From time to time I have written about reports of a shortage of men willing to provide sperm for ART. I’ve addressed specific reports of shortages in the UK (about which I’m quite confused–see the post I linked to) and Canada. Now here’s a report about a similar problem in Australia. Indeed, it appears that the situation is far more acute in Australia than in either Canada or the UK–there are only 30 donors available in Australia.
The article says there used to be 100 (which still doesn’t seem like a terribly large number to me) but that the willingness of men to provide sperm has diminished because of a change in law I’ll discuss in a moment. This is a causal connection I’ve seen drawn in other places (particularly the UK). I’m a little skeptical.
Here’s the change in law: Australia now requires that sperm providers agree that their identities will be made available to any child conceived with their sperm when the child turns 18. At that point, the child might choose to contact the provider. I assume, although the article does not say this, that the provider would have no legal obligations of support vis-a-vis the child–it’s simply that the child could contact him and potentially pursue some sort of relationship.
Although I don’t know the history of the change in law in Australia, I assume it was motivated by the same set of concerns that lead to the same change of law in the UK. It’s a sentiment frequently expressed by commenters here, too—the idea is that children conceived using third-party gametes have a right to know the identity of the gamete providers.
I don’t doubt that some men are willing to provide sperm if they are guaranteed permanent anonymity but not if they are told their identities will be disclosed when the child turns 18. That seems a perfectly reasonable proposition to me. What is surprising is that so many Australian men seem to fall into that category–70% of the providers, it seems. The statistics from the UK don’t show anything like that (indeed, as I read them they show a small increase in the number of providers the year after the law took effect.)
It’s also worth nothing that it is illegal in Australia to have a commercial arrangement with the sperm provider. I’m not quite sure what that means. Most obviously, you cannot pay a man for his sperm. That’s true in a number of places, but sometimes you can pay a man something for the “costs” he incurs in his donation. (I think this might be the rule in Canada). And of course, what counts as costs may be a bit fuzzy. I don’t know what Australian law is on this point.
What’s surprising is that the article also says that some clinics are importing as much as 80% of the sperm they use from the US. Import is legal if 1) the provider agrees to identity release and 2) the provider is not paid.
I’m rather surprised that there’s an adequate supply of sperm for export from here, frankly, since payment is pretty standard in the US. In that environment, why would men be willing to provide sperm for free? The explanation in the article is that Americans are more altruistic than Australians when it comes to sperm donations. This seems somewhat unlikely to me, but I suppose it is possible.
It’s hard for me not to think of this in market terms. If you want sperm, and if you want sperm from men who are willing to agree to identity release, then you could easily get it by offering to pay an appropriate price. I’m not even sure you’d need to pay much of a premium for identity-release. My understanding is that clinics that collect sperm in the US and pay their providers give men the option of choosing identity release or not without offering any premium. And many men do choose identity release. Obviously this raises the spectre of commodification, but it surely resolves the sperm shortage.
There’s one other point I feel compelled to comment on. It’s common for regulations to specify how many children a provider’s sperm can be used to create or the number of families it can be given to. There are a number of reasons for this I won’t rehearse here. But New South Wales has a very unusual variation on this provision. First, the number is 5, which is quite small. It’s more typically 10, 20 or 25. Second, the five includes the provider’s own family. (I think they’re counting by family, rather than by child.)
Given that many providers offer their sperm when they are young–before they have their own families–I wonder how they mean to enforce this. Would they tell a man he and his wife could not have children because he’d already provided sperm to five other families? I find that very hard to believe.