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Crackdown on internet sperm providers

Fergus Walsh | 19:12 UK time, Friday, 17 September 2010

Why would any woman go to an unlicensed fertility company to obtain sperm? It's a question that emerges following the conviction of two men who ran an internet firm providing fresh sperm. Among the reasons maybe a belief that using an online service is easier, cheaper and less bureaucratic than going through a licensed clinic. A shortage of sperm at licensed clinics may also play a part.

Until July 2007 internet firms providing fresh sperm did not fall under the control of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. But new regulations meant that distributing or procuring eggs or sperm without a licence from the HFEA became a criminal offence.

The trial of Nigel Woodforth and Ricky Gage was the first of its kind under the new rules. They ran a website called Fertility First, and claimed to have 300 donors. In one year alone nearly 800 samples were delivered by courier to women along with home insemination kits.

The pair said they were simply offering a service but that was dismissed by Peter Thompson from the HFEA who says that women were being exploited by unlicensed firms.

"You don't know whether the sample is safe. The donor is the legal father whether they like it or not and in later life any child born has no right to find out their genetic history when it becomes an adult."

In a licensed clinic sperm is frozen and quarantined for six months. The donor is tested and re-tested for HIV and other infections, which may take months to show up. Furthermore, the sperm quality is assessed.

But there's a problem. Many clinics are facing a shortage of sperm and that means potentially long waiting lists for treatment. Dr Allan Pacey a senior lecturer in Andrology at Sheffield University says he's been concerned for years about internet fertility firms and is pleased by today's result. He urges women to seek treatment through licensed clinics:

"I can see why some women might be seduced to visit these websites and order sperm on the internet thinking it's safe and they can have the privacy of being treated in their own homes but without recognising the dangers."

Why are clinics facing a shortage of donated sperm? The reasons are not entirely clear. In 2005 donor anonymity was removed, so that offspring of donated sperm can trace the donor when they reach 18. The donor does not have any legal or financial responsibility. Some couples seeking treatment and some donors are unhappy with the new arrangement.

The number of donors has actually risen, but the number of treatments has fallen. This might be because donors are stipulating that their sperm can be used only for one couple, known to them.

The question arises as to whether the tightening of the laws on unlicensed clinics and a shortage of sperm might force some women to seek a DIY agreement with a friend or acquaintance. Nigel Woodforth and Ricky Gage will be sentenced next week and have been warned they could face a jail term.

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  • 1. At 8:36pm on 17 Sep 2010, anonemouse wrote:

    I became a sperm donor after hearing on the BBC about shortages. I thought about the subject, decided it best to 'help out'. Googled what I needed to do and hey presto became a donor.

    Unfortunately I ended up being a donor for fertility 1st. They didn't tell you they were unlicensed (for obvious reasons) and at the time I had no idea what the HFEA was. I now face the horror of women coming and asking for money, I have my own family and only wanted to help.

    I feel decieved by Fertility 1st. The seemed to be running a geniune operation at the time.

    I feel naive for not looking in more detail. But forgive me, who really knew all the ins and outs of this before this case?

    I feel vilified by the HFEA. As an unwitting donor I too was exploited yet they, and the law don't care.

    Like all 'genuine' donors I had hoped the donor offspring would know me at aged 18, that wont happen now. They wont get the genetic history they deserve.

    In the end it really does seem that no good deed goes unpunished (FYI - I wasn't 'paid' anything for my sperm, I was a donor)

    So unhappy about this.

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  • 2. At 10:51am on 18 Sep 2010, Megan wrote:

    The lack of anonymity for donors is a concern and there is no good reason for its removal.

    A sperm donor is in no way, shape or form any kind of 'parent' to a child conceived in this manner. Even less than the birth father of a child adopted at birth.

    I was put up for adoption at birth, and as far as I am concerned my only parents are the couple who took me in and raised me as their own. A couple of years ago an approach was made by someone who is my half-sister by birth, but I feel absolutely no connection whatsoever... so far I have not met her, which is a bit of a shame as she sounds a really nice person who I'd probably get on with as a friend: but she is not, and cannot be, a relative.

