Is There A Chinese Sperm Shortage?

As I’ve written in the past, there have been persistent reports of sperm shortages in the UK and Canada.  The stories–particularly the ones from the UK–are vexing as people draw causal links that seem to me to be unwarranted.  (In particular, people related the UK sperm shortage to a change in UK law regarding anonymity despite the fact there appear to be more donors since the law took effect.)

Anyway here’s a very brief story about another reported sperm shortage–one new to me.   This time it is in China. 

Several interesting things, even though the story is really very brief.   First, you can see that the cultural attitudes towards sperm donation are very important. That’s unsurprising but it ties into why there is differential pricing for gametes from different types of donors.   Simple economics would suggest you have to offer more money in order to overcome greater reluctance to be a gamete provider.

Second, there’s the note about the number of permitted offspring.   I’ve written in the past about the “too many offspring” problem.  Limiting the use of the sperm is the most obvious way to deal with the issue, but this is the counterweight:   Allowing too few offspring means you need more sperm providers.  (I’ve read that this is related to the real problem in the UK.)

Third, there is what sounds like an epidemic of infertility–and presumably male infertility.   Wouldn’t it be good to know what might cause this?

But really what I find myself thinking about is what isn’t in the article.   The demographics in China are such that young men vastly outnumber young women.   (That’s because of the one-child policy and the strong cultural preference for sons.)   This hardly seems like the sort of situation in which you’d see a sperm shortage.   I’d love to know how it all fits together.


6 responses to “Is There A Chinese Sperm Shortage?

  1. Just to comment on the UK situation…the only one I know a lot about. The truth is that there were never enough sperm donors, even before the ending of anonymity for donors in 2005. Also, the fertility doctors (mostly men) did not believe that it would be possible to recruit identifiable donors. They also did not believe that the government would defy them and remove anonymity. When it became clear that the government was going to go ahead with legislation the doctors either closed their clinics, warned off potential donors with scare stories or made no effort whatsoever to recruit the kind of donor who WOULD agree to be identifiable, ie. men in their thirties already in stable partnerships and often already parents. These were the reasons why there was a sperm shortage for a couple of years and some clinics started importing sperm from ‘UK compliant’ donors in the US and Denmark. Since that time two clinics have shown the way in the UK that many men are happy to donate identifiably, but time, effort and money has to go into finding them and making it easy for them to donate. Sometimes simple things like opening clinics early in the morning before work or at weekends, as these are men who are responsible and have responsibilities, unlike the students from pre-2005 era who were not encouraged to think about the children resulting from their donation. There is no sperm shortage in the UK at the moment, although some sperm is still imported, partly because US donors in particular provide very much more information about themselves (as a requirement of the sperm bank) than UK donors do.

    • Thanks for adding all that information. I have to say, it makes me slightly crazy when I read media coverage of the UK sperm shortage that seem to essentially recycle the same old information without even checking the HFEA statistics. It’s really good to have some sort of substantial analysis.

      One other random thought: I think i’s unsurprising that having an identification requirement shifts the type of person who will donate, but this isn’t a bad thing at all.

  2. Just to add to what Olivia’s said, the NGDT has been in discussion with the HFEA for some time about how effectively sperm donations are used. Due to issues with reporting pregnancy and births (big problems if you use the same sample too many times and all of them end in a pregnancy) and also the way data on births per donor is collected eg for donors who’ve used more than one clinic or a sperm bank, donors often aren’t reaching the ten family limit even where they’ve chosen to donate to that number. So there are possible efficiency gains to be made from sorting some of these administrative matters out, which would help address the long waiting times at some clinics.

    • This problem is a large one in the US, too, but of course, in a minimal regulation landscape it plays yout quite differentlly. Sperm banks often don’t know when a woman gets pregnant. No one reports it back to them–and indeed, sometimes the fertility docs don’t even know. So they don’t know how many offspring have been conceived. At most the sperm banks may know how many people they’ve supplied with sperm from a particular man.

      It sounds like in the face of this uncertainty, UK practice is to choose the conservative course and remove the sperm from circulation. I’m not sure that’s always the result here–and of course, there’s no national registry of ddonors here, either. Some men donate at multiple banks and there’s no cross listing. So some donors (as we’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog) have literally scores of offspring.

  3. The UK uses the original Cohen-Currie mathematical model for determining the maximum number of offspring per donor which is 10 world wide vs the DeBoer derrivation which is a mathematical formula which adjusts the maximum based uppon the size of the population. The ASRM switched from the strict limit of 10 to the DeBoer model in the late 1990’s
    which takes the reigns off of entrepeneural U.S. Clinics and allows a couple hundred thousand offspring per donor world wide. Their formula of 25 per population of 800,000 sounds like a limit of 25 but when you realize that many populations of 800,000 exist in most large U.S. cities and when you realize most large cryobanks are shipping sperm internationally you have to apply that formula to the world population and you can see that the recommended limit is so high that it ceases to be a limit. The limit is also so high that its clear that cryobanks plan to be reproducing that man for probably years after the rest of his body is dead and gone. Sperm banks now require year long committments from donors. Not a one shot deal but huge stockpiles of their inventory as back stock of models that they are gambling will be popular in any era. It is a long term business plan something along the lines of an American institution like IBM or Coca Cola or Ford – they are planning for the businesses to outlive the current owners.

  4. Julie you raise an excellent point about males outnumbering females in China. I wonder how that will impact their sperm and egg market moving forward eggs are already a hot commodity. There like in the U.S. they do genetic testing to screen donors for illness but fail to test them against recipients to see if the customer of the clinic is an immediate relative of the donor. It could not be that the clinic operators are too stupid to have taken this into consideration, they can’t possibly just have overlooked this large glaring detail. I am assuming that customers and donors are not tested against one another because they don’t want to cut into their profit. Donors who live in a region are likely to have relatives in a region. We know they have parents and grandparents and most will have siblings aunts uncles and cousins many will live in the same area as the donor. As the years pass while the the clinic is selling the donors sperm the donors siblings will have children adding neices and nephews second cousins and their own children to the donor’s list of relatives who run the risk of anonymously inbreeding with the donor. If his semen remains in circulation for many years he would be just as likely if not more to anonymously inbreed with a daughter than one of his own siblings earlier in his career as a donor because he has ten times the number of offspring that his father and mother had. The risks of inbreeding for donors and recipients is NEVER discussed and I think the public should be asking why and what the clinics are doing about it whether in China or Europe or here in the U.S.

    We here about multiple offspring falling sick from the over use of a single donors sperm. How can you test for everything and isnt screening it all out a step toward Eugenics? You can’t test for everything because everyone will have some undesirable physical ailment. Once a person exists with that ailment it does not mean they are less worthy of life but it might mean caring for them is more labor intensive than for someone without thati ailment. In real life, responsible procreation involves limiting the number of offspring to those you can personally attend to and care for. You might stop at having just a few developmentally disabled children if you cared for them yourself. Rather than 50 if you were reproducing blindly with strangers and abandoning the resulting offspring. The solution is not to limit the number of offspring or do more intensive screening for disease. The solution is to make people responsible for their own genetic offspring.

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