The Donation Debate: Sperm donors and anonymity

Approximately one in seven couples in the UK have fertility problems. An estimated 7,000 patients receive treatment with donated eggs and sperm every year and 2,000 children are born annually as a result of this process. Although the British Fertility Society has cited an increased demand for donations in recent years, the supply remains worryingly low. The reluctance of the UK male population to donate sperm coincides with the 2005 alteration in UK law, which removed the anonymity of donors. The impact this continues to have on attitudes towards donation raises a much debated question: should sperm donors have a right to remain anonymous?

Supporters of anonymity for donors highlight that removing it has significantly reduced donations. Any donor-conceived person conceived on or after April 1 2005, from their 18th birthday onwards, is now legally allowed to find the information the donor provided, extending further than physical description and medical status to identifying information, including name and last known address. Revealing this information has affected supply, with The Times reporting a 20 per cent fall in the number of women treated with donated sperm the first year after anonymity was lifted. Jane Stewart, a consultant who runs a sperm bank in Newcastle, reiterated this supply drop when she stated that she had to “shelve her entire donor bank in 2004 and start again”, as not one of her donors was willing to become identifiable. Numerous donors disagreed with recipients holding rights over them, claiming it is more like a blood donation than adoption, as they never meet or interact with the custodial parents or the children.

Many patients now have to wait at least a year for sperm to become available, resulting in women resorting to dangerous alternatives. Worryingly, desperate individuals are increasingly using informal services such as online infertility forums. Here, potential donors, holding screen names such as RealMan and tadpolesready, offer their unscreened sperm for free. The scale of this grey market is uncertain, as it is practically unregulated. Juliet Tizzard, an employee of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, stated that: “There’s been a reluctance to intervene in that area, because it’s so close to normal human interaction… How far away is that from meeting someone in a bar?” These samples create a serious health hazard for women accepting sperm that hasn’t undergone genetic testing.

Despite criticism of revealing donor identities, many stress the existence of an equality of rights for all children. Explaining why the government changed the anonymity law, ex-health minister Stephen Ladyman stated: “We think it is a right that donor-conceived people should be able to have information, should they want it, about their genetic origins.” Increasing evidence shows that donor children do want this information, and the lack of it beforehand has had a psychological impact. Donor children missing parental information often battle troubling emotions such as confusion and isolation on a more acute level than those adopted. Narelle, whose biological father remains an unknown sperm donor, claimed: “When I look in the mirror, I only see half a person, and that’s difficult to live with.”

On a more practical level, donors have a responsibility to allow children to contact them to access otherwise unexplored medical risks, and recent health issues. In 2002, the British Medical Journal reported that 18 parents had to be warned that their child had a 50 per cent chance of developing a specific hereditary disorder, after the sperm donor was affected with a late-onset genetic disease.

The controversy surrounding donor anonymity isn’t likely to reach a lull point in the near future. However, as the debate continues, it remains vital that the UK tackles the shortage of donations. Allan Pacey, ex-chair of the British Fertility Society, stated: “Women who donate their eggs are heroes, men who donate their sperm are considered smutty”. Pacey highlights the need to overcome what he terms ‘masturbation guilt’ in promoting sperm donation, through increasingly publicity, to help infertile individuals who are desperately seeking a child.

Photo: Tobias “ToMar” Maier

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