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Sperm shortage affects whole of UK

8 May 2006
Appeared in BioNews 357

A investigation undertaken by the Scotland on Sunday newspaper has found that some fertility clinics in the country are treating lesbians and single women on the National Health Service. The investigation shows that three Scottish health boards pay for donor insemination and sometimes IVF for lesbian and single women, and a further four will refer women who then pay for the treatment themselves.

The newspaper says that this situation is 'despite' the fact that there is a nationwide shortage of sperm donors. The Sunday Times reports that there is currently only one 'active' sperm donor in the whole of Scotland 'due to recent changes in the law removing the right to anonymity'. All sperm donors are removed from the register after they have made ten donations. Sheena Young, Scottish co-ordinator of the National Infertility Support Network, said that there were simply not enough donors to justify treating lesbians and single women. 'At the moment in Scotland we have a severe shortage of sperm donors and we have heterosexual couples suffering from an illness called infertility', she said, adding that 'we are in such a crisis with donor sperm that couples with a biological problem need to be the priority'. But Fergus McMillan, from gay rights support group LGBT Youth Scotland, said that 'there is no credible evidence that same-sex couples do not make better parents than heterosexual couples'. He added: 'If health boards refuse to treat same-sex couples, that's simple discrimination'.

The findings in Scotland have ignited debate about the disparity in fertility treatment provision across Scotland and, by extension, the rest of the UK. It is estimated that about 75,000 couples suffer from fertility problems in Scotland, and some have to wait for up to five years for treatment, due to long waiting lists and a shortage of donors. The provision of fertility treatment in Scotland is currently under review, with ministers wanting to extend the upper age limit for treatment from 37 to 40 years old.

Meanwhile, the Observer newspaper reports that women in the UK are turning to US sperm banks, as supplies in the UK run dry. The newspaper, which said it obtained documents under the Freedom of Information Act, says that a growing number of couples from the UK seek sperm from two major US clinics: Xytex Corporation in Atlanta and Fairfax CryoBank in Virginia. These large corporations offer a choice of sperm, all at about $450 per sample - customers can, to a certain extent, choose the characteristics of the donor they use, including physical characteristics and personality traits, as well as educational achievements. They can also see photographs of the donor as a child, teenager and adult.

Sperm from the two US sperm banks was used by patients receiving treatment at eight of the 21 licensed fertility clinics in the UK. Dr Tim Child explained the position in the UK, saying there is a 'chronic shortage' of donated sperm. He added: 'We have one sperm donor for the whole of Oxfordshire. We used to be able to buy sperm from other British clinics but now they are so short they are keeping it for their own patients'. Sheridan Rivers, from Xytex, said they receive 'three or four inquiries a day from British patients', and a spokeswoman for Fairfax also said they have had a 'number of enquiries from British women ordering sperm online'. 'We are happy to help out', she added. The HFEA says that in May 2005, just after the right to remain anonymous was removed from donors, only 12 men were donating sperm in the UK, and by June this number had decreased further, to ten.

SOURCES & REFERENCES
Blue-eyed, musical US physicist: sperm for sale, $500 a shot
The Observer |  7 May 2006
Same-sex couples fuel row over IVF treatment
Scotland on Sunday |  7 May 2006
Scottish health boards fund IVF for lesbians
Scotland on Sunday |  7 May 2006
We need to change the rules on rewarding egg and sperm donors
The Observer |  7 May 2006
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