    She understands, although she'd rather meet and make a connection: but what if she wanted to push the matter? She knows where I live and could literally turn up on the doorstep if she wanted to, no matter how much I did not wish to meet. Think of the problems that could cause a sperm donor, if perhaps his current family did not even know he'd donated sperm or had an ethical or religious objection to the process.

    I understand that some people feel a need to find out these purely biological links, but it baffles me completely. It's an area I'd like to explore sometime...

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  • 3. At 3:36pm on 18 Sep 2010, Stephen_Douglass wrote:

    What is the biggest problem the human race faces? Not enough resources? Global climate change? Not enough food? Destruction of many other species of plants and animals? It all comes down to one thing. There are too many people on the face of the earth. Personally, I think all fertility services should be permanently shut down. We have to put the good of the whole race ahead of individual desires to procreate. I have two children who at 28 and 30 have not had children. I'm comfortable with that. There are plenty of other children who I can teach and help. I'm with Sir David Attenborough. Children are our future. But too many destroy the future.

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  • 4. At 3:37pm on 18 Sep 2010, Donatus wrote:

    I did try and post a previous message, but it was "moderated" it appears, though nothing that breaks the rules of this site
    I too like Anonemouse above was a donor for Fertility1st.

    When I was contacted by Ricky Gage/Nigel Woodforth, I was advised that they had taken over the previous "site" to which I had been registered.
    It did not occur to me to question their qualifications/or if they were registered to an approved body.

    However, unlike Anonemouse, I was fully aware that this would give me anonymity, as it was explained as " fresh" the legislation was not the same if it was "frozen"
    I had tests every 3 months,paid for via the recipients, so no health worries for the recipients as previous articles seem to be scare mongering.
    + I was paid £50 for each donation.I'm sure you were too Anonemouse!!
    I believe that I am responsible for at least 6 babies.

    From a previous site, I am a known donor, on the basis that the 2 children(siblings) can contact me once they reach 18, if they want to.

    I am not a father, or consider myself to be one. I just supplied the chromosomes. A father is more than biology.
    I did not have a great realtionship with mine, however a fantastic one with my step-father.
    My reason, well 2 lots of friends had trouble conceiving naturally, needed medical help and their lives have been transformed by having their own children. There was a piece on Radio 4 in 2003 concerning a shortage of men to donate. altruistic motives only
    I am in East Anglia

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  • 5. At 5:15pm on 18 Sep 2010, BladetteFC wrote:

    I am a gay women who has been with my civil partner for 5 years. When we discussed starting a family it seemed sensible that the first port of call was our GP. I'm sorry to say that the visit was pointless - the first thing she said was that it would cost about £2500 to begin with and that she would refer us. We then received a letter from the hospital stating that there was a shortage of donors and they had a long waiting list(presumably due to the change in the law re waiving donors anonimity) and that they could therefore not add us to the list - this is the last we heard from the NHS (We attended the GP in Oct 2008).
    We looked into private treatment who were also short of donors and who seemend to force IVF treatment also. We considered egg donotion to offset the cost but ironically i felt emotionally unable to deal with the consequences of any possible offspring this may have produced.
    At the time Fertility 1st were our only option. I had numerous e-mail exchanges with Ricky and Nigel and have no bad words to speak of them.i certainly do not feel exploited.
    I was lucky enough to conceive first time and am therefore proof of their motto that women shouldn't be pressured into expensive IVF treatment when it is not always necessary.
    As far as the HFEA's comments relating to the "father" having rights etc (and to put anonemouse's mind at ease) - i fail to see how this can be when my partner has adopted our child - the courts were satisfied with the documents i supplied from fertility first, showing that the donor understood he had no parental interest etc. Again to put anonemouse's mind at ease - i assume the people using fertility 1st would be similar to myself - i wouldnt dream of trying to contact the donor (not that i know how!) to ask for money - it's common sense if you ask me - besides it was all in the t & c's for recipients that they agreed not to.
    I had hoped that if needed i could trace the donor - ie if my child needed a medical procedure but equally after thinking about it - maybe i have no right to do this either - it would hardly seem fair asking for a kidney etc from a stranger, so either way i don't feel our child or us have lost out if we cannot trace the donor.
    I was aware of the risks re the untested sperm but i trusted in fertility 1st to keep me safe and i was aware that donors had regular tests which is confirmed by donatus above.
    At the end of the day we have a beautiful baby thanks to nigel and ricky and i know that they are proud of what they have done (and they should be) and am upset to think that they may face a prison sentence. The BBC's coverage seems quite negative and focused on some womans comments of a simple mistake re the donors name being visible - so what? she knows his name, and? and it is incredilous that she wanted a refund because it didnt work? (presuming i have read the article correctly).
    This whole matter could have been avoided if the law regarding anonimty hadnt changed in the first place, there wouldnt be a shortage of donors and the nhs could deal with the demand. interestingly i had a friend who said he tried to donate via the nhs but that they made it incredibly difficult and it put him off.
    After our child was born my partner and i discussed if we would add to our family. We concluded that we felt incredibly lucky with the one child we had and that we probably wouldnt but that if we ever did, we would only go ahead if we could use the same donor - its sad to think that now fertility 1st has ceased trading this isnt possible and that any decison to have another child has been removed from us.
    on a final note i would urge donors to carry on doing the great "deed" they are doing - you may make people, like my partner and i, happy!!

