Can There Really Be A UK Donor Sperm Shortage If There Are More Sperm Donors?

If you look back over the past several years you’ll find some posts about a reported shortage of sperm donors in the UK.   These were generated after I read repeated news stories about this problem.   (I linked to some of those stories in my 2010 post.)

Now the popular explanation for the sperm shortage was that in 2006 UK law changed and essentially abolished anonymous sperm donation.  The identity of sperm donors is now to be made available to any children born via that donation when the children turn 18.   The story you’ll find consistently in the media is that the loss of anonymity caused the sperm donor shortage.

But that’s just not the case–though somehow this doesn’t seem to be news.   In that 2010 post I wrote about how the actual number of donors, reported by the HFEA was growing, not shrinking.   Now, thanks to ml66uk you can see that this trend has continued.    Here are the recent HFEA statistics.      In 2006 (the year the law changed) there were 303 donors.   In 2010 (the last year there is data reported) there were 480.  That’s over 50% more donors than there were six years ago.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a sperm shortage.  Maybe there is.   It could be, for example, that donors are having fewer offspring or remaining donors for shorter periods of time or that the demand for donor sperm is increasing more rapidly than the supply.

It also doesn’t mean that the change in law–the shift away from anonymity–hasn’t affected the donor pool.   I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the donor pool is different in a system where there are no anonymous donors.   (There’s been a lot of discussion about this, and the link I included there can take you into that.)

But it most assuredly means that it is simply wrong to say that the shift to anonymous donors has caused a sperm shortage.   That’s just fiction.   I rather hope it is old fiction–I haven’t seen one of those stories in a little while–are they still making the rounds?

I think statistics are always tricky and generally caution is warranted.  There’s correlation and then there is causation.   Everything I’ve said here is about the former and I’m just speculating about the latter.    But looks to me like there are more sperm donors in the UK today than there have ever been before which means the question I’d like to see discussed is why the number of sperm donors is rising.   There’s a brief discussion of some possible reasons on the earlier post I started by linking to and maybe I’ll come back and develop that some more here.

In the meantime, note that the money paid to UK donors is going to rise this year as part of an effort to address that sperm shortage.   This makes me think that the shortage is real.  But it also makes me wonder whether someone is looking into why the number of donors is rising even without offering more money.   And of cousre, it will be interesting to see what difference offering more money does make.


11 responses to “Can There Really Be A UK Donor Sperm Shortage If There Are More Sperm Donors?

  1. Being on the ground here in the UK, the supposed ‘shortage’ is a bit of a myth. What seems to actually be the case is that supply is patchy – some clinics are brilliant at recruiting donors and have no waiting lists (one in particular which is really donor-focused) and others who don’t put much effort in to recruitment have no donors and long waiting lists. It creates stories of shortage where there isn’t really one across the board. I am pretty sure there has also been rising demand, although interestingly demand from heterosexual couples has been affected by ICSI treatments etc becoming available, so this is probably mainly from single and lesbian recipients. That would make sense. Under the pre 2009 laws in the UK, clinics had to consider the child’s ‘need for a father’ before offering treatment, which started as a virtual ban on treatment for these patient groups although this softened over time. Since 2009 that requirement has been removed and it has really opened the doors to alternative families being created with donor sperm.

    • Thanks for adding in this information. It’s really invaluable. It also makes a lot of sense.

      I’m afraid that reporters like overarching narratives. Though I think you could make a story out of the circumstances you describe (spotty availability based in some ways on competence in recruiting and managment) it’s not as dramatic and simple as the sperm shortage story. And, as I think Adopted Ones suggests below, there may be an underlying interest in tying the “shortage” to the end of anonymity to the extent people do not like the end of anonymity. After all, if you want to roll back the policy it would be handy to have some negative effect you could point to. I’m not saying this is principled–I don’t think it is.

      It’s also possible that there is a grain of truth here–in the sense that it wouldn’t suprise me in the least if some who used to donate now do not donate and say that this stopped because of the change in law. This doesn’t mean there’s a shortage. It means (as I suggested) that there are different donors.

