Unlimited sperm donation needs rethinking

In the past month or so, Internet news sites have been buzzing over a New York Times article which documented the case of a child, conceived as a result of sperm donation, who has found approximately 150 half-siblings through an online donor registry.

This has sparked a flurry of responses, many of which are calling for government-based regulation in order to limit the number of live births per donor, in an attempt to minimize the possibility of accidental incestuous relationships between half-siblings. While regulation in the United States is undoubtedly necessary, Canada’s position in regards to sperm donations is even direr. In 2004, Canada adopted the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, which listed a number of sanctions, including prohibitions on cloning, sex-selective abortions and on the creation of embryos purely for research-purposes.

This act also caused a massive disruption in the sperm donation “industry,” as it also prevented donors from accepting payment for sperm. This specific clause has had a significant impact on sperm donation, with the number of sperm banks falling from 40 to a single one. The Toronto Institute for Reproductive Medicine (Repromed) is now the only location in Canada where infertile couples, single mothers and lesbian couples can purchase insemination units.

The closing of so many sperm banks is directly related to a sharp decrease in the number of donors, rather than a drop in demand. In fact, a report released in February 2011 by Assisted Human Reproduction Canada, confirmed that there are only an estimated 60 donors remaining in Canada, while the number of awaiting patients sits closer to 5,500. This is due to the fact that few men seem willing to submit to six months worth of tests for a meagre $70-75 as compensation, which barely covers transportation costs and lost wages. As a result, about 80 per cent of sperm donations used are actually from the United States.

With so few donors, sperm banks have to be flexible with the number of live births per donor. At this point in time, there is no limit enforced by the government regarding the number of live births that can originate from a single donor. Sperm banks do self-regulate, but many say this is insufficient. Repromed’s current donor limit is three live births per 100,000 population in a given geographic area. However, as Tom Blackwell pointed out in a National Post article, this could mean that a city like Toronto could have as many as 75 live births from a single donor, a number which multiplies exponentially if you factor in the possibility of multiple children counting as a single live birth. With the declining number of donors and the never-ending demand, sperm banks may be tempted to increase their limit.

The final issue that arises at this time is the fact that limitations based on geographic area are no longer a reliable precaution. Not only are insemination units being shipped all over the world, it is impossible to expect each and every child to stay in his/her native geographical area. As well, parents of donor-conceived children are recommended, but not required, to inform the sperm banks of the successful births. In the United States, only between 20 per cent and 40 per cent do, making it impossible for sperm banks to enforce even their own limits. As such, the number of children conceived using the same donor could very easily get out of control.

Donor-conceived children presently run the risk of unintentionally entering into incestuous relationship with their half-siblings, which would have detrimental effects not only on any offspring, but on the sperm donation industry as a whole. Canada needs to take the necessary steps to enact legislation that would regulate donor-conceived births through limits on the number of families (and not individual births) who successfully conceive with the same donor.

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