BBC Radio 4, Monday 22 June 2015
Presented by Kate Brian
Banking on Birmingham: The National Sperm Bank was a half-hour documentary on BBC Radio 4 that looked at the opening of a new national British sperm bank in Birmingham.
The programme opened with footage of Laura Witjens, chief executive of the National Gamete Donation Trust and head of the new National Sperm Bank, trying to persuade young, male shoppers to think about sperm donation. So far, so interesting. However, as the show meandered through the trials and tribulations of the sperm bank's opening and operation, it unfortunately lost any real sense of what it was trying to do.
Rather than edging forward the debate on the complex issues of sperm donation and assisted conception, the programme bizarrely came across as a clichéd promotion of Birmingham's great menfolk. A particular low point for me was when a historian was shoehorned into the discussion to talk about Birmingham's manufacturing past. Following his observations on Birmingham's current manufacturing businesses (nothing to do with sperm donation) he ended up saying, presumably in response to a contrived question, that in modern times Birmingham's men were being asked to manufacture 'something rather different'.
There were plenty of clichéd stereotypes about Laura, too. Described as 'striking, tall, blonde and Dutch' and not the kind of person you would expect to give out promotional sperm key rings on the street (who is?), the programme presented her as a slightly strange combination of flirt – using her blonde, Dutch ways to get men to talk to her while she 'sells' sperm donation – and altruistic saint, who has herself donated an egg and who will do anything to help others conceive.
Sperm donation – the programme reiterates time and again – is medical, important and a long-term commitment, and definitely nothing to do with (shock, horror!) men having to think sexy thoughts in order to 'produce' their sample. This meant that many of the real questions that came to my mind, and which were raised by potential donors during the programme, were left unanswered.
I assume the programme was meant to be some sort of promotion for the national sperm bank project – we never heard from anyone who did not, at least hesitantly, support it – but in this respect it failed. Instead it had the effect of making me (I am sure unfairly) get annoyed with Laura, and I failed to see the sense of a national sperm bank or its the location of Birmingham. I was almost relieved to hear how badly the project was doing – they needed to secure 18 regular donors by the end of the first year to make the sperm bank sustainable. After six months they had only managed five regular donors, although this was apparently 'five times as many as normal'.
A better approach for the programme might have been to take a longer format or consider more specific issues. What about donations from ethnic-minority men? Surely London would be better in terms of getting the biggest and most diverse ethnic spread? Alternatively, maybe a 'business-analysis' approach might have enabled better consideration of the reasons why sperm donation is an unpopular 'brand', and what might be done about it. Is it because of some stereotyped link to sex, general smuttiness and the idea of fathering hundreds of children, or is there something more complicated going on? This approach might also have enabled the programme makers to dig deeper into the question of why a national sperm bank is even necessary.
The answer given by Laura is because it will be a national resource enabling people from across the country to apply for sperm (for a price, of course, albeit never mentioned) rather than having to get it from a private clinic, tying you to treatment there. That sounded interesting, but we never heard more about this alleged problem of 'exclusive' sperm, except to hear that a private London clinic is now offering a national service. Also, there was much discussion about the fact that about one-third of all sperm is 'foreign' (coming from the USA or Denmark) and 'people would prefer it from Britain'. Really? Are infertile couples really that patriotic, nationalistic and concerned about immigration that they really want sperm to be local? A discussion with someone who'd had difficulty obtaining sperm or felt forced to obtain it from abroad might have been more enlightening.
While the programme did have its interesting moments, it was ultimately unchallenging and disappointing. I recommend a listen if you are looking for a general discussion about sperm donation, Birmingham or for something inoffensive and neutral to listen to as you wash the dishes. But if you want something meaty to challenge ideas and stimulate new ones, I suggest you look (or listen) elsewhere.