A Google search “looking for sperm donors” brings up over 70,000 results. Not all of these offer unregulated sperm donation, but many do, potentially exposing users to a host of dangers.

We look at the implications of the rise in such sites, the health and legal risks and what can be done to address them.

Subject to Parliamentary approval, the Government plans to wind down the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) and The Human Tissue Authority (HTA) and transfer their functions to other bodies. The HFEA’s current role is to license and monitor UK fertility clinics and all UK research involving human embryos, and to educate the public. The HFEA’s research functions are to be transferred to a new research regulator. The non-research functions of the HFEA and HTA are to be absorbed by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

There has been much speculation and debate about the pros and cons of disbanding the HFEA. Whilst of interest, the debate has not focused on a much bigger issue. Whichever organisation is to be the regulator in the future, unless the Government expands that body’s powers, the rise in quasi-legal fertility-orientated social networking sites will remain outside its control. Currently the HFEA has no power to regulate the burgeoning number of websites which have sprung up to meet the ever-increasing shortage of donated sperm. Women hoping to conceive, and men willing to donate sperm, can register with these sites for a monthly fee. Prospective sperm donors can then contact prospective mothers through the site offering their services. Women have a choice of “artifi cial insemination” (IVF), and “natural insemination” (unprotected sex). Payment may be requested in the form of hotel or travelling expenses. These practices have led to a public outcry in the media, with accusations that the “donors” are preying on vulnerable women and opportunistically seeking no-strings sex. But where does this leave the woman who is paying (in expenses, with her body, and sometimes with her health) for a chance to conceive?

In a press release issued on 23 June 2010, the HFEA denounced such sites and those who run them, threatening to report them to the police, in circumstances where it has the power to do so (although its powers are limited). Lisa Jardine, Chair of the HFEA, gave the following advice: “We can see why people who want to have a baby might be temped by this shortcut. It might seem to be cheaper and easier. In fact it is fraught with risk. Our advice is simple – go to a licensed clinic and be protected.”

The health risks of obtaining donated gametes through unregulated fertility sites

  • the general health and fi tness of the donor and the woman have not been tested
  • the donated sperm (and the woman’s eggs) have not been screened for genetic diseases
  • the donor, woman and any child conceived are all at risk of STDs/HIV, particularly if the woman opts for the natural insemination route
  • there may be psychiatric consequences for the donor, the woman and any child conceived
  • the child may grow up not knowing who his/her biological father is and not having access to information about the donor and his family’s medical history

The legal risks

  • the legality of the sites is a grey area. It is illegal to procure gametes (sperm and eggs) but does putting individuals in contact with each other amount to procurement?
  • the man will be recognised as the legal father. This means the woman can pursue him for child support; equally he could apply for access to, or custody of, the child
  • by contacting the donor, the woman may be liable for the criminal offence of procuring sperm
  • unscrupulous individuals may use the sites for all manner of other purposes

RPC comment – what can be done

  • increase public awareness of the existence of these sites, the dangers and pitfalls
  • clarify the defi nition of “procurement” to determine the legality of the sites
  • place legal restrictions on the existence of and use of the sites
  • increase safeguards on access to the sites to prevent abuse
  • look at ways of increasing regulated sperm donation, for example, raising the limit on the number of regulated sperm donations permitted by a specifi c donor, and/or increasing the fi nancial incentive.