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Can we learn anything from internet sperm traders?

27 September 2010
By Professor Allan Pacey
Senior Lecturer in Andrology at the University of Sheffield
Appeared in BioNews 577
Thanks to the successful conviction of two men from Reading, we now know trading in fresh sperm on the Internet is illegal. Sounds like a lesson in the obvious, but this is the first time the law has been clarified - after many years of watching several of these so-called businesses appear and disappear. Hopefully, we will now finally see an end to such operations.

Websites trading in fresh sperm began to hit the headlines in about 2005. They were capitalising on the uncertainty within licensed clinics following the removal of donor anonymity and the apparent shortfall in donor sperm that occurred around the same time. In fact, one of the outfits boasted on their website 'your right to anonymity has not been affected by the change in law from April 2005' because they were 'not governed by this legislation or the HFEA who enforce this new law'.

Many concerns have been raised about these businesses, but the two most common arguments against them are:

(1) Donors who donated (sometimes in good faith) to such operations are the legal father of any child born, and;

(2) There was always a risk (however small) that women could be exposed to infection because fresh sperm were used.

I don't know whether any women suffered infection from inseminating themselves with sperm obtained this way, although I have heard several distressing anecdotal stories. But it's clear these sites were able to attract men willing to donate and some claim they recruited over 300 donors providing sperm deliveries to over 800 women.

Receiving 300 donor enquiries over the course of a few years is something about which most clinics can only dream. Of course, these organisations' donor recruitment was not constrained by all the restrictions the HFE Act places on registered donors. For example, freezing - a major reason for not accepting a donor in licensed clinics - and an upper limit on the families a donor can create.

Maybe the prospect of apparently maintaining their anonymity also attracted the donors to such outfits. But something tells me this is not the whole story. These men were motivated to donate in the first place and, moreover, many who have spoken publically have seemed surprised to discover they were not donating through 'official' channels.

So, before we gladly forget about Internet sperm traders, we should study their operations carefully. We should see if there is anything we can safely copy in licensed clinics to improve the ongoing problem of donor recruitment.

16 January 2012 - by Professor Allan Pacey 
Crystal ball gazing has never been my strong suit but I found myself rising to the challenge now that I have taken over the mantle of Chairman of the British Fertility Society. What is clear is that 2012 should turn out to be an interesting year...
18 October 2010 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
Two men convicted of providing sperm over the internet without a licence have escaped a custodial sentence...
20 September 2010 - by Antony Blackburn-Starza 
Two men prosecuted for illegally providing fresh sperm over the internet have been convicted at Southwark Crown Court. Ricky Gage, 49, and Nigel Woodforth, 43, operated a website called Fertility 1st through which fertility patients could select from a database of sperm donors and order 'fresh' sperm to be directly delivered, for a fee, to their door....
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