Selecting a potential father for your children, it turns out, is not unlike shopping online.
“A lot of our clients typically want their donor to be at least 180cm [5ft 11in] tall and have blue eyes,” says Peter Bower, director of Nordic Cryobank, who is showing me his database of sperm donors.
Customers narrow their computer search to eliminate men who are under or over a certain weight in kilos.
They can click on a candidate’s profile and, for a fee, download an audio interview and a photograph of him as a baby.
Staff also provide a few sentences giving their impression of donors–a physical description or an illuminating detail, Mr Bower says, such as “that he enjoys chatting in the lab after he has donated, dresses nicely or is very interested in a particular sort of music”.
But crucially, none of the information will identify an individual, unless he has chosen to be traceable.
In Denmark, sperm donation does not have to come with a name and telephone number–unlike in Britain and in a fast-increasing number of other European countries.
That has made Denmark something of a Mecca for foreign women who want to conceive by artificial insemination, because it has no shortage of officially screened and tested semen.
Danish clinics which provide insemination (often for a fraction of the price of similar treatment in the UK) have three main types of customer: lesbian couples, heterosexual couples and single women. It is the final category which is growing–by far–the fastest.
Peter Bower says single British women are “at the forefront” in choosing this service, but foreign uptake in general is booming. According to the latest figures from the Danish Department of Health, in 2008 2,694 non-Danish women came to Aarhus and Copenhagen for insemination, while in 2010 that number leapt to 4,665.
Samples are delivered from the sperm bank to the aptly named Stork Klinik, across Copenhagen, in the industry’s latest gimmick; a bicycle in the shape of a single sperm cell. Deep-frozen in liquid nitrogen, the samples are stored in the spherical head of the sperm, just in front of the handlebars.
Lilian Joergensen is the nurse in charge at the clinic, where women come to be inseminated.
The premises are the epitome of Scandinavian design chic.
“We want the women to feel like queens,” she says, pointing to a small wooden crown on the wall above the bed where the insemination is done.
“We hope to create a tranquil atmosphere that will give people a good memory of the place where their baby’s story began. Some days we might have 17 inseminations but it’s very important to have the same time and attention for every woman.
“We hear her history, her problems, take her mood into account. She must not be a number in a system. She comes here, uses this room as her own, brings a friend, brings candles, whatever she wants.”
In their home in New Malden in south London, Kellie Lombard and her partner bear witness to the success of the Danish approach.
Ms Lombard had several expensive but unsuccessful attempts to conceive by sperm donor in Britain and one in South Africa.
She and her partner found out about the Danish option on the internet and now have a family consisting of two mothers, identical twin boys who are nearly five months old, and a girl of two, all fathered by the same anonymous Danish man.
Ms Lombard jokes about the criteria on which their choice of father was based.
“We were originally looking for David Beckham,” she says, “but we also wanted someone with lots of academic qualifications.”
In fact, they know a surprising amount about the man who is their children’s biological father: his age, weight, the fact that he is a medical student, and what he looks like.
Most intriguingly for them, they know what he sounds like as an audio recording was available of him explaining why he was donating–his principal motivation was money–and they thought he sounded like a nice person.
They have now bought up the full legal UK allocation of his sperm. Only a very small number of donations per man are allowed in each country, to limit the chances of half-siblings unknowingly pairing in future.
Ms Lombard’s family is an unusual one, she admits. When she takes her extremely Scandinavian-looking daughter to the park, people often ask whether her “daddy” is very tall. Ms Lombard just replies that he is–6ft 4in, in fact.
If this new European trend in insemination continues, Nordic genes could become more widespread than many would suspect.
Ellen Otzen, BBC News, December 23, 2009
Ten-month old Oscar burps and babbles–like any healthy baby. But Oscar’s origins are unusual.
His father is an anonymous Danish sperm donor and if it had not been for a recent law change in Denmark, Oscar would not be here at all.
For years his mother Abby, a London lawyer who does not want to use her real name, wanted to have a child of her own.
But when she found herself still single at 41, she decided to try for insemination with donor sperm.
After three unsuccessful attempts at her local London hospital, she was told there was no more available sperm left.
Abby eventually contacted a fertility clinic in Denmark.
Following IVF treatment there, she had a positive pregnancy test. She describes Oscar as her “miracle baby”.
A new act from the UK’s fertility watchdog–the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)–came into force this month.
It allows people who were conceived with donor sperm to identify any half-siblings they might have.
But it does not address what has been described as the most pressing issue–the shortage of donor sperm in the UK.
Abby is not the only woman who has conceived with donor sperm from outside the UK.
With more and more women deciding to have children on their own, hundreds of British women are now travelling abroad for insemination.
Denmark, as home to the world’s biggest sperm bank, is a popular destination.
The Danish spermbank Cryos exports sperm to 60 countries around the world. Its slogan is “Congratulations, it’s a Viking”.
Unlike the UK, it allows donors to be anonymous as well as paying them for their donations.
Since 2005 men in Britain have not been allowed to donate sperm anonymously, and demand in the UK now outstrips supply.
While the UK has ended the right to anonymity of donors, the Danes have been liberalising.
In 2007 it it became legal for Danish doctors to perform IVF on single women using sperm from anonymous donors.
No waiting lists
Insemination has become good business for Danish fertility clinics.
DanFert clinic in Copenhagen is now treating around 50 British women each year–in 2007 it saw only 20.
And Copenhagen’s Vita Nova clinic has seen a 40% increase in the number of British women coming there each year since the clinic opened in 2005.
“In many of Denmark’s neighbouring countries they have changed the laws so that donors can no longer be anonymous,” said Sophie Bugge, head midwife at Vita Nova.
“This change in the law makes the waiting list for donor semen a lot longer.
“Women who have decided to have a child don’t feel that they can wait two years, if there is a two-year waiting list.
“That is the most common reason to choose treatment in another country.”
As well as the UK, the clinic also treats women from Germany, Sweden, Norway and Italy–a couple of women have travelled all the way from Uganda and Australia for treatment.
For Abby in London, travelling out of her own country for the insemination was a difficult experience.
“It does seem ludicrous that one has to travel so far to have a child when the law is framed in a way that should allow it to happen here,” she said.
It is clear that the changing of the law has diminished the number of men who are prepared to volunteer to be donors her.
The casual donor–the student who did it for his beer money in the 1970s and 80s, doesn’t exist any more,” she said.
But that casual donor does still exist in Denmark.
Jonas, a 24-year-old science student, has been a sperm donor for 18 months.
He does it for the money and to get a health check a couple of times a year.
Would he carry on donating sperm if he could no longer be anonymous?
“Probably not, because I don’t want anything to do with the children that grow up and want to find their father,” he said.
He receives between 300 and 1000 Danish kroner ($60-$200) for each donation, depending on the quality of the sperm.
Meanwhile, the Cryos sperm bank is thriving.
In 2007 it opened a franchise in the US.
Last year, another franchise followed in India.
“Because of the recession, we are actually seeing a rise in the number of sperm donors coming to us right now,” said Cryos CEO Ole Schou.
In Britain, HFEA has recently said that a longstanding ban on paying sperm donors should be reconsidered to address the donor shortage.
But until the law changes, British women will have to keep travelling to places like Denmark for help in conceiving a baby.