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The HFEA's father figures: Lies, damn lies and statistics?

10 October 2005

By Dr Kirsty Horsey

reproduction editor, BioNews

Appeared in BioNews 329
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA)'s recent publication of the results of its review of sperm, egg and embryo donation in the UK was accompanied by a press release detailing the profile of current donors. 'Who are the UK's sperm donors?' it asked, answering that the 'stereotype of hard-up medical students' is a 'thing of the past'.

The HFEA claims, in the press release, that sperm donors today are typically 'much more likely' to be 'family men in their 30s', apparently a statistical fact. This was picked up in the media, with one newspaper running the headline 'Fathers now more likely to donate sperm than students'. Indeed, the statistics show that the average age of sperm donors has increased. But it is disingenuous to suggest that this older population is largely made up of cuddly father figures who have realised the joy that children can bring and so have headed off to the nearest sperm bank.

What the statistics actually say is that 41.5 per cent of current sperm donors have children of their own. This means that nearly 60 per cent of them do not, making it wrong to suggest that 'typical' sperm donors today are 'family men'. The figure is compared to statistics taken from 1994-5, when only 21 per cent of donors were fathers, and the average age of donors was younger (at between 18-24 years). But this does not in fact represent a huge increase, particularly when the decline in the total number of donors is taken into account.

The HFEA seems keen to gloss over donor shortage. Instead, it stated that only one in five treatment centres now uses donor sperm, compared to almost 50 per cent of treatments ten years ago. The press release added that the number of children born following the use of donated sperm has decreased to one in eight from one in three in 1994-5 - but this does not mean that fewer donors are needed these days. And Angela McNab, the HFEA's Chief Executive, when asked on BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme whether there was a shortage of donors, said that she wasn't 'the best qualified' to answer, as the HFEA itself is not involved in recruitment. What an opportunity missed. Thousands of listeners could have been directed to the source of information for potential donors: the National Gamete Donation Trust.

What the HFEA's figures do not show is that a declining use of donor sperm may, apart from other factors such as an increased use of ICSI, be related to a decline in availability. A £15 payment doesn't go very far and is unlikely, in recent years, to have encouraged even the poorest students to donate. Coupled with moves towards the removal of anonymity, finalised in April this year, many fewer men have been donating. Nor do these figures make any mention of the use of imported sperm or of increased use of Internet sperm providers operating outside of the HFEA's licensing remit. Whatever one thinks about these services, they are out there and need to be factored into the equation. So it's in this context that we need to consider who the men are who currently donate sperm.

In any case, the HFEA's 'spun' statistics, about older donors coming forward in greater numbers, are not all good news. In the light of recent findings attributing the age of fathers (as well as mothers) to various fertility problems in men and health issues in children, potential parents may in fact be happier with the sperm from an 18-24 year old student. The knowledge that the man who donated his sperm had children already will not, therefore, always be influential, unless it becomes known that success rates were not affected by this demographic shift, something that we haven't been told.


Dr Kirsty Horsey is Contributing Editor at BioNews. She is coeditor of Human Fertilisation and Embryology: Reproducing Regulation (buy this book from Amazon UK) and coauthor of Tort Law (buy this book from Amazon UK) and Skills For Law Students (buy this book from Amazon UK).

SOURCES & REFERENCES

RELATED ARTICLES FROM THE BIONEWS ARCHIVE

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