Sperm shortage puts IVF couples in limbo

IT was often joked about as an easy and pleasurable way for young men to make money. Donating sperm was a good deal for everyone: the man could walk away afterwards without a care in the world, while the recipients of the donation were able to fulfil their dream of having children.

But when anonymity laws changed in 2005, the process began to work against almost everyone.

Men were put off the idea by the prospect, 18 years down the line, of one or more knocks on the door revealing they were a father.

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This resulted in a downturn of donations, meaning women desperate for children were unable to satisfy their procreative desires.

The only winners were the children conceived from such methods, some of whom may now in later life be able to satisfy their curiosity as to the identity of their natural father, even if he has not been involved in their upbringing, and whether they have half-siblings.

It was a difficult balance to strike, and it is hard to form an argument against the right of children knowing the identity of their parents. But ending anonymity for donors has created a new problem.

The crisis across the UK has now become so bad that some clinics aren't even adding women to waiting lists for artificial insemination because they know there is no prospect of finding a donor.

As a result, a series of recommendations have been unveiled by the British Fertility Society and several charities, in which they urge the government to take wide-ranging and immediate action. Among these are to abolish the rule that a sperm donor may only have ten babies born from his sample. Experts say this is too low, and that in a country the size of the UK it should be 25.

They also say a sperm-sharing scheme should be considered, where couples undergoing IVF treatment could pay a reduced price if they were willing for the sperm to be used by others.

More counselling and advice should be available to donors to ensure there are no gaps in their knowledge, they said, although they did not go as far as recommending changing what was acceptable criteria for a donor.

Walter Merricks, chairman of the Donor Conception Network, said: "Recruiting sperm donors needs determination, investment and special skills, and it makes sense that the task should be shared."

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Laura Witjens, chairwoman of the National Gamete Donation Trust, said: "Dedicated potential sperm donors are lost on a regular basis because of insufficient care or lack of access."

A knock-on effect of the "critical shortage" is that those who are fortunate enough to receive the treatment will have had to wait longer than normal, and may be of an age where success is less likely.

Whenever NHS Lothian receives a request for artificial insemination, the sperm is bought in from other clinics across the UK. In fact the only two centres in Scotland where donor sperm can be accepted are in Dundee and Aberdeen.

This means that, without the full facilities to accept, process and pass on donations, it is impossible for a campaign to be launched in the Lothians, without telling would-be donors to travel north to make their deposit, making the already tricky job of persuading men to participate even harder.

If there were shortages in homegrown donations in Scotland, health boards were able to bring in sperm from other European countries, but that too had to change under the anonymity laws.

Susan Seenan, Infertility Network UK's spokeswoman, said: "Some clinics have not been accepting new couples on to a waiting list, because they know that they have no chance of providing them with the treatment in the foreseeable future.

"The number of donors has been dropping steadily over a number of years after the government announced it was considering removing donor anonymity.

"Since anonymity was completely removed, this decline has continued, and we now have a severe shortage of donated eggs and sperm right across Scotland.

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"Patients are having to seek alternative ways of accessing treatment, either by finding their own donor, which is not an easy task, or travelling abroad.

"Patients suffering infertility are on an emotional roller coaster that affects every part of their lives. The only thing worse than discovering that you suffer from infertility is finding that you cannot access the treatment you need to help you."

Statistics show that in the last year 11 women in the Lothians were added to the NHS waiting list, which they will have to remain on for around three years, unless they go abroad for treatment.

The only choice for others is to go private and pay thousands of pounds for treatment, often with imported sperm.

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