'Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis 2018: Current Practice and Beyond', 9-10 November 2018
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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.

26 September 2005 - by Pip Morris 
Today, John Gonzalez, founder of the internet sperm firm Man Not Included, announced that he is launching a direct mailing campaign to attract new sperm donors. The mailshot will be sent to 50,000 men, to tackle the predicted shortage of donors following the announcement earlier this year that people conceived...
25 July 2005 - by Professor Allan Pacey 
The eighth child of Charlie Chaplin was born when he was 73 and as far as we know has lived a healthy life. However, whilst most men remain fertile into their old age, it has long been recognised that to father children later in life increases the risk of their...
21 July 2005 - by BioNews 
The risk of having a child born with certain congenital problems may increase with the father's age, US and Danish researchers say. In a study of over 70,000 births, published online in the journal Human Reproduction, they report that the risk of Down syndrome and other conditions begins to increase...
8 July 2005 - by Professor Guido Pennings 
The abolition of gamete donor anonymity has led to a greater shortage of candidate donors (including sperm donors) in several countries. All kinds of solutions have been proposed, including increased payment. Another solution, namely egg sharing, has been criticised by some as morally dubious. In the meantime, as the SEED...
4 July 2005 - by BioNews 
Critics of a UK campaign to encourage more people to donate eggs and sperm say that each new sperm donor recruited so far has cost the Government £ 6,250, the Daily Telegraph reports. From January to May, the £300,000 'Give Life, Give Hope' campaign has resulted in 486 calls to the...
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