Seeding the future: On being a sperm donor in Johannesburg

The porn magazine had reached a status beyond crusty and now walked the line somewhere between mythic and hellish. Whole civilisations of potential life had stuck its pages together. The yellowing cover depicted a fat meat sword mid-stroke and it was sprawled on the table so brazenly I found it threatening. 

“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you.” The words of warning came from Androcryos’s chief executive, AW (pronounced “ah veer”) Loubser, a man who had been in the sperm bank business for longer than I have been alive. He needn’t have worried. Such tomes had lost much appeal since I became a man with an internet connection.

I was in the middle of a tour of Androcryos’s offices-cum-sperm bank-cum-laboratories-cum-fertility clinic-cum-come-booths — and we had just hit the latter. As AW showed me around I wrestled with an important question: Did I want to donate? 

Located on the ground floor of a building in Parktown, Johannesburg, Androcryos was something of a surprise. I had expected something a little more seedy, like a basement lined with nudie posters, or a hatchet-faced nurse giving me a knowing look. Instead, I found a smart office, a pretty young receptionist and AW.

The first thing he had said to me was: “You would make a perfect donor. You’re just the type of guy we’re looking for.” This caught me off guard. I’m 1.95m of chisel-jawed blond beardness, but I have my own overly long list of flaws and had never considered myself baby-making material. But I guess “hungover Viking” is a popular look. 

Sperm donors vetted
I learnt quickly that there is an extensive process I would have to go through before I could become a donor. I would have to be between 18 and 30 years old. I would also need a high sperm count. 

Passing this, they would start looking into my family history, conduct DNA tests, and check for familial and sexually transmitted diseases. I’m young, healthy and my family has the longevity of vacuum-sealed honey — so I didn’t expect many problems there. 

I would be sent to a doctor to evaluate my mental wellbeing and if my GP thinks I’m not as badly unbalanced as I suspect, only then could I become a donor. It would mean coming in to donate once a week over a period of 30 weeks. My sperm would then be frozen in liquid nitrogen at -195°C and quarantined over a period of six months. During these 30 weeks I would have to undergo follow-up tests for hepatitis and HIV every three months.

As we left the room with the magazine, I realised that the hardest part about becoming a donor wouldn’t be my own throbbing member, nor would it be all the tests with all their needles — needles that would turn me into an oversized, whimpering child. I could deal with that, just about. 

No, the real challenge would be abstaining from any sexual activity three days prior to the donation. Not that I’m some sort of stud. But I struggle to abstain from, erm, self-indulgence at the best of times. I blame my Germanic-Prussian genes; that inner Viking coming back to screw with my mornings and sometimes twice with my evenings. After three days even that magazine would start to look good. Thank God they had PCs in there as well.

'Sharing something special'
My own rampant libido aside, sperm donation still held the attraction of sharing something special with others. You would be helping people to create families — and the “mechanics” of making a donation aren’t exactly unpleasant either. Add to this the R500 that Androcryos pays per load (this is for your time and travel expenses — the Human Tissue Act prohibits donors from selling semen) and it made me wonder why men weren’t queuing around the block. 

“We really battle to find donors,” AW told me. Androcryos has only 14 South African donors. Seven are black, five are white, one is Indian and one is coloured. Despite the demand for them, Androcryos struggles specifically to find Zulu and Muslim donors. According to AW this is owed to cultural taboos regarding masturbation. “We are forever looking for all ethnicities … but what we cannot find here, we import from cryobanks in Denmark.”

Androcryos’s donors are mostly students. Although always on the lookout for more, the sperm bank canvasses at local universities such as the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Johannesburg and the University of Pretoria, and advertises online and in campus newspapers.

Since the clinic’s inception in 1995, they’ve held to a strict policy of donor anonymity. However, at the beginning of 2013 the law changed and the clinic has now started to offer donors the option of having their identities known. So far all donors have turned down this option.

I was shown around the rooms for artificial insemination. They were welcoming and comfortable, giving greater context to AW’s pride in Androcryos, because the sperm bank also doubles as a fertility clinic. According to Dr Prashan Maharaj, embryologist at Morningside Clinic — one of many fertility clinics across the country to which Androcryos supplies — sperm is much more viable before it is frozen. 

We visited the “baby room” next. At first it seemed unremarkable, like a leftover office doubling as a storeroom. Classic FM was playing in the background and bordering the walls were about 15 steel urns the size of a man’s torso. Inside each were 14 cups, each cup containing seven compartments, and each compartment containing seven sperm samples — that’s about 10 000 in total. 

'Biggest babysitter in the business'
AW stood in the middle of all this and chuckled: “This is why they call me the biggest babysitter in the business.”

It really hit home. Inside these four walls lay the grandest of potentials. Life. He had convinced me, almost. I wanted to have my sperm count tested, go into one of those plain back rooms, open up the PC and find something to flog my dolphin to. But this was about more than simply knocking one out. This was about siring children.

Androcryos is responsible for up to 30 to 40 donor births a year and keeps a record of this, along with strict correspondence with its recipients. Each donor is legally allowed to sire five offspring. Five. The number balled into a fist and punched me in the gut. Half a score of kids trying to deal with my genetic quirks? I’m not against having children; I just feel I should be responsible for them. Once my load hit that cup, it would be out of my hands — unless my aim is off.

For me the answer was no and it provided another reason for why Androcryos struggles to find new specimens. Moral scruples, laziness, or just plain selfishness — call it what you will, all I know is that there are better men than me out there and I hope they donate.

According to AW, Androcryos is one of two sperm banks in the country; the other is in Cape Town, and they both need donors. He sees it as a selfless act and likens sperm donors to those who give blood, or even organs. “You have to be prepared to share with other people,” he says “because what you are donating here is life.”

Billy Rivers is a writer who lives in Johannesburg.

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