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  • 6. At 5:37pm on 18 Sep 2010, ml66uk wrote:

    When is there going to be a crackdown on HFEA clinics? I'm losing count of how many times the wrong sperm or embryos were implanted. That's just in the UK. Some of the stories from the USA and Canada simply beggar belief.

    People in white coats really don't seem to like ordinary people thinking for themselves. Just because clinic donation is "regulated" doesn't make it better. Maybe some recipients actually want to conceive their children by having sex, or do the doctors and ethicists want to ban that too? Maybe some don't want to spend hundreds or thousands of pounds no fertility treatment, when they don't actually have any fertility problems. Maybe some recipients want to meet the donor before they use his DNA to help create a child. Maybe they want their children to be able to meet him before they're 18. Until 2005, all regulated clinic donation was anonymous, which is now generally regarded as being wrong.

    I happen to agree with that. The donor-conceived, rather than the parents, clinics, or donors, are the people most directly affected by donor conception, and they are the ones who have to live with the consequences the longest. Why should an infertile couple's desire to have a child override a donor-conceived person's desire to know the identity of their genetic father? Just because Megan and Donatus don't feel any connection to their genetic fathers doesn't mean that others will or should feel the same way.

    I believe that the ending of donor anonymity in the UK was long overdue. It was actually ended as a result of a case brought by two donor-conceived people to the European Court of Human Rights. Other countries that have ended donor anonymity include the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Finland, Switzerland, Austria and New Zealand.

    According to HFEA figures, the numbers of clinic sperm donors have gone *up* four years in a row since the ending of anonymity, thus reversing a three year decline. The 384 sperm donors in 2008 was the highest figure since 1996, and 160 more than in 2004 just before anonymity ended. The drop in treatments seems to be connected with funding, and many recipients (especially lesbians) using other internet groups instead of clinics. There are several free groups to find a donor - I stopped counting at twenty after searching Yahoo groups for "sperm donors". Fertility1st's problem was that they were actually delivering the stuff, and running it as a commercial operation.

    If a sperm donor wants to be anonymous, then he simply shouldn't be a sperm donor. I was a sperm donor over 20 years ago, and if I have any genetic children looking for me, I've made it as easy as possible for them to find me.

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  • 7. At 5:46pm on 18 Sep 2010, ml66uk wrote:

    @BladetteFC: If you do decide to have another child, there's a chance you might be able to contact your donor via either the Donor Sibling Registry or one of the Yahoo groups. There is a membership fee on the DSR to make contact, but all the Yahoo groups are free, and there are several UK donors listed.

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  • 8. At 6:48pm on 18 Sep 2010, BladetteFC wrote:

    Thanks ml66uk - i will have a look just to see so i can prepare for the future...!

