In Britain, a decline in sperm donors
Anonymous no longer, most say they want to help infertile couples, not just earn extra cash.
Mark Jackson does not come across as your typical sperm donor.Skip to next paragraph
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He's 37, for one thing. For another, he's a stocky, blue-collar worker of average stature - not the archetypal college soccer recruit.
But Mr. Jackson is by no means an anomaly. With sperm donation no longer an anonymous act in Britain, not only have donor numbers fallen, but the profile of the average volunteer has totally changed.
For would-be parents with fertility problems, that's both good and bad news. It may be harder to find a donor, but that donor is more likely to be a middle-aged family man than a curious student keen to make some cash for the weekend - and wary of the prospect of actually meeting his offspring a few years down the road.
"In the old days, the classical recruiting ground was the medical school," says Gedis Grudzinskas, medical director at one of Britain's largest sperm banks, the Bridge Fertility Center in southeast London.
Now, he says, "These men don't seem to be concerned about anonymity because they are more mature and able to deal with someone coming up in 18 years time and saying, 'Hi Dad'."
Jackson says it's a positive development. "I would rather get people who really care to come forward to be donors," he says. "If I was a child born to a donor, I wouldn't want to be told my father was a student who just wanted the £15 fee to go out on a Saturday night."
Donor anonymity has been a hot-button issue in Europe for years. Several countries have scrapped it, including Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, the Netherlands, and Britain - in April of this year. The recent case of a boy of unspecified nationality who found his biological father using genealogy websites and an Internet DNA-testing service has underscored how fragile parental anonymity has become.
The big concern in Britain was that removing anonymity would decimate already feeble donor numbers. Indeed, one recent study showed a sharp fall in volunteers after 2000, when the anonymity question started to be debated. Official figures showed the number of donor insemination treatments fell from 25,000 a decade ago to 6,000 in 2003.
"The feeling was that losing anonymity was off-putting for someone who wouldn't know where they would be in 18 years' time," says Jane Stewart, a specialist in reproductive medicine at the Newcastle Fertility Centre.
The reduction in donors has had striking consequences. Several sperm banks have shut down, leaving several regions unserved and further discouraging potential donors in those regions from coming forward. (Jackson had to complete a 150-mile round trip each week for three months to contribute.) Other clinics have started importing sperm from the US and Denmark, where donor numbers are far higher.
One in seven British couples have fertility problems, not to mention thousands of women who want to conceive but have no male partner. Around 900 children are born through donor insemination in Britain each year. But to meet demand, clinics say that they need far more than the 250 donors who sign up annually. Without them, the implications for fertility treatment in Britain could be severe.