The land of our fathers

The Government is considering an end to anonymous sperm donation in the UK. Clare Rudebeck visits Denmark, the home of the world's largest sperm bank, to find out how this might mean big business for a thriving, if unusual, export industry
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The Independent Online

"We keep the sperm over here," says Ole Schou, pointing at what look like three beer-barrels in the corner of his open-plan office. What a disappointment for a girl. I'd come to see the largest sperm bank in the world, holding about 75,000 deposits of semen - enough to impregnate thousands of women. And here it was. The sperm, stored in sealed straws sitting in plastic pots, looked not so much like a towering monument to male virility as a large collection of pick-up-sticks.

Cryos, the sperm bank set up by Ole Schou in 1987, takes up only one floor in an unremarkable office block, opposite a pet supplies shop in Denmark's second city, Aarhus. From here, sperm is shipped to more than 35 countries across Europe, Africa, North and South America and Asia.

One of those countries is Britain. A severe shortage of donors at Glasgow Royal Infirmary forced the clinic there to start importing Cryos sperm in 1999. It is by no means the only British clinic running low on donors; earlier this year, couples attending Edinburgh Royal Infirmary were told that that they would have to use sperm from London at a cost of £75. Cryos has no such problems. True to its motto - "We keep the stork busy" - Cryos claims to have been responsible so far for a total of 6,000 pregnancies worldwide. One of its donors has been particularly diligent, fathering 101 children.

Sperm are, by nature, tenacious. The traditional journey to the egg involves swimming 100,000 times its own length. Even after being frozen for years, shipped across continents, thawed and inseminated, sperm still fulfil their role. As a result, globe-trotting sperm are now common. Britain imports sperm in bulk only from Cryos, but last year it exported sperm to individual women in 25 countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Ghana and Israel.

The idea for Cryos came to Ole Schou in a dream. Twenty years ago, when he was an economics student, he woke up in the middle of the night. "I still remember the picture in my head," says Schou, now 49. "It was of a lot of sperm in ice." Others might have shaken their heads and gone back to sleep, but not Schou. A few years later, while in Aarhus University's library, he remembered his vision. "I think my ears were a little bit red, but I asked the librarian for information about sperm," he says.

Despite having no scientific training, he became an expert in human fertility and began working towards opening his sperm bank. Today, Cryos is the largest sperm bank in the world, and is expanding to the United States. It has an outlet in Seattle, and hopes to set up shop in New York this summer. American couples can browse on Cryos's website through dozens of potential donors. They can find out about the donor's physical characteristics and educational background, as well as whether their hair was curly or straight as a child, what their favourite colour is and whether they ride a bicycle.

European couples know much less about the man whose sperm they will receive. They are given only basic physical details, but even that is often more information than the resulting children receive. In Britain, people conceived using donor sperm are allowed to know only whether they are related to their intended spouse. They are given no information about their biological fathers, let alone the option of identifying or contacting them.

That may soon change. In January, the Department of Health announced that it could see the case in principle for ending anonymous sperm donation. It sounded like a revolution, but the department backtracked at the last minute, announcing a further period of consultation. That is due to end later this month.

Schou opposes any erosion of donor anonymity. "If donors' anonymity were taken away, very few men would donate. If the donor were not allowed anonymity, the child would not exist." He says that only 12 per cent of his donors would be happy to be contacted by their offspring.

But the tide may be turning against him. There is no question of the anonymity of previous donors being revoked in Britain. However, the Department of Health is also in the process of setting up a pilot scheme for a voluntary register through which donors and their offspring can try to contact each other if they wish. This will open early next year - and will raise a host of issues. Supposing a donor-conceived individual did contact their biological father, would they like what they found? How would they respond if he was of a different nationality, or had dozens of other donor-conceived children around the world? And how would the donor respond to his children?

Aarhus University's library, a tall building standing at the roadside as you enter the town, was no doubt built as a monument to the town's academic prowess. Lately it has gained further significance: more than 80 per cent of Cryos's donors are students at the university. These men are paid £22 per donation and, with an average age of just 23, very few have started families of their own. One of them arrives to make a donation while I'm in Cryos's offices. Lau is 22 years old and hopes to become a teacher. Blond, tanned and athletic, he's exactly what sperm banks would like you to imagine when you think of a sperm donor.

