The number of recorded sperm donations in the UK has fallen to the lowest level since anonymity was removed from donors in April 2005, say officials. Figures published in the Times newspaper show that there was a decline of about 20 per cent in the number of treatments in the year between 2005 and 2006. In 2005, 2,727 women were treated using donated sperm, whereas in 2006 it was only 2,107. The data also show that there was a concurrent decline in egg donation, including on 'egg-sharing' schemes: the number of treatments on these, where women receive discounted IVF in return for a proportion of their eggs, which are then used to treat other women, fell by 40 per cent. Some clinicians worry that if patients cannot get the treatment they need in the UK, they will travel abroad for it.
Following a change to the law that came into force on 1 April 2005, people conceived using donated egg, sperm or embryos in the UK will now be able to ask for identifying information about the donor when they reach the age of 18. Since this change to the law came into effect, many have considered it to be a reason behind a shortage of donors, although others, such as the National Gamete Donation Trust suggest there may be other reasons, such as lack of awareness.
Speaking on the 'Today' programme on BBC Radio 4 last week, Dr Allan Pacey, an andrologist and secretary of the British Fertility Society (BFS), said there are some logical reasons for the latest figures. He explained that the number of men donating sperm had recently remained about constant - but added that the men concerned might be putting more conditions on the use of their sperm than previously. While fewer men are donating to sperm banks, for use by potentially recipient, the actual number of men donating sperm has risen slightly. But many of these 'new' donors are men donating specifically to a single friend or couple. When donating to a sperm bank, a man's sperm may be used to treat up to 10 different women - but if donors put their own restrictions on who can be treated then this will inevitably mean that a rise in the number of donors does not equate to a rise in the number of people being treated using donated sperm. 'After the change, men were more reluctant to allow a greater number of women to receive treatment', he explained, adding: 'Couples are bringing a friend of the family as their own donor and that donor is only giving the donation specifically to them'.
Dr Evan Harris MP said that 'the Government and the HFEA have been saying everything is fine, but it isn't. There was no good reason for removing anonymity, which has led to a catastrophic drop in the number of patients treated by donor insemination'. He added that 'there was always a huge risk that this would happen, diminishing the capacity of both the NHS and private clinics to treat infertility. There are probably now thousands of untreated couples who may be forced abroad, or into the unregulated sector'.
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).