Viking sperm-sales are plummeting right now

The other banking crisis.

Travelling on the London Underground in recent years you have most likely seen pictures of cute, blonde babies along with the slogan “Congratulations, it’s a Viking!” plastered across the ad. The advertisement is for the Danish sperm bank Cryos, the biggest of its kind in the world.

Cryos, along with other Danish sperm banks, has been marketing Danish sperm heavily across the UK, and demand for the popular Viking “donations”, has been on the rise. The amount of UK women buying Danish sperm has grown by about 40 per cent every year since 2005, according to one Danish insemination clinic and Cryos estimates that about 10 per cent of their sperm is exported to UK clients and clinics.

A shortage of sperm elsewhere, combined with differing rules about donor anonymity from country to country, means that Denmark, which can offer both anonymous and non-anonymous sperm and can deliver it directly to individuals across the EU rather than simply to licensed clinics, is an increasingly popular destination for women seeking to become pregnant.

Since the UK made it illegal to donate sperm anonymously in 2005, the shortage of British sperm has been daunting, forcing more and more British women to look towards other countries. Thanks to its liberal laws on sperm donation, Denmark has enjoyed the brunt of this demand.

But recent events might put a stop to the Viking baby invasion. Danish laws on donation have recently been tightened after a donor was found to have passed on a rare genetic condition to at least five of the 43 babies he has fathered. Now, potential donors are interviewed, their health evaluated and their history of disease is checked – making it harder to just walk in and donate.

Far more critical is the high-profile court case, where a UK mother bought DIY sperm from Cryos and proceeded to impregnate her 14-year old adoptive daughter with the sperm. After a miscarriage, the daughter gave birth to a donor-child at the age of 16. Now the EU and Danish politicians are looking to reform the Danish laws on sperm-donation and sales, making it harder for potential mothers and fathers to acquire the popular Viking-sperm. The question is now, whether the sperm banks have a responsibility to ensure that sperm sold to individuals isn’t misused. When potential parents buy sperm through an insemination clinic, they are screened and questioned on their parenting skills – individuals buying DIY sperm are not put through the same process.

But what will this do the UK demand for Viking sperm? Marketing in London has been put on hold temporarily as the court case runs its course and sperm-sales are encountering their first slump in over seven years. In the meantime, it is clear that Danish politicians are moving towards more regulation of the Danish sperm industry. With a potential sperm-draught ahead, it might be worth considering a liberalisation of UK laws. If not for reproductive reasons, then consider the economic potential. Sperm-tourism has been on a steady rise in Denmark for the past ten years, resulting in considerable revenue growth for sperm banks and insemination clinics. Cryos, for instance, doubled their revenue within their first five years. In a time of austerity, isn’t any market with high demand worth delving into?

Can't be good for them. Photograph: Getty Images

Sandra Kilhof Nielsen is a reporter for Retail Banker International, Cards International & Electronic Payments International.

 

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.