England

Sperm websites addressing growing demand for donors?

The nine-month suspended sentence handed down to two men from Reading in Berkshire for illegally selling sperm over the internet has highlighted just how lucrative the donor insemination (DI) business can be.

Ricky Gage, 49, and Nigel Woodforth, 43, pocketed £250,000 between October 2007 and November 2008 through their unlicensed website, Fertility 1st.

Southwark Crown Court jurors heard the pair were able to charge clients £380 for each sample from anonymous donors.

They were caught out when a client complained after receiving a copy of a donor's medical tests - with his name visible.

Since April 2007, any UK business wanting to "procure, test, process or distribute" unfrozen sperm has had to hold a licence from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

Prior to the legislation, insemination using fresh sperm was completely unregulated.

The HFEA said the lack of regulation was exposing people to serious risks - donated sperm could carry disease, including HIV and chlamydia.

The rise in the number of internet-based sperm donation firms only fuelled safety worries.

Under the new system, donors are registered and given blood tests, while sperm is "quarantined" for six months prior to use.

The maximum any donor can receive in expenses in the UK is currently £250.

To date no internet-based firm in the UK has approached the HFEA for a licence.

After Gage and Woodforth were convicted the HFEA said the judgment "protects vulnerable women from exploitation".

So why do women and couples risk buying sperm from unlicensed internet-based companies?

Research shows, there are many contributory factors including age, financial constraints and the scarcity of donor sperm.

Since the anonymity of registered sperm donors was removed in 2005, the demand for sperm in the UK now outstrips supply.

When the child of a donor reaches the age of 18, he or she can write to the HFEA - which keeps a register - to discover the donor parent's name.

Some would argue this explains why Gage and Woodforth were able to amass such profits within just 12 months.

The UK is not the only country in need of more donors.

Regulations vary worldwide

Since Canada outlawed payments for donor sperm and eggs in 2004, the availability of "home-grown" donor sperm has dropped.

This is in contrast to Denmark which has more recently become a popular destination for British women hoping to conceive.

The Danish spermbank Cryos, thought to be the world's biggest sperm bank, exports sperm to 60 countries around the world and is a thriving multi-million pound business.

Unlike the UK, it allows donors to remain anonymous as well as paying them for their donations.

HFEA figures for 1991 to 2007, show the average age of women trying to conceive through DI has risen from 31 to 35.

Olivia Montuschi, founder of the Donor Conception Network, a group of 1,300 women who advise and help other women trying to find a sperm donor, says women turn to unlicensed internet-based companies for a whole host of reasons.

Ms Montuschi said they were often in their late 30s, with no partner, their fertility is "running out" and they want to get pregnant quickly.

"These women typically would much prefer to have a child in a conventional relationship," she added.

Artificial insemination is offered to couples free of charge on the NHS but only under certain criteria.

Image caption Sperm supplies in the UK have dropped since the introduction of donor anonymity

Eligibility can also vary between primary care trusts (PCTs) and the waiting lists for treatment can be very long.

"A HFEA-licensed clinic will cost between £600 and £1,000 per cycle [a course of treatment to coincide with ovulation], an internet provider around £300," said Ms Montuschi.

"It follows that these women are likely to be poorer than those who choose a licensed facility.

"Some people often mistakenly believe licensed clinics do not treat single women or lesbians. Or they are unwilling to go through scrutiny and counselling that would be mandatory in a licensed clinic."

Ms Montuschi also pointed out that some women still preferred to have an anonymous donor.

In the UK there are 45 licensed clinics that recruit sperm donors. Of these, 17 are based in London.

The London Sperm Bank (LSB), which incorporates Louis Hughes sperm bank and The London Women's Clinic sperm bank, is thought to be the country's largest provider of donor sperm.

For those looking elsewhere, it is as easy to access internet sites selling sperm as it is to access sites selling groceries.

Search engines throwing up a list of links to licensed UK clinics and support organisations, compete with international websites selling sperm - and unlicensed UK donor sperm websites.

Although, the HFEA says it has written to the website firms that it was aware of prior to the 2007 legislation, it admits it does not know how many may still be operating illegally.

The authority, which is currently reviewing its donation polices, is to launch a public consultation in January.

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