Sperm as Contraband?

This story comes from the UK.  It actually ties back nicely to yesterday’s post on the patchwork of laws around ART.  In short, two men in the UK, both doctors, have been criminally charged with procuring sperm without a license.

To understand what’s going on, you might want to go back to this post.   Given regulations in place in the UK, the country faces a continuing sperm shortage.   More precisely, there is not enough sperm to fulfill the demand for assisted insemination or other forms of ART.

The core of the problem is apparently the legal requirement that the identity of sperm donors be made available to children concieved using that sperm when the children turn 18.   The loss of anonymity led to the sperm shortage.  

As I noted earlier, you would think it would be possible to increase the compensation offered to prospective donors and thereby increase the number of donors.  After all, the ordinary economic laws of supply and price do seem to apply in ART.

But this is not the course events are following in the UK.   Instead, the story linked above and another earlier one document a different sort of work-around.  (There’s more detail here as well.)

The law restricts the provision of frozen sperm.  The enterprises that are the subject of these stories (notice they both involve the same man–Nigel Woodforth) do not deal in frozen sperm.   Instead, at least in their view, they serve as agents matching interested women with willing donors.   They facilitate and coordinate and in the end, through their services, a chosen donor provides fresh sperm.   (There’s a description of how this works in the second linked article.)  The present charge is that they are procuring sperm without a license.

It’s not my intention to consider whether this is a good thing or not right now.   Obviously there are some serious health and safety questions you’d want to satisfy.   But I want to make two other points.

First, this is one instance of the enormous variation in law state-to-state or, as in this case, country-to-country.   In the US I can sit in my living room, go on line and shop for sperm from a wide array of businesses, some of which will offer anonymous donors and some of which won’t.   They may well be (indeed, I hope they are) regulated for health and safety.  But it is quite clear that they can be run for profit and can provide donors who meet whatever requirements I might set.

Second, the entire saga from the UK illustrates the difficulty of actually regulating ART, particular donor insemination, which is the simplest form of ART.   Insemination can be done at home without any medical supervision.   Donating sperm is not in itself difficult, either.   Anonymous donation can be (and sometimes is) accomplished by use of an intermediary.

Efforts to control assisted insemination (as a part of controlling ART) are almost always going to be partial.  They are also going to end up being fairly intrusive.  (In some places home insemination is illegal, because one cannot ensure compliance with state imposed regulations.)


4 responses to “Sperm as Contraband?

  1. You are undoubtedly correct that the number of sperm donors would go up if the pay went up, but it raises both an ethical and a legal issue.

    When sperm becomes a commodity and no longer a “gift of life”, children will even more than now, resent the fact that they have been “purchased” from a donor catalogue which specifies the quality of the product. Love, however much, does not solve their identity problem. There is a parallel in history. However good care slaves received on the plantation, they generally resented to be classified as “livestock”. In a perverse way it is more than a parallel. Modern fertility technology was developed for livestock breeding and was subsequently applied to human reproduction. Unfortunately ethics tend to follow on the coattails of technology.

    The legal problem is, that once sperm is seen as commercial product like a drug, rather than a gift, it will eventually have to regulated by product responsibility. See this link http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20227032.400-sperm-bank-sued-under-product-liability-law.html about a teenage girl who is suing a sperm bank for having providing her with faulty genes.

    The whole show may be over in twenty years time for an entirely different reason: the falling sperm count in developed countries. Some sperm banks are starting to scrape the bottom to get qualified sperm donors, but this a different story.

  2. I am sorry that I didn’t notice that you had already blogged about the New Scientist article.

    You say: ” But I don’t accept that buying sperm is anything like purchasing a child”. I agree up to a point. What is purchased is not the child itself (except half its genes), but the creation of the child. However, when a child tries to form an identity, that is to answer the question: “who am I?”, the creation is a very important part. A commercial donor catalogue stating the prices and details about “breeding quality” (including videos etc.), is not a good starting point. The problem is not that the act of creation was sordid, but that it was planned to be so.

    When 60 years ago the news of the first donor inseminations were leaked to the press, an UK newspaper carried the headline: “men are not cattle”. Today it would make us laugh, but sometimes I wonder if it is not the cattle that are going to have the last laugh.

  3. “The core of the problem is apparently the legal requirement that the identity of sperm donors be made available to children concieved using that sperm when the children turn 18. The loss of anonymity led to the sperm shortage. “

    At the risk of repeating myself, and as you have noted yourself since, according to HFEA figures, the numbers of sperm donors have gone *up* four years in a row since the ending of anonymity, thus reversing a three year decline. The 384 donors in 2008 was the highest figure since 1996, and 160 more than in 2004 just before anonymity ended.

    In this particular case, the HFEA seems to me to be way out of line. No-one was being misled, and informed adults can make decisions for themselves, without the help of people in white coats with the right letters after their name. They can exaggerate the risks of “unregulated” gamete donation all they want – the fact is that the vast majority of people are conceived without the help of any fertility specialists, and (gasp!) without any STI tests being performed.

    It’s not as if the clinics have such a shining record themselves. I’ve lost count of the number of times the wrong embryos or sperm have been implanted in a woman. That’s just in the UK – some of the stories coming out of north America are shocking.

    You may be interested in the following:

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