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Radio Review: The New Viking Invasion

14 July 2014
Appeared in BioNews 762

Depending on which clinic they attend in the UK, people needing sperm donation to conceive may find themselves being directed to the website of the European Sperm Bank (ESB) based in Copenhagen, rather than a list of home grown sperm donors. The trend for using Danish sperm was the subject of a BBC Radio 4 documentary called The New Viking Invasion. Researched and narrated by fertility author and blogger Kate Brian, this was a light-hearted, but nevertheless serious look at why so much Danish sperm is imported into this country.

The important question of why there are insufficient sperm donors in the UK was tackled first. There is, of course, no single straightforward answer. Dr Allan Pacey, andrology lecturer at the University of Sheffield, said that about 500 donors are needed to meet all UK needs, and despite recruitment having become more successful, there was still a gap between demand and supply. He regretted that NHS funding procedures did not take into account the interview and testing processes that potential donors have to go through before they can be accepted into a donor programme. Some private clinics specialise in recruiting sperm donors but they like to keep the fruits of their efforts for their own patients and won't sell to others.

The programme also pointed out that clinics like to keep their own patients and prefer them to import sperm from ESB rather than sending them to a UK clinic that has recruited donors successfully. Several people, including Dr Jane Stewart, head of Newcastle Fertility Centre, where donors have always been in short supply, acknowledged that identifiability is not now thought to be a problem in donor recruitment.

So how come ESB has managed to be so successful in encouraging men to donate sperm? The answer to this question seems to be that they have nothing else to distract them. They don’t do treatments: they simply facilitate the donation of sperm, distribute it around the world and get paid for it.

In 2006 there were no imports of sperm from Denmark. Now Danish sperm accounts for a third of the sperm imported into the UK. Danish donors are certainly popular with UK women and families, possibly because Danish people feel culturally close to the UK and are seen as a strong and dependable nation.

But does it matter that so many children are being created with Danish sperm? We won't know for some years yet how the children feel about it (the oldest are likely to be no more than seven now). If most of the donors are as open to contact as the ones interviewed by Kate seemed to be, then maybe there won’t be a problem, but do the donors really understand the implications of being available to offspring once they turn 18? They don’t have counselling like they would in this country. The UK limit may be ten families, but ESB send sperm around the world and 25 is apparently an average pregnancy rate for each donor. Allan Pacey thought that some super-successful donors were probably used much more and were likely to be very profitable: money really is the bottom line.

Whilst a second Viking invasion is probably not an imminent worry, putting more effort into recruiting UK donors is needed and Laura Witjens from the National Gamete Donation Trust mentioned the possibility of a national sperm bank in the UK. Now there's a good idea, but would the clinics co-operate? The Hub and Spoke idea of some years ago died from the inability of clinics to agree. Whilst clinics and sperm banks are tied together I am rather afraid that private sector interests will prevent a spirit of public interest prevailing. I hope I'm wrong.

18 May 2015 - by Dr Kamal Ahuja 
For the first time, a British sperm bank has sufficient stocks and donors to begin supplying clinics registered by the HFEA. The move marks a shift in the dynamics of UK sperm donation and would suggest that the perception of any shortage of donor sperm in Britain is no longer true...
26 January 2015 - by Simon Hazelwood-Smith 
The world of unregulated sperm donation is revealed as an underground market of desperation, exploitation and remarkable characters.
11 August 2014 - by Simon Hazelwood-Smith 
The first national sperm bank is to be opened in England this October after receiving a £77,000 grant from the Department of Health...
28 July 2014 - by Natasha Canfer 
In July 2014, the Department of Health announced that it had awarded the National Gamete Donation Trust funding to set up an independent National Sperm Bank in partnership with Birmingham Women's Hospital....
30 June 2014 - by Siobhan Chan 
The age of sperm donors has no impact on the chances of having a baby via IVF and donor insemination, a study has found...
28 April 2014 - by Julianna Photopoulos 
A University of Utah committee has concluded its investigation into allegations that in the early 1990s a fertility clinic worker allegedly switched a couple's sperm sample with his own....
7 April 2014 - by Dr Ruth Curson 
Sadly, there are currently not enough egg and sperm donors in the UK to meet our needs. Recipients are now seeking alternative routes to find donors, either by travelling abroad or from unregulated internet sites: both with the potential for unwanted consequences...
13 May 2013 - by Rivka Marks-Maran 
A Liverpool fertility clinic has been forced to import sperm from Manchester and London after a significant fall in local donations...
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