Long-time readers may recall that I have written a number of times about reports of a sperm shortage in the UK. (This is the most recent post–from 2012–and it links to many older ones.) I’ve always been skeptical about the existence of this sperm shortage since the actual number of donors (as they are called) was increasing. It is, of course, possible to have more donors and still have a shortage–if demand increases at an even more rapid rate, say. But the reporting on all this was so inept that it was actually very hard to tell what lead to the reports of shortage.
In any event, it’s time to revisit this story in light of this report. Far from a shortage, now there is apparently a “boom” in sperm donations. (It’s important to note, though, that this story is sourced to a single sperm bank–the London Sperm Bank. But the idea of an increase in donors does seem to be born out in the official statistics, which are apparently only available through 2010.)
The thing that interests me most here isn’t just the question of whether there is a decreasing or increasing supply of sperm (or number of donors). The statistics here have always been presented in light of a change in UK law. In 2006 the UK abolished anonymous sperm donation. Going forward, men who provided sperm had to be willing to be identified to and potentially contacted by the children produced with that sperm. At the time this change was instituted (and resisted) the alarm was raised: The donor supply would collapse in the face of this requirement.
The idea here, of course, is that men would only provide sperm if they were guaranteed anonymity. And I think part of what happened was the people continued to tell the same story even when the statistics didn’t bear things out. (Sheer force of will bending reality to your ideas, maybe?) But the more time passes, the harder it gets to sustain this particular story.
I’ve actually written about the London Sperm Bank in the past. As you can see from its website, it takes a somewhat different approach to recruiting donors than most sperm banks I’ve looked at, and it is one that seems to be particularly successful given the change in UK law. This interests me because I think the change in UK law is a good one.
It’s also one that potentially has far-reaching consequences. I’ve noted this before, but the new press coverage hints at it again. A different regime of sperm donation–one where donors are not assured of anonymity–will attract a different group of donors. The typical anonymous donor is, I think, a college or graduate student. Single. Not a father. And not thinking about much beyond the money in all likelihood. As this donor to give up anonymity–to live with the idea that 20 years down the road someone might show up at the door–and he will very often decide there are other ways to earn money.
The donor who is willing to be identified and contacted will be starting from a different place. He has to think about the child as well as about the money. That might mean he is more on the altruistic side of things–donating to help someone else have a child. What I’ve seen (again, written about before here) suggests he will be older and is far more likely to already have children. Frankly, I hope he makes a more careful and considered decision.
The recent news story doesn’t speak in these comparative terms. It says:
The new figures include 45 IT managers, 36 financiers, 26 engineers, 19 teachers, 16 actors, seven lawyers and six film-makers as well as models, bar-tenders and chefs.
Still it seems clear that many of these donors aren’t college students (because thy have identified jobs/careers) and aren’t likely in it purely for the money (for the same reason).
I know for many the whole idea of sperm donors is an anathema, and of course, if that is the case this probably doesn’t seem better. But for those who do support the use of third-party sperm (and I do), it seems like the non-anonymous route brings two different sets of benefits–the benefit to the child of being able to trace genetic lineage should he/she wish to do so, and a group of donors who seem to me more likely to be making careful and considered decisions for good reasons.