The sperm drought: Why New Zealand needs more donors

You may snigger, but it’s a serious issue. Emily Writes asked embryologist Emily Wilson why our nation needs more sperm donors.

Emily Wilson works at Fertility Plus, the main provider of publicly funded fertility treatment in Auckland. The clinic also sees people who are not eligible for public treatment, including women over the age of 40, those who already have a child, single women and lesbian couples.

Emily Writes: Who needs sperm?

Emily Wilson: Donor sperm is mainly used by single women, lesbian couples and couples where the male partner has no sperm, often because of a medical condition. Some people will ask someone they know to be their donor, but others may not know anyone suitable or feel more comfortable using a clinic sperm donor. The shortage of clinic sperm donors has meant that some people are trying to find donors on the internet, but many people rightly have concerns about this approach, for safety and legal reasons.

Why is there such a shortage?

For many years there has been a shortage of egg and sperm donors in New Zealand. There are probably several contributing reasons for this, but one significant difference between us and other countries such as the US, where there are lots of donors, is that we are legally not allowed to pay egg and sperm donors in New Zealand. We are allowed to reimburse for expenses ($1,500 for egg donation and $75 per visit for sperm donation at our clinic), but this is nothing compared to the thousands of dollars that is paid in the US, where donors are often college students doing it primarily for money. The availability of donors in other countries does mean that people who can afford it are travelling and having fertility treatment overseas.

But is it ethically wrong to pay people for sperm?

In New Zealand, paying people for sperm is against the law.  It has been decided that in our country we do not want to trade sperm as a commodity and that people should donate it as a gift, although they can be compensated for their expenses.  There are some countries that share our stance and others where payment is allowed, and a quick internet search will lead you to websites where you can select a sperm donor based on attributes such as eye colour, hair colour and height, as well as which genetic testing they have carried out.

There are some serious concerns about some overseas donor sperm companies, for example that they do not adequately keep track of pregnancies resulting from the donor sperm and so have no upper limit on offspring, or even a way to identify how many children result from each donor. This could have very serious consequences if an inherited condition was linked to a donor or if two offspring from the same donor were to meet and start a relationship.

Are people afraid to donate sperm?

Often people have assumptions and fears about sperm donation that are incorrect, for example that a child is going to turn up on your doorstep when they are older. Although in New Zealand when a child turns 18 they can access information about their donor, they generally tend to contact the fertility clinic first and the clinic counsellors can facilitate information sharing or meeting if both parties are happy to do so.

So if you donate sperm, what rights do you have and what rights does the child have?

Under the Status of Children Amendment Act of 1987, the sperm donor has no legal rights or responsibilities to any offspring born as a result of their donation.

The Human Assisted Reproductive Technologies Act 2004 states that any donor offspring has the right to find out the identity of their donor at the age of 18. When a baby is born from donor sperm, the information about the child and the donor is sent to Births, Deaths and Marriages and this information is held on record there.

How bad is the waitlist?

There are hundreds of people on waiting lists for sperm and egg donation at fertility clinics around New Zealand. It is common for people to wait several years to be matched with a donor and this waiting time may impact the chance of their treatment being successful, as their fertility may have declined in that time. This is especially so for single women, as they often wait until they are in their late 30s to decide to seek fertility treatment alone, and by the time they are matched with a donor it can be too late.

Often people also want a donor who is of a similar ethnicity to them and this can be really difficult to find for some people.

Is it getting longer?

Yes, as time goes on the waitlist is getting longer. It is becoming increasingly common for single women to seek fertility treatment and this is contributing to the longer waiting lists.

What kind of sperm do you need?

We need sperm donors who are healthy and between the ages of 20 and 45. Our fertility clinic is located in Auckland so they need to be able to attend appointments there but there are other fertility clinics in other locations.

What’s the process for donating sperm?

Initially you will be required to provide a semen sample for analysis and a trial freeze and thaw. If it is suitable to proceed, you will need to have blood tests, a urine test and a saliva test to check for infectious diseases and genetic conditions. You then need to complete consent forms and documents with non-identifying information about yourself. You and your partner (if you have one) need to attend a counselling session with a counsellor to discuss social, ethical and personal issues relating to sperm donation. You will have an appointment with one of the doctors at the fertility clinic you go to. The doctor will assess your medical suitability as a donor and will cover your personal and family history. You will then need to produce several sperm samples that can be frozen. The number will depend on how your sperm survives freezing and thawing. You’ll need to have a repeat blood test six months after your last sperm donation. This is vital so that your frozen sperm can be cleared from quarantine and is ready for use by a recipient.



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