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  • 9. At 12:03pm on 20 Sep 2010, Sally wrote:

    Why would any woman go to an unlicensed fertility company to obtain sperm?
    This is the question which opens this blog.
    The answer for us is that as intelligent, educated women, my partner and I weighed up our options and decided that Fertility1st offered us the right service for the right price.

    We were fully aware that it was not a licensed service - BECAUSE IT DIDN'T NEED TO BE! (shouting intended!)

    Like BLaddette FC, we had a great result in the form of our 19th month old little boy and owe that to the donors who sign up for services like Fertility1st.

    I am really disappointed at how this story has been reported, not just by the BBC, but by all the supposed "grown up" newspapers.
    Intelligent and educated women from all walks of life who have chosen to use the service of Fertility1st are being portrayed as foolish people who have been duped or exploited. This simply isn't the case.

    I am sick and fed up with the nanny state we live in and wish common sense would prevail.

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  • 10. At 4:03pm on 20 Sep 2010, GeoffWard wrote:

    .
    You say that private licenced clinics are facing a shortage of sperms.
    It would seem to me that fertilising each ovum with fewer sperms would be the answer - in my day just one was sufficient.

    ;-)

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  • 11. At 4:36pm on 21 Sep 2010, Lewis Standing wrote:

    errr sally. You seem to be unaware of the benefits of the sperm coming from a registered provider. It gives you peace of mind in ensuring that the donor doesn't have HIV for one, which may or may not be present in unregistered/approved sperm donors. The "nanny state" has deemed it appropriate to prevent the spread of HIV among other things such a rubella. Both of which would either cause serious fetal malformations (rubella) and serious morbidity and mortality in the unborn future life (HIV).
    I guess you dont realise that you are being reckless or believed that the company did indeed test for these viruses. The point is the government carries out its responsibility to protect its citizens from organisations that do not let it audit their use of screening of sperm.
    Overbearing nanny state beauracrats!

    People resort to companies like these to get around the waiting list. Which is fair enough, impatience is a virtue these days but reasonable given that egg quality declines. So the real argument here is we need more donors, regardless of the legislation.

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  • 12. At 7:30pm on 21 Sep 2010, donor_723442 wrote:

    I'm heartened to read the comments by Sally and BladetteFC. I donated via First for Fertility, and I hope that the women that had babies from my sperm are as happy about it as Sally and Bladette are.

    Undoubtedly those women took a risk about HIV and other illnesses, similarly to the risk that any woman takes when she conceives a child through sexual intercourse. But the sort of man that chooses to donate sperm is, like me, going to be at least as careful as any other biological father to make sure that he is safe and healthy. The state has not yet intervened to impose tests on people that choose to have sex together, so I don't really see why it should intervene to impose tests on people that choose to donate or receive sperm in bottles.

    I'm saddened by the wholly negative spin that the media has put on this story. It is quite unreasonable to focus on the amount of money that Nigel and Ricky have made (in fact, £250K is not that much, if spread over several years and divided between the two of them, and after the costs have been taken out). I am glad that Sally and Bladette feel gratitude towards Nigel and Ricky for having helped them produce wonderful children. I too am grateful.

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  • 13. At 12:11pm on 22 Sep 2010, BladetteFC wrote:

    Thanks for your kind words donor723442.....

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  • 14. At 9:32pm on 25 Sep 2010, Chryses wrote:

    ml66uk,

    "... If a sperm donor wants to be anonymous, then he simply shouldn't be a sperm donor ..."

    And that is why I shan't be a sperm donor.

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  • 15. At 00:57am on 03 Oct 2010, braveraddish wrote:

    Have a friend whos looking in to this at the mo
    she says clinics in england lack the facilities to
    ensure a safe sample compared to clinics in America
    where samples are washed,tested for Php? viruses and other
    infections. The GP told her there were no facilities
    within the NHS for private patients wanting this treatment.
    Seems like a good money spinner to me, cheap to do too.
    oh and the clinics in America have all kinds of data from
    their donors, like hight, education, religion, interests,
    genetic background, hair, teeth even voice recordings, and
    an overseas service. Didnt how regulated it was though.

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