      It’s a good cautionary tale. You have to take what you read in the media with a grain of salt and, if at all possible, look behind the story that is told.

      Also good point about the shift in consumers. Again, if you take out heterosexual couples (because of ICSI), you’d think the number of overall users would fall, but that really depends on whether the number of lesbian couples/single women rises enough to offset the loss of those heterosexual couples. The overall demand could rise.

  2. Julie,

    I would expect that the reason the stories continue are in part because some clinics etc and some want to be parents don’t like the fact that the law bans anonymous. To bad is my attitude there.

    Yet there is also another side to the story that could account for the various stories as to why there may indeed be considered a sperm donor shortage. The UK unlike the USA implemented 10+ years ago a 10 family limit per sperm donor. It used to be that a total of 10 were allowed and mulitples each counted. Then multiples only counted as 1. There were also exceptions made to allow a sibling within a family etc.

    This from the January 2011 Consultation request (no idea if any changes made since).

    “The number of families a donor can help to create

    We set a limit on the number of families one donor’s eggs or sperm can be used to help create. The current limit is ten families. This limit minimises the possibility of two children from the same donor having a relationship with each other without knowing they are genetically related. It also addresses the perceived needs of donor conceived people and their parents in maintaining a relatively small number of siblings.

    We are seeking views on what the family limit should be, to ensure the right balance is struck between increasing the availability of donated eggs and sperm and protecting the interests of donors and donor-conceived people.”

    And finally – with the understanding made public that DC actually have feelings about their conception and the discussion taking place – those who donate now are more informed as the many faces of DC. They are informed so recruitment of more donors will be tougher than before.

    • it is important to look at the stuff about number of offspring. One thing I’ve heard (is this in the much earlier post I linked to?) is that the actual number of offspring may be really low because tracking is hard and so once a clinic uses a donor once or twice they stop using him. In other words, ten might be fine in theory, but that’s not what it used in fact. In fact, the number is more like 2–and at that point even the rise in donors isn’t enough to offset loss of supply. I’ll try and look for that documentation.

      Also, did you notice that the item just below the number of offspring discussion in the document you linked to is about donation by family members–the topic we’d been discussing? I’ll try to follow up that, too.

      Finally, and to your last point, I’m not sure recruitment of donors will necessarily be harder as understandings of DI change. It will be (and is) different. Some men are more willing to be donors with the new understanding while others are less so.

  3. The law actually changed in June 2004 and came into effect on 1st April 2005. “Donor-conceived people conceived after 1 April 2005, when they reach 18 years old are able to apply to the HFEA to find the information their donor provided, including identifying information.”

    Given the time taken to donate and test, and the six month quarantine period, new donors wouldn’t have been able to donate anonymously after June 2004. According to the figures, the numbers of sperm donor registrations have gone up six years in a row since then, thus reversing a three year decline. For whatever reasons, despite all the press reports (none of them in the last year or so), when anonymity was ended, the numbers of sperm donors stopped going down and started going up. The 480 donors in 2010 was the highest figure since they started keeping records, and more than double the figure in 2004. The numbers of egg donors are also at a record high.

    The number of recipient families per donor was left at ten last year, though there had been calls for it to be increased (and some calls for it to be decreased).

    • I’d been wondering about the timing of all this so thanks for filling that in.

      It certainly seems that there must be some explanation (or set of explanations) for a six year trend of increasing numbers of donors. It could be a diverse set of factors (like better advertising/recruitment as well as changing attitudes). It could also be accompanied by a shift in composition of the donor pool–I’ve read that older men are more likely to donate as you move away from anonymity, for instance. I’m sure it is possible for someone who really understands statistics to sort all this out but I’m not that person. I can only speculate. I do wonder if someone is working on it.

  4. i do not even like the language of “sperm donor shortage”
    makes it sound like some kind of medication or essential product

    • It’s not my language–it’s the way the press chose to portray it. Sometimes you’ll see it referred to as a “sperm shortage,” which I think is even a bit odder.

