UK sperm banks struggle after donor anonymity lifted

British clinics treating couples with fertility problems are suffering from a major sperm shortage after the authorities lifted donor anonymity in April last year.

A BBC television investigation said that 50 of the 74 clinics that responded to questioning had either insufficient sperm or none at all. The country as a whole has about 85 such clinics.

Donors of frozen sperm, eggs and embryos were stripped of their anonymity in April 2005. Now a child born thanks to a donation is able to discover the identity of the donor once they reach the age of 18.

Previously, donor children were only able to obtain non-identifying information and to verify that they were not genetically related to their partner’s family.

Donors of fresh sperm will have their anonymity lifted next year.

California has allowed publication of the identities of donors since the early 1980s.
In Europe, Sweden lifted anonymity in 1984, followed by Norway, The Netherlands and Iceland.

In France, a proposal was submitted in June to create a so-called “double counter”: one with identified donors, and one with anonymous ones. Future parents would be able to choose between the two.

In 2000, Britain had 325 donors, compared to just 157 between January and August 2005, according to the latest data acquired by Agence France-Presse (AFP) from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the authority that oversees fertility treatment.

According to the BBC investigation, there are only 169 registered donors in the United Kingdom and none in Northern Ireland, one in Scotland and six in Wales.

“We’ve seen a drop in donors but the trend was already there because of the rise of a new fertilisation technique,” a spokesperson for the HFEA told AFP.

The new technique, intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), means in-vitro fertilisation for an egg with the sperm of the future father after natural attempts at conception have failed.

About 15 000 treatments of this type were carried out in 2002 to 2003 (compared with 10 000 in 1998 to 1999), along with more than 6 000 inseminations through donors (10 000 in 1998 to 1999).

The British Fertility Society (BFS) says it is “well aware of the difficulties many patients throughout the country are experiencing” and noted that the BBC’s investigation “reinforces our own findings that many clinics are now finding it impossible to provide these services”.

A group study set up by the society should “shortly” deliver recommendations to the health ministry, said Dr Mark Hamilton, its president.

But the new legislation is not retrospective, so new requests for the identities of today’s donors should start appearing only in 2023. According to the HFEA, those who have made donations between 1991 and 2005 can voluntarily relinquish their anonymity.

Some clinics have been forced to seek stocks overseas, particularly in Spain.

Since 1991, 16 000 babies have been born through sperm donations. A single donation can be used by up to ten families.

The process doesn’t come cheap, with HFEA saying IVF costs between £2 000 and £3 000.—AFP

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