He's been adding to Cryos's stocks for five months and comes in about twice a week. The donation room is across the corridor from the sperm storage tanks. Inside, there is a table with a few pornographic magazines on it and, above the couch, a Van Gogh print. On the other wall, there's a picture of a naked woman. "She was very hard to find," says Schou. "The picture had to be just right. She had to be naked, but not pornographic. I think she's wonderful; the kind of woman the donors will want to come back and see again."

Lau seems surprised when I ask him why he decided to become a sperm donor. "For the money. Doesn't everybody?" he says. "And, of course, I want to help childless couples as well." He says he doesn't think a great deal about the children that he's helping to create, and he wouldn't be happy if one came knocking on his door. However, he has put some thought into the possibility that he may eventually father dozens of children internationally. "Sometimes I think about the purpose of life," he says. "Surely it's to spread your genes around the world? Well, that's what I'm doing."

The issues thrown up by donor insemination go to the heart of who we are, as individuals and as a species. Is a child's real father the man who brings him or her up, or the man who provides the genes? Can you form a full identity without knowing your biological parents? Should couples be allowed to select any donor they please? Does that amount to selective breeding? What about the possibility of incest if a donor's offspring meet by chance, not knowing about their common parentage?

Schou thinks that the only true father is the social father. "Family history is a social phenomenon, in my opinion." He claims that "10 per cent of all children are not related to the man who they believe is their father". He is also not worried about the chance of involuntary incest. "The risk of having a child with health problems is only slightly higher if you marry a half-sibling," he says. "Incest is not a big problem from a scientific point of view."

At first Schou was very wary of entering the American marketplace, where couples demand photo-matching (one woman requested a Bruce Willis lookalike) and ever more detailed profiles. But he has changed his mind about that. "We were worried about positive eugenics," he says. "We've had the experience of Nazi Germany. But, in fact, I think that the American selection process is quite natural. When you choose your spouse, you don't just take the first person. There's a selection process. Couples are not trying to create a super-baby. It's a question of finding a donor who they feel comfortable with. And that's an individual choice. For example, I find women with ears that stick out very attractive. Others don't."

He has a point. But the idea that he is simply running a hi-tech version of Blind Date - where there are hundreds rather than three lovely lads to choose from and the screen never comes back - is misleading. These couples are paying for the donor's sperm. In real life you might not be able to persuade a David Beckham lookalike to father your children, but on Cryos's website you can have one for $200 (£120) plus shipping.

The sperm donation market is growing much faster than the legislation that regulates it. There is no international limit to the number of children that a donor can father - only wildly differing national limits. In Britain, a single donor can father 10 children. In Denmark, with one-tenth the population of the UK, it is 25. If there is a gap in the legislation, sperm soon starts wriggling through it.

Cryos delivers sperm to several countries where anonymous donation is illegal; for example, some countries in the Middle East. "It means that the doctor in that country is doing something illegal by using sperm from anonymous donors," Schou says. "But it is not illegal for us to deliver it. What the doctor does is not our problem." He does not think that this is unethical. "Laws and ethics are not always the same thing," he says.

He also supplies sperm to couples who live in countries where anonymous donation is banned and who have travelled abroad for treatment. Sweden is one such country; it banned anonymous donation in 1985. Schou claims that, as a result, there are so few donors in Sweden that many couples travel to clinics in Denmark and other European countries for treatment. Cryos claims to be responsible for more than 100 Swedish pregnancies a year, and Schou sees no problem with this "fertility tourism"; he is simply responding to demand. "If a clinic cannot help a couple, they will not accept being childless," he says. "They will find other solutions."

Schou predicts "anarchy" if anonymous sperm donation is banned in Britain. Desperate couples will either go underground - using unlicensed clinics - or go abroad, as Swedish couples have done. It is easy enough to scatter the straws of sperm in Cryos's tanks around the world. But, like a tricky game of pick-up-sticks, sorting out the mess afterwards may be a lot harder.