  5. Much more money is spent on donor recruitment – the National Gamete Donation Trust barely existed in 2004 and is a lot stronger and more effective now. But the figures are constantly misreported – I think some journalists are simply lazy and don’t check, while others like to pose anonymity as a conflict of interests between parents, donors and children and choose to focus on the (negative) drama rather than going to the effort of listening to what real donors have to say.

    • It’s a good point about donor recruitment. It opens a different series of questions–who does donor recruitment, what does it look like, what is the interest of the recruiter. I suspect the UK system is a bit more controlled than that here in the US. Here ‘donor recruitment’ often means placing ads in college newspapers or on phone poles near college campuses.

  6. This has been very interesting to read. Thanks to all for posting and having this discussion. It is a very important one that is not in the media the way it is in comments sections with intelligent people such as yourselves.
    There is much talk about the adults in these situations. But what of the children? That until the child is 18 he/she is barred by law from knowing the name of one or potentially even both of their biological parents is totally unacceptable. The biological parent is the biological parent at conception, not at the child’s 18 birthday. The child wants to know their biological parent/s before the age of 18. Denying both of these things is to put the desires of adults before the rights of the children.
    I also feel that it is evident that the choice of 18 years of age is precisely because it; a) keeps donors from having to deal with children wanting to know and be known by their parent/s as this might be 1) unpleasant, as children cry and moan and do not understand why you do not want to know them, yet created them, and 2) it would, and to those who know better, does deter people from donating gametes (and rightly so), b) if/when the child does want to seek their biological parent/s, they will be 18, and thus will not be regarded by many people in our society that they should not be listened to and appreciated when they speak of the hurt that they often feel by having been born into the world this way – since ‘everyone was born into something not so ideal, so what?’ They love their life and the people who raised them, but this does not change that they are upset, some much more than others, that their desire to know their biological parents, their right to know, was stripped of them for the convenience it provided adults. They do not wish that they were never born, but why would we want to promote, endorse, and work to facilitate people feeling this way?
    Many people who are not familiar with the stories of children who were born out of gamete donation who are now coming into adulthood simply do not know about the consequences of anonymous donation and thus the likely consequences of 18-years-of-anonymity donation. Not a single person i have talked to about this has not agreed with me that this issue needs to be addressed with a focus on the rights of the children precisely because the children have zero say in the matter. Sometimes a child can never know their parent, or their parent runs from them. We should work in this situation, as we do in others, to help ensure that the child can know and be known by their biological parent.
    The question then must be, why is the government either keeping anonymous donation legal, or, why are they picking 18 years of age as the time when the identity is revealed? I believe it is because governments take orders from the corporate sector, and this is a business, as destructive as many others the corporate sector invests in, and they want it to continue for the profits it generates as well as for it furthering the capitalist ideology that requires that all things be commodified if at all possible. As well, the corporate sector wishes to convince as many people as possible that genetic relationships do not matter. As much as love is the key ingredient to successful human relationships, a biological connection is important to most people, and very important, and there is nothing wrong with this. It feels good, we feel whole, when we know our origins and that we were not created in such a way that were denied something that those creating us knew we would want, and created us in order to get, no less. When we do not have this awareness of our origins, we feel empty, some more than others. Emptiness is a good feeling for people to feel according to the private sector that employs all sorts of methods to make us feel terrible and then to believe that their product will make us feel better. And maybe more importantly, the worse people feel physically and mentally, the less likely they are to feel emboldened and confident in efforts to organize to fight against the aspects of the capitalist system that are destructive to the Earth, to our bodies and to our mental well-being, as the corporate sector and their government’s handling of this issue makes evident, – to me and others if not all who take the time to regard my thoughts on this matter.
