, but while I’m here, I also see shipments bound for Romania, Italy and Uruguay.
But not all sperm is good sperm – even for the “Vikings”. In fact, only around 20% of samples pass the initial analysis, as the sperm has to have excellent motility – meaning that they are swimming quickly in a similar direction – to survive the freezing and thawing process.
“Lots of men get upset if their sperm is rejected,” explains lab technician Iben “But we only want the crème de la crème.” With around 100 litres of sperm stored in several large vats, Cryos can afford to be choosy. The lab technicians – almost all women – analyse the samples and apply a freezing agent to dry them out. The sperm is then sucked into straws and frozen in a vapour of liquid nitrogen before being stored in one of the vats at -196°C.
I peer through a microscope at a fresh sample. The sperm seem to be swimming randomly like tiny drunk tadpoles. “He might have had a heavy weekend,” says Iben. Noting that stress, alcohol and smoking can all affect motility. “We will probably only get two straws from this sample.”
Most men donate between 50 and 100 times, each time producing between three and eight straws of semen. The clinic recommends using two 0.5ml straws per insemination attempt, which is around 10 million sperm. One visit could, in theory, produce roughly eight children depending on how much of the sperm passes the initial analysis. “If the donor has been approved and accepted – which means we have done very expensive medical evaluations – they are an important asset for us,” says Schou. “We encourage them to come again and again.”
In the UK, it’s a different matter. UK law restricts the number of families who can use one donor’s sperm to 10. It is one of the reasons – along with added genetic checks and a ban on anonymous donors – leading to a lack of British donor sperm. Schou is vociferous in his disagreement with the UK’s stringent stance – he calls the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and the Human Tissue Authority (the government organisations tasked with setting the legislations) “interfering and bureaucratic”.
But there are powerfully emotive cases which have influenced a more restricted industry in the UK, as in Spain and Belgium. In 1998, British woman Jo Rose brought a case against the government arguing that having been born via an anonymous sperm donor she suffered with the same kind of “genealogical bewilderment” as someone who was adopted.
Born in 1972, she found out in her mid-20s that she is most likely the offspring of one of a small group of medical students who were repeated sperm donors and thought to have fathered up to 300 children each. She has spoken of the deeply “dehumanising” effect of not being allowed to access information about her genetic identity and her case successfully resulted in the law banning donor anonymity.
Reading the ‘thank you’ messages pinned to the staff room notice board from proud parents around the world reveals the heartache and emotion on the other side of the argument too. Often these children are desperately, gut-wrenchingly wanted. In fact a long-term study conducted by the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge found that donor children are on average well-adjusted and happy as their parents have struggled against the odds to have them.
When Schou talks about the people that Cryos has helped, his voice cracks and he becomes teary. “I am the proudest man when I see the emails. I understand the longing. I met my wife later in life and we thought that she could not have children. Happily, she fell pregnant and my son has been an amazing gift. She was 42,” he adds, matter-of factly. “But, you cannot discount your wife because she is too old.” Schou himself has never donated – “my sperm is not good enough” – but would be happy for his son to donate.
In the future, Cryos aims to replicate the natural mating process even more by making donors increasingly accessible to buyers. This might be by using Skype or face-to-face meetings. “We’re looking into putting sensors on a donor’s body so you could see how they move and behave,” explains Schou.
It’s a radical idea, one which further blurs the line between medical service and mating game. But if figures are anything to go by – Schou calls the rise of the single woman buyer the biggest transformation that the sperm industry has encountered in the last 25 years – could this be the way we find father material in the future?
THE SCIENCE OF SPERM
We agonise over our own all the time, but what really affects male fertility?
* According to the European Science Foundation, one in five men aged 18 to 25 is ‘subfertile’ – unable to conceive after a year. In fact, male fertility rates have been dropping for the past 60 years.
* A report published by Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic found that consumption of lycopene (an essential nutrient commonly found in red fruit and vegetables) improved the quality, mobility and volume of sperm dramatically, increasing sperm count by up to 70%.
* Research from Loma Linda University Medical School, California, found that vegetarian men have significantly reduced sperm counts, with only one third of their sperm found to be active compared to 60% of male meat eaters.
* For every one degree excess rise in temperature, sperm production can drop by as much as 40%. Nick Raine-Fenning, consultant gynaecologist at Nurture Fertility, Nottingham, says: “If a man is driving for most of the day, then sat with a computer in his lap for an hour and having hot baths every day, he’s raising that risk.”
* Studies reported in the journal Fertility And Sterility show that men who consumed 700 milligrams of vitamin C a day had 20% less sperm DNA damage (which can affect normal embryo development) than those who took in less of the vitamin.
* “Infrequent ejaculation is a contributing factor to infertility,” says Paul Serhal, male fertility consultant and medical director of the London-based Centre for Reproductive and Genetic Health. He adds: “I advise clients to ejaculate at least twice a week to clear out the sperm which has had its DNA fragmented.”
* According to guidelines by Guy’s and St Thomas’, being over- or underweight can severely affect male fertility.
* Boxers or briefs? This theory has yet to be proven but as briefs are tighter, they can raise testicle temperature above the level required for sperm production.
Images: Camera Press, Thinkstock