Recent reports say that the UK is facing a severe shortage of quality sperm donations, meaning that it will be forced to import sperm stocks from Denmark and the U.S. There are a number of reasons why sperm shortages are bad news for our reproductive health, and especially for the women who are trying to get pregnant. Here’s a look at what sperm donation shortages might mean if this problem isn’t solved.
1) More Invasive Procedures for Women
Most of us are aware of the IVF procedure. While it may be uncomfortable for the woman who must go through the procedure, it is considered only mildly invasive as it usually involves introducing the sperm sample.
Procedures like Intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI), which are often used when the sperm sample is of poorer quality or the donating party has a low sperm count, are more invasive. They involve first harvesting eggs from the prospective mother so that a single healthy sperm can be injected into one egg. For the hopeful woman, this means another set of procedures that can be stressful and are not guaranteed to work.
Obviously, with sperm banks running low on donations there is the potential that they will need to switch to these more invasive procedures in order to maximize their stocks, something that could make the process even more daunting for the women undergoing fertility procedures.
2) Sperm Banks Could Begin Accepting Lower Quality Sperm
The alternative to importing high-quality sperm, which is more costly and if needed over the longterm may serve to drive up the cost of already very expensive fertility treatment, is that sperm banks could start accepting lower quality sperm.
Right now the threshold is set very high to offer the best chance of a healthy and successful pregnancy. Some doctors have argued that this threshold is set too high and that in the general population we would in fact see many men who would have their donations rejected by sperm banks fathering perfectly healthy children.
Yet other medical experts believe that any relaxation of the rules will likely put women through more invasive procedures (like those mentioned above) because the lower quality sperm would need all the assistance it could get, and puts the children at risk of developmental abnormalities that would have been guarded against if the sperm samples had been as rigorously checked as they are now.
It’s important to stress though that these are just speculative fears, like those expressed by one doctor to the BBC, and not a reality at the moment.
3) It Encourages So-Called “Sperm/Fertility Tourism”
In 2005 the UK changed its laws on sperm donation to mean that, should a child who was conceived via a sperm donor want to one day track their biological father down, they have the legal right to do so (though the biological father has no financial burden as a result of this change). At the time critics said that this would mean men would think twice about donating. Sperm donation actually seemed to increase for a time, but then donation numbers dropped off. Some doctors earmark the lack of guaranteed anonymity as one possible contributing factor for Britain’s current problems.
Various restrictions on sperm donation and laws chipping away at donor anonymity have appeared around the globe and, whether rightly or wrongly (and the data isn’t convincing either way yet), is in part blamed for donor shortages. Getting around laws like that, then, is what some people have attempted to do, and that’s where fertility tourism comes in. This is where couples and individuals hoping to get pregnant via fertility treatment or sperm donation travel to countries where restrictions are not as tight or cumbersome.
While some countries (say Denmark) provide good fertility options (though getting treatment as a non-national is more difficult), there are a number of countries where this kind of practice carries severe risks. Lax vetting procedures may mean an abundance of sperm samples, but it can also mean the risks of complications or unhealthy sperm. It may also mean using unqualified doctors who potentially might botch procedures, as a relatively recent study has documented.
4) It Encourages “Underground“ and “DIY“ Sperm Donation
The Internet is an amazing tool, but its ability to allow us to connect and communicate can also carry its own set of drawbacks. One such problem is the rise of so-called DIY sperm donation. For years now, stories have emerged of women seeking men online to donate sperm without going through a sperm bank. A number of sites have popped up offering this kind of service, and there are even stories of women meeting with men and trading cash for a prepared sample.
The risks are obvious. While the man may say that he’s got a clean bill of health, there’s no guarantee that is true. Even if it is, there will be no objective quality control on that sperm sample, and the DIY procedures that a woman may use to get pregnant at home carry significant health risks of their own.
As to the problems in the UK, some health clinics have said that fears of a shortage are overblown, but there seems to be a general consensus that there is a shortfall in men donating and that if it continues, it could impact the UK and other nations’ fertility treatment capacities with a good deal of the burden falling on the shoulders of women.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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