    And of course, there are those who say that it is a gay rights issue. They claim that if there are no anonymous donations, then gay/lesbian couples (as well as heterosexual couples and single potential recipients, they concede rightly) would not have the same rights that heterosexual couples do in so much as they would not be able to produce children of their own and a family of their own without much inconvenience. The inconvenience, they argue, would be so large, and because they were gay, that it would amount to being stripped of a right that heterosexual couples enjoy. What is not understood by this camp, is that it is no one’s fault that homosexual couples need a third party to be involved in the creation of the child they wish to raise. Nor is it anyone’s fault that the children, that you and I, have a right to know who our biological parents are, and that no society should enact laws that prevent this in any way shape or form (except of course, potentially in situations I can not even imagine right now that would have fundamentally different merits).
    Again, the corporate sector, through it’s media and it’s governments, works to convince as many people as possible that either you are against gays being treated as equals if you are against anonymous donation, or you are for anonymous donation if you are for gays being treated as equals in an egalitarian fashion. By fomenting a ‘culture war’ as much as possible, whether the differences are truly fundamental or not, the corporate sector and their government keep people from uniting behind things that both sides agree with. Comments sections of articles like this, whether by someone for gay marriage or against it, often have the same points being made. That children should be regarded fully in this issue. The media, Fox News and NBC, both work to keep the discussion polarizing and incomplete. The corporate elite depend on people being misinformed about each other. When people do not identify with those who share their values, and instead identify with those of the same arbitrary designation such as race, sex, nationality, or gender preference, they are less able to organize a force that is truly powerful because it is supported by enough people to win because it does not identify and arbitrary aspect of a person as the quality that determines their values and goals for their family and our society.
    The bright side to this is that many homosexuals do not know they are effectively being slandered by the Left-wing media and not just the Right-wing media. Same for those against anonymous gamete donation and the commodification of reproduction being slandered by the Left-wing media and the Right-wing media. If enough people become aware of this, things can start to change for the better.
    As well, many oppose same-sex marriage for reasons having to do with believing that marriage is the special union of two people to produce a family of their own being officially endorsed by the state, acting as an arm of society (as many gays feel as well, which is why they are fighting for it). The state does not regulate friendships or other relationships the way it does marriage because marriage is considered by most people to be about producing family, producing children. And with that in mind, endorsing same-sex couples’ marriages is equal to endorsing the couples use of the available techniques allowed by law to create family, and this includes anonymous gamete donation or near-anonymous gamete donation. National Organization for Marriage opposes same-sex marriage precisely for this reason, not a word on their site about anything else. If it is charged that they are hiding an agenda that is bigoted, it should be asked what would prove that they are not hiding an agenda. If it is said that nothing could prove it, the charge becomes a statement of faith and does not take anything away from the merits of their position. It is thus an unfair charge.
    NOM rightly believes that using the word ‘marriage’ for same-sex couples would imply an endorsement by the state in their name that they do no agree with. Civil Unions are not challenged by NOM precisely because they feel that it is not by definition and tradition a partnership intended to produce children. They are not against same-sex couples adopting. They are not bigots. They are concerned for children, which is a concern of everyone who has common decency, which is to say that it is a concern of most people – whether gay or straight or other, which is to say that this divisive situation is not one that is irreconcilable at all.
    This division does, however, serve the interests of those who wish to divide us and keep us unaware of their doings and not united to stop them. If they can convince the NPR listeners that all who oppose same-sex marriage, which is the solid majority of the country, are not fit to have a say in society because they are bigots, any large-scale broad-based movement/revolution to make the world more decent by stopping the corporate agenda will be incredibly difficult to organize, because it will need the kind of large-scale participation that wold require both ‘sides’ working together quite intimately. And if they can convince those who oppose the idea that it doesn’t matter if you are biologically related to your family or not, and those who oppose the commodification of gametes, wombs and the production of human beings that these things are endorsed by the granting of marriage licenses to same-sex couples, then these people will find themselves being called bigots for unfair reasons which does lead them to view the ‘pro’ same-sex marriage side as elitist and lacking a concern for children.
    The best divide and conquer is done over things that are not really differences. We must overcome this by exposing the corporate agenda and the real level of agreement among us all, and not the level purported by the corporate controlled media. Please visit for more. Thank you so much for reading, I truly appreciate it. -A.B.S.

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