Lesley Gordon discusses the decline in the number of sperm donors, the change in the anonymity rule in the UK, and the related legal issues.
Readers may be familiar with the Hollywood comedy film ‘Deliveryman’ starring Vince Vaughan, who discovers that he has fathered 533 children through anonymous sperm donations to a clinic 20 years ago and faces a class lawsuit from 142 of them trying to find out the true identity of their donor, ‘Starbuck’. Indeed when I was at University in the late 1980’s the path to the fertility clinic was a well-trodden route for many male students looking to supplement their grant. In those days, with sperm donors remaining anonymous, no doubt like Starbuck, their only concern was how to spend the additional cash with no consideration to any long term implications for them or any future family.
But times have apparently changed and levels of sperm donation are now so critically low that the national sperm bank in Birmingham is planning a recruitment drive having received only nine donors since it opened last year. I wonder if they will follow the example set by NHS Grampian who, in 2009 included within the payslips of thousands of their employees a plea for donated eggs and sperm. Its one thing to take deductions from salary for pension contributions or a nominated charity, but this was surely something rather different in kind!
Change in the anonymity rule in the UK
One reason for the national shortage is believed to be the change in the anonymity rule in the UK. Now, all people, from the age of 18, who have been born as a result of artificial insemination under the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act are entitled to see details of their natural parents.
In terms of the Act a sperm donor has no legal responsibility to financially maintain that child, and the child has no right to inherit anything from the man’s estate, but it would appear that this is little comfort and that the prospect, decades later, of a knock on the door of his happy family home by a person clutching papers to prove their paternity and claiming to be the half sibling of the three young children of his marriage is no longer worth the price of a few additional pints in the student bar.
Another possible reason for the decline in numbers is the high standard of masculinity demanded for the system. Men need to have particularly robust sperm to qualify – about 80% or 90% of male applicants are rejected on that ground. The head of the National Gamete Donation Trust has called for “supermen” to sign up. An ability to fly is probably not essential but how many Clark Kents would be prepared to risk a particularly humiliating rejection?
Donated sperm has undoubtedly brought much happiness to couples who may otherwise remain childless and no doubt the anticipated recruitment campaigns will focus on the positive outcomes of such generosity. Anyone who is thinking of donating should ensure that they are fully aware of the potential future consequences that lack of anonymity may bring.
Image Credit: “Lego Superman” by Steffen Voß. Licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).