Quick Follow-up on the (Mythical?) UK Sperm Shortage

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.


6 responses to “Quick Follow-up on the (Mythical?) UK Sperm Shortage

  1. The HFEA is run by a woman of integrity, Liza Jardine, a history professor. There have been problems with other HFEA heads who haven’t cared about the donor-conceiveds’ feelings and thus are poor agents for the DI-community, but Prof. Jardine is a fair player who enjoys and maintains a responsible position in running the HFEA (and reflecting UK law).

  2. Banking crisis – what should be done about the sperm donor shortage?
    06 July 2009
    By Antony Blackburn-Starza
    BioNews Volunteer

    Appeared in BioNews 515

    Only 4% pass the screening test…

    The vast majority of applicants are rejected because of poor sperm quality (85 per cent) and others because of concerns about sexually transmitted diseases (7 per cent) or their genetic history (8 per cent).

  3. The numbers of new sperm donor registrations in the UK have gone up four years in a row now following the ending of anonymity, thus reversing a three year decline.

    I’ve seen it suggested that this is because there are now more “directed” donors who only donate for one recipient, but I’ve seen nothing to suggest why this should be the case.

    I suspect that part of the reason there are fewer treatments now is because of companies like the short-lived Mannotincluded.com and similar websites. It’s really easy now for recipients to find a private donor who will donate for free. As well as being cheaper, some recipients prefer to know whose sperm they’re getting, and they want their children to be able to find out who it is before they turn 18.

    Private donors have been around for decades, especially for lesbian couples, but the emergence of the commercial companies and internet groups to put recipients in touch with private donors happened around the same time as the ending of donor anonymity in clinics.

  4. We now learn from a recent HFEA meeting, that “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.”

    Dr Pacey et al need to stop complaining about the ending of anonymity, and fix the logistics of the distribution of donor sperm.

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