The Biohacked: Family Secrets episode three, The Birth of the Sperm Bank, podcast starts in an unusual place: a cowshed. As a researcher of assisted reproductive technology, my heart immediately sank. Use of the word 'chattel' is all too common in conversations about fertility treatment. Rarely, however, is it constructive. Often used to describe women who act as surrogates or children that are purportedly 'bought', it is rarely a vehicle for nuanced conversation.
The opening minutes of this podcast, therefore, came as a pleasant surprise. Here, the comparison with chattel was not sensationalised, but striking nonetheless. Whereas calves born through artificial insemination come with a whole family tree, donor-conceived children often struggle to find basic information about their genetic lineage. Given the many ways that this can affect them, it is unsurprising that this discrepancy is a source of upset and frustration. The point is not that children are chattel per se, but rather that these cows have more 'rights' than them.
Despite the impression that this vignette gives, however, the focus of the podcast is not the merits of sperm donation or the rights of donor-conceived children. Those who are looking for such information would be better off looking elsewhere.
Rather, as the title suggests, 'The Birth of the Sperm Bank' focuses primarily on the scientific history of this industry. It takes the listener from the beginning of sperm donation (when the need for fresh sperm meant that a donor would have to be nearby) to the extensive banks which exist today. Interviewee Dr Jerome Sherman, also known as 'Sperman Sherman', describes the trial-and-error experiments he undertook to work out how to freeze this genetic material (using his own sperm). As it transpired, liquid nitrogen was the solution he was looking for. With this, both the sperm bank – and by extension countless children – were born.
This medical 'thunderbolt' was delivered in the 1950s. Yet despite this, it was not adopted in a practical way until the 1970s. After years of advocacy, Dr Sherman counts himself as 'blessed' to have seen the worldwide effects of his research. Listening to this podcast at the end of June 2022, however, it was hard not to feel for the thousands of people whose reproductive autonomy was thwarted in the interceding decades because of public, political and religious opposition. Though never in any doubt, the podcast is a timely reminder of the longstanding tension between traditionalism and medical technology.
This observation is particularly pertinent as the most heart-warming moments of the podcast are excerpts of interviews given by Lesley Brown. She is the mother of Louise, the first baby born through IVF in 1974. After describing the science behind this development, audio clips from a documentary at the time are used to explain the significance of the birth. Of course, these illustrate that the work of Steptoe and Edwards was a significant medical breakthrough. Yet when asked what she wanted for her daughter, Lesley Brown simply hoped that everything would 'calm down' so that she could have a normal life.
As the podcast notes, though the idea of a 'test tube baby' may sound like something from a sci-fi novel, the desire of scientists to help people like the Browns was partly because they were so relatable. Particularly in a world where questions about fertility and fertility treatment are likely to become increasingly scrutinised and divisive, this serves as a useful reminder: people who use non-traditional means of starting a family are not themselves 'different'. While it is vital to take the best interests of children into consideration when developing assisted reproduction policy, nor should it be assumed that atypical conception will mean that they go unmet.
When the focus of the majority of this podcast is the benefits that sperm banking can bring, the final few minutes are somewhat disjunctive. Introducing the next episode of the series 'Family Secrets', it excerpts an interview in which a donor-conceived child describes themselves as 'the product of a selective breeding eugenic science experiment'. This is as they plan to tell the story of a 'new type of sperm bank, that is nothing like the ones that came before it'. Though of course such foreshadowing is to be expected in a series, it is disappointing that such uncontextualised information is the final note of this otherwise detailed and informative podcast. Nonetheless, it may well be that this episode will further present the other side of this ethically complex practice.