I wanted to pick up on yesterday’s post and highlight the points raised by the comments. In the post (which you should read, really) I wondered about the fit between newspaper stories that say there is a sperm shortage in the UK and statistics which seem to show a rising number of donors. Two people suggested ways to explain the disparity, and they are both interesting.
Wendy linked to a fact sheet from the HFEA (the government agency that collects statistics on ART use.) I’m not sure of the date of the fact sheet–though it’s obviously after the 2005 change in the law. If you go and look at that, there are a couple of interesting points.
First, ART technology evolved so that there was less need for donor sperm. Intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) allowed many more heterosexual couples to use sperm from the male partner. It’s easy to understand that where they could use sperm from a male partner, heterosexual couples would choose to do that rather than use donor sperm. You can see the rising use of ICSI almost mirrors the declining use of donor sperm. Of course, ICSI wouldn’t be particularly useful to single women and lesbian couples as they still need a source of sperm.
This, however, doesn’t help me understand the reports of a sperm shortage. Even if you simply kept the supply constant, if you reduce the demand, you’d hardly expect a shortage to result. And, as I said yesterday, the number of donors seems to be rising.
Brent offered a different explanation, that seems plausible, though I don’t know if there’s actual data to back it up. He suggested that more people were bringing in their own donors. But of course, these donors would be only for the use of the woman/women/people who brought the donor in. By contrast, a donor who just came on his own might provide sperm for multiple people.
Thus, you could actually end up with more donors (if you count the number of people, which is what the statistics I discussed last time do) but less available sperm. (I’m not sure if I saw any statistics for that.)
Brent stated that the use of known donors was in response to the shortage of sperm generally. While that certainly is possible, it also seems to me that the use of known donors might rise for other reasons, including increased sensitivity to issues raised by use of unknown donors, or even identity release donors.
I’m thinking here that whatever social movement lead to the 2005 change in the law in the UK might also have changed public sentiments somewhat so that more people wanted to use donors that were known to them and could be known to the kids earlier in their lives.
This is just speculation on my part, but it does seem possible to me, as does Brent’s proposed explanation. And of course, it could be both. Or there could be other explanations. I’m less than comfortable without having some sort of statistics in front of me. For example, did the increase in use of known donors occur before or after the change in the law?
But ultimately, though I appreciate the proffered explanations, it seems to me there is still a bit of a mystery. The actual dip in sperm donors began before the change in law, so it hardly seems like that the change in law explains the dip. To the extent the news stories link the sperm shortage to the change in law, that case remains unmade. And more fundamentally, I haven’t actually seen statistical evidence of a shortage of sperm yet–just these news reports which do not inspire my complete confidence.