Jessica McCallin has already chosen a name for her unborn daughter. She will be called Freya, after the Norse goddess of fertility. ‘Freya is one of my favourite girls’ names,’ she says. ‘I didn’t know the meaning but, when I found out, I knew straight away that would be her name. It’s perfect.’
It’s somewhat fitting, too. Because Freya’s father is a 6ft Dane in his 20s, with greeny-blue eyes and blond hair. But beyond those few physical characteristics, neither Jessica nor Freya will know any more.
This is because last June, Jessica, 36, flew to Copenhagen and was artificially inseminated with the sperm of an anonymous Danish donor — and more and more British women are doing exactly the same thing.
Last year, about 500 to 1,000 British women were treated in Denmark, resulting in between 100 to 200 pregnancies. ‘It was an incredibly easy process,’ recalls Jessica, who is single. ‘After a few months of monitoring my cycle, I booked a flight to coincide with the time I ovulated.
‘I’d found out about the Danish sperm bank through a friend. It occupied a few rooms in a tasteful period building in the centre of Copenhagen.
‘The nurse put me at ease. I didn’t feel a thing as she carried out the procedure, and it was over within minutes. Then, half an hour later, I was back strolling round the streets of Copenhagen. I felt very comfortable about what I had just done.’ So why did Jessica go to Denmark rather than use a British sperm donor?
The head of the world’s biggest sperm bank, one of 15 private clinics in Denmark, says the number of women travelling to the country for treatment has soared.
Cryos International, based in Aarhus, was set up in 1987, has 427 donors on its books and supplies sperm to 65 countries. Half of all women who have treatment in Denmark have come from abroad.
‘We have a lot more donors than in the UK where there is a real shortage, thanks to the laws being changed on anonymity,’ says Ole Schou, its managing director and founder. ‘Treatment is also up to ten times cheaper in Denmark, even with the travel costs thanks to low-cost airlines.’
Also, in the UK, rules state that a single donor can produce a maximum of ten pregnancies and subsequent children for those families, while in Denmark a donor can be used for 25 pregnancies.
Mr Schou believes the compensation scheme in the UK is also complicated and puts off donors. Presently, centres may only pay donors their ‘reasonable expenses’.
And in April 2005, anonymity for donors in the UK was removed, meaning donor-conceived children can now find out the identity of their father when they turn 18.
‘Before that, there were about 2,000 donors in the UK but that number has fallen dramatically,’ says Mr Schou. Dr Gillian Lockwood, medical director of Midland Fertility Services, a private clinic in Aldridge, near Walsall, says: Donors have gone down and demand has gone up. The same number of donors are registering, but a significant proportion are now creating a single pregnancy for someone they know.’
There has also been a rise in same-sex couples having children. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority insists that the number of donors has barely altered since 2005, but there seems to be an acknowledgment that the shortage of sperm and egg donors has reached crisis point. In January, it launched a three-month public consultation to explore how to improve the situation.
Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, says: ‘In some areas of the country, the wait for a sperm donor can be as long as two years, and there is no choice of donors to pick from; you have to take what you’re offered.’
Professor Lorraine Culley, of De Montfort University in Leicester, studied 41 cases of women going abroad in a report about to be published by the Economic and Social Research Council.
‘The main drive for them was the shortage of donors in the UK combined with the cost of treatment here,’ she says. ‘Funding cuts in primary care trusts are also having an impact, with some suspending IVF treatment.’ Denmark — population just 5.5 million in contrast to Britain’s 60 million — is widely accepted to be the ‘sperm capital’ of Europe.
‘I had heard stories here of long waiting lists with single women being a low priority,’ she explains. ‘In Denmark it is straightforward. There is no queue, it doesn’t matter if you’re a single woman and you can go on to have another child by the same donor. ‘You are also able to choose the characteristics of the donor. ‘I wanted my child to look as much like me as possible. Lots of my family are tall, broad and fair, and we come from the North of England and Celtic regions conquered by Norsemen, so we probably have Scandinavian blood. The Viking aspect appealed to me.’
The idea of having a Scandinavian bloodline is appealing to an increasing number of British women who, faced with a shortage of donors in the UK and a wait of up to two years in some areas of the country, are choosing to go to Denmark for artificial insemination. One clinic’s catchphrase is: ‘Congratulations, it’s a Viking!’
Jessica paid £460 for the treatment at Stork Klinik, set up by midwife Nina Stork in 1991 specifically for single women and lesbians. She also spent £200 on flights, accommodation and meals during her time in Copenhagen. She had to be cleared for sexually transmitted diseases before the clinic would agree to treat her, and underwent an hour-long phone interview with a nurse to discuss her motivation for having a child.
A 60-minute chat, not even conducted in person, might seem paltry considering the magnitude of the exchange. But, lest we forget, the Stork Klinik is a business: it’s not in its interest to put people off with probing questions. The more sperm the clinic sells, the more money it makes.
Jessica, a journalist, who lives alone in a one-bedroom flat in Denmark Hill, South London, fell pregnant on that first attempt, and her daughter is due this month. Years of research, discussions with family and friends and soul-searching have brought her to this point. And Jessica, who has a brother and three sisters, feels confident she has made the right choice for her.
‘I don’t have a single regret. I have loved being pregnant and I am looking forward to meeting my daughter. ‘In my early to mid-20s, I knew I wanted children. By my late 20s, I was in a relationship and I thought I would get married and have them the usual way. But the relationship didn’t work out. It would have been nice to have met someone to share my life with, but it hasn’t happened.
‘Some of my friends have rushed into having children with a man they weren’t sure about, and things haven’t worked out. I wouldn’t want to do that. ‘I always saw 40 as my fertility cut-off point. But when I turned 35, I read a raft of articles about a woman’s fertility dropping sharply from 35. ‘There was no major desperation that gripped me. It was a growing feeling that I knew I wanted a child. ‘One of my younger sisters has been trying for a child for two years and I felt I needed to start trying earlier rather than later, in case I had fertility problems.
‘Some time back, a gay friend offered to be a donor, but I decided against it because I thought it may cause complications. So, after years of thinking about it, the idea of going to Denmark just felt right.’ In Denmark, the rules on sperm donation are more flexible than the UK. Donors can choose to be identifiable or anonymous, with 80 per cent choosing to remain secret.
Jessica decided to pick an anonymous donor. ‘The anonymity issue was the one thing that concerned me,’ she says. ‘I read a lot of psychological research papers for donor-conceived people. The constant theme which caused distress was being lied to, or having their feelings denied.
‘Most research says the best approach is to be honest from when your child asks about who their dad is. I don’t know what I’ll say, but I’ll find a form of words.
‘And I’m planning to set up an official group so Freya gets to meet as many children like her as possible. The clinic also holds an annual party for children born through them, which I plan to take her along to as she grows up. These days, the definition of family is so very different from previous generations. One in two marriages end in divorce, and there are more gay families and families with stepchildren.
‘If I meet someone and I fall in love then so be it, but I am not concerned about being a single parent,’ says Jessica. Her parents, John and Margaret, a former child psychologist, are supportive. The retired couple, both 64, are even buying a house near Jessica so they can be hands-on grandparents. ‘My parents have two grandchildren so far and they are desperate for more,’ she says. And would she like to have another child? ‘I have been thinking about it more and more. I’ll see how things go. But if I did, I would use the same sperm donor again as it makes sense for Freya to have a sibling exactly like her.’
Article: 14th March 2010 www.dailymail.co.uk
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