Right now, British sperm banks are facing a crisis. Serious sperm donor shortages mean long waiting lists, with about a third of sperm coming from foreign countries to fill the gap. As the chief executive of the National Gamete Donation Trust, Laura Witjens, puts it, Britain “has failed to keep pace with the dramatic increase in demand for sperm, particularly from lesbian couples and single women”. Although some of the 50-something sperm banks in the UK have enough sperm, many clinics are struggling to give would-be parents (particularly those of ethnic minorities) what they want.
The consequences of this sperm shortage are far from laughable. Many women are resorting to ‘DIY fertilisation’ with donors they know personally – either with at home artificial insemination with menstrual cups or even through intercourse. Problems arise as women cannot screen the donors for disabilities or disorders, or when the DIY donor demands custody (sperm donations made through a clinic have no legal claim to their offspring). Equally, the DIY donors themselves are at risk of later being asked to give financial support.
So why the shortage? Surely there are millions of men across the world that would leap at the chance to be paid to give away their semen and spread their genes without any strings attached?
The problem is, donating to a sperm bank is a massive commitment. Once donors have got past the rigorous and time-consuming screening process, they have to make an eight-month commitment to weekly visits to a clinic to donate. Donors cannot be adopted, under the age of 18 or over 41, too sexually promiscuous, a recreational drug user or have ejaculated in the past 48 hours before each donation. It is illegal to pay a sperm donor, aside from a maximum of £35 per visit to cover travel expenses. Many British men are put off as they are no longer guaranteed anonymity: their biological offspring may find out who they are when they turn 18.
In fact, the controls on sperm donors are so tight that out of the sample of 100 men that were screened as potential donors at the NHS-funded National Sperm Bank, only five were cleared. Although of course we wouldn’t want anything other than proper medical checks for donors, we’ve got to recognise that something else has to change on the sperm supply side of things to keep up with this increasing demand.
One option could be offering more money to donors to recruit more donors. In 2012, after a regulator allowed egg donors to receive £750 instead of the previous £250, the average waiting time for fertility treatment halved. The key objection to paying donors anything more than for travel expenses is that it incentivises men to hide their medical details for money, however the reality is that most would still primarily donate out of good-will and the screenings should be thorough enough anyway to prevent any diseases being passed on.
Another option is to increase the number of children each donor may have. In the UK each donor is allowed to give to up to 10 families worldwide, however other countries are more relaxed: Canada allows for 25 children per population of 800,000 and the USA advises up to 25 per 850,000 of a population. This means that those lucky men with extraordinarily fertile and disease-free sperm who have managed to clear the medical checks can help even more childless adults.
Currently the NHS offers up to six cycles of IUI (intrauterine insemination - fertilising a woman with donor sperm) for free for couples that cannot conceive naturally. Although more than half will fall pregnant in that time, the rest are forced to either give up or fork out roughly £500-£1000 for each cycle of private treatment. Moreover, IUI is not available for free on the NHS for single women, and even those who can access it are subject to a postcode lottery with waiting times varying hugely in different areas. As time is of the essence with fertility (there is a 0% IUI success rate for women over 44), these waiting times can mean the difference between parenthood and childlessness.
Liberalising sperm donation laws - for most of us - may not be up there with Article 50 and the deficit, but changing the regulation would have a massive effect on the happiness of thousands of people in the UK.