The (Mythical?) UK Sperm Shortage

Once again I am stumbling on stories like this one or this one.   Both draw their information from the same source–Allan Pacey, a senior lecturer in andrology at Sheffield University Medical School.   Though I haven’t seen Pacey’s study, the press coverage reports it as finding that sperm donor shortage in the UK. 

The UK changed its law in 2005.    Before that, the identity of a sperm donor could remain hidden forever.  But under the new law, the identity of the donor would be made available to a child conceived using that man’s sperm when the child turned 18.  

The stories I’ve linked to (and perhaps the underlying study) seem to say that since the passage of the law, the number of men provided sperm has fallen.  Further, they connect those two dots–suggesting that the number fell because of the identity release provisions.    

Now while that may seem logical enough.  And indeed, I once wrote a post outlining the logic that could connect these two things. 

There’s just one problem:  As the comments after that post note, the official statistics don’t actually show a decline in the number of donors at the right time. 

Here’sa link to the statistics collected by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority–the official UK body.   The number of donors peaked in the mid-1990s.  It reached its low point in 2004 (before the law in question) and has been increasing since then.    In 2008 (the last year for which the statistics are reported) the number of new donors registered was 384, which was the largest number since 1996. 

Clearly you cannot say the law has caused the number of donors to fall based on these statistics.  If anything, it looks like the number of donors has risen (and that could, of course, have nothing whatsoever to do with the law.)    

But I do have to wonder about what the studies noted in the press reports are on about.   It is true (again according to the HFEA stats) that the number of women having donor insemination fell in 2007 as did the total number of treatments.   Is that because there isn’t enough sperm?  I cannot tell.   (It’s also true that the number of overseas (non-UK) donors is rising, for whatever that is worth.)  

I don’t mean to suggest that some of the things in the news stories aren’t actually happening.  Perhaps there are long waiting lists and maybe women are going abroad for insemination.   But I don’t quite see how you can tie these things together and relate them to the passage of the 2005 law. 

Maybe someone could help me figure it out?   Or find the actual study that generated the stories?   I’m not persuaded there’s any grand conspiracy here.  It seems to me more likely that there’s inattention to the subtleties of the statistics, as likely by the press as by the researcher.   Still, I’d like to know.


12 responses to “The (Mythical?) UK Sperm Shortage

  1. The number of registered donors has increased due to the increased use of known donors. Due to the shortage of commercially available donors, many women are using “friends” as donors. These men only donate for that one women, not for up to ten families, as commercial donors. This explains the data.

  2. I think Brent is wrong. According to the National Gamete Donor Trust, donor numbers are up because donors all now have to be identifiable, and far more men are willing to be donors if they know they will be able to have a relationship with their offspring than before when they had no such opportunity.

    Also, after reading the link that Wendy posted it seems that treatments are down because very few married couples use donor insemination any more. The HFEA report that:

    “Advances in reproductive technology have meant that the demand for fertility treatment
    using donor gametes have declined considerably over the last 10 years.
    For example, the development of ICSI (intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection) has led to a
    significant fall in the need for donor sperm. This involves injecting a single sperm directly
    into the centre of an egg which is then placed in a woman’s body using conventional IVF
    ICSI is especially effective for men who have a low sperm count, have had a vasectomy
    or in cases where the sperm have difficulty swimming (low motility) or penetrating the
    egg. Prior to ICSI, couples where this problem had been identified would have been
    most likely to be treated using donor sperm. The graph below shows how the number of
    donor insemination treatments has fallen over the last 10 years, while the number of
    treatments using ICSI has risen steadily.
    During 1992-93 there were more than 25,000 donor insemination treatments (using
    donor sperm), this had fallen to little over 6,000 treatments by 2003-03. While during this
    period the number of ICSI treatments had risen from nearly zero in 1992-93 to more than
    15,000 in 2002-03.”

    • I picked up on some of these points in a new post I just put up. I haven’t seen anything that explains why the number of donors seems to be rising. Is it there someplace?

      But whatever the answer to that, it won’t explain why the press seem to regularly report a sperm shortage. (I have seen suggestions that donors be compensated in a number of places, which might suggest that someone sees a greater need for donors.)

  3. A large percentage of the medical community in the UK fought bitterly against the abolition of anonymity and payment of donors and closed down recruitment programs a couple of years in advance refusing to recruit identifiable donors. Some doctors even claimed that it was unethical to use identifiable donors and even Members of Parliament were recruited to get up and talk about the ethical problems of using identity release donors and the imminent lack of a donor program in the UK. But those few clinics that recruited under the new unpaid identifiable donor regime found volunteers flooded in to a far greater extent than before as men realized they would have a good opportunity of meeting and getting to know their offspring.


    Only 4% of sperm donors are accepted because they screen the donors – unlike the US which appears to have an ‘open’ door policy.

    • It’s more accurate to say that the US has a welter of policies. There are some standards that apply across the board and then different sperm banks probably have their own (higher) standards. I’m not sure how the statistics in the US overall vary, nor do I know off-hand what screening is required or performed where.

  5. I’ve commented on the follow up post a day later, but these seem to be the facts:

    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.

    Brent’s suggestion that many more donors now only donate for a specific woman also seems to be wrong, though that wasn’t clear at the time he wrote his comment. This is from 19-Sep-10:

    “More than 80% of donors agree to the 10-family limit. Yet, of the 975 such donors registered between 2006 and 2008, only six founded 10 families. This means less than 1% of donors willing to found 10 families did so.”

    The real question to me is why have the press so consistently reported a “dramatic” drop in sperm donor numbers, and a “crisis”, when this is so obviously not the case. I can’t help thinking that part of the blame should be laid with Dr Pacey, whose name often appears in these articles, and who even now seems to be suggesting that there would be even more donors if anonymity hadn’t been ended.

    • The HFEA figures have been updated and now show that the numbers of sperm donors have gone up *six* years in a row since the ending of anonymity, thus reversing a three year decline. The 480 sperm donors in 2010 was the highest figure since they started keeping records, and more than double the figure in 2004 just before anonymity ended. The numbers of egg donors are also at a record high.

      • Thanks so much for keeping this up to date. You would think one could now say that removing anonymity did not cause a decrease in the number of providers, wouldn’t you? Worthy of discussion in itself and I might make it a post. It’s probably not sound to say that removing anonymity increased the number of providers–correlation but no proof of causation. Wonder if anyone is doing research on this. Do you know?

        • I’m not aware of any research, but I think the increases are probably more due to increased publicity and more acceptance of gamete donation. There have been several articles about sperm and egg donation, including articles about the ending of donor anonymity, and also about two companies that were bypassing the HFEA and transporting fresh sperm.

          The increases in donor numbers won’t stop people suggesting that ending donor anonymity in other countries will automatically result in fewer donors though. Almost all articles which talk about donor anonymity seem to assume that it would mean fewer donors, and where comments are allowed, one or more people seem to suggest that no-one will want to donate without anonymity being guaranteed.

          • What I think is probably true (and this is what I’d put in a main post, though I think I’ve said it before) is that you’d get somewhat different providers. Isn’t it the London Sperm Bank (I blogged about them once) that has an older pool of providers who seem to be more altruistic in their motivations and also more interested in being non-anonymous? It’s true, too, that as attitudes change the willingness of men to provide sperm will change. There have been a number of high profile entertainments featuring sperm donors recently–I wonder what the fallout from that is?

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