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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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