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On 23 August the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (the independent regulator for IVF treatment and embryo research) issued a statement inviting expressions of interest on how to tackle the shortage of sperm and eggs donated for IVF treatment in the UK. The Authority will hold a full, public consultation into its donation policies and is currently researching the issues before deciding exactly which aspects to consult on.
The consultation comes amid reports of increasing numbers of childless couples turning to unlicensed web sites which offer to put them in touch with donors. Unlicensed arrangements such as these mean that sperm and egg donations are not screened and unlike arrangements regulated by the Authority mean that a sperm donor will be treated as the legal parent of the child conceived. For these purposes the sperm donor would have all of the legal rights and responsibilities of a parent including child maintenance obligations.
Increasing numbers of childless couples are also using overseas surrogates to conceive. The Evening Standard has reported the increasing incidence of Western couples making the decision to use Indian surrogate mothers and more recently increasing numbers of British Asian couples also using Indian surrogates. So called, reproductive tourism can often prove irresistible to couples desperate to have a child. Less regulation in certain jurisdictions means that clinics can implant multiple embryos thereby increasing the likelihood of a successful pregnancy.
It was widely speculated that donor numbers would fall following the waiver of donor anonymity. Those who have donated sperm, eggs or embryos after 1 April 2005 are by law identifiable. Any person born as a result of donation after this time is entitled to request and receive their donor's name and last known address once they reach the age of 18. It is however more likely that the shortage of donors is due to various factors, such as the complete ban on commercial surrogacy arrangements in the UK, inadequate compensation especially for egg donors as well as bureaucracy.
On 22 August, Jonathan Leake writing for The Sunday Times reported that sperm and egg donors could be offered up to £800, a significant improvement on the £250 currently offered to donors. This is arguably still too little, particularly for egg donors who undergo a series of medical checks and injections to stimulate egg production, prior to a medical procedure to remove eggs, which is not risk free.
It remains to be seen whether the consultation will pave the way for more commercial donation and surrogacy arrangements to be introduced. Commercial arrangements however give rise to ethical issues and the risk of exploitation, irrespective of where the arrangements take place, overseas or in the UK. Introducing commercial arrangements in the medical field is however a minefield. If introduced to resolve the donor shortage, what is to stop organs, such as kidney's being ‘donated' for a fee?
In America attractive college student donors are offered gifts and generous compensation packages between $5,000 and $10,000. Egg donation offers a recession proof source of income for some struggling students, notwithstanding the health risks involved. Most States allow recipients to browse information about donors' medical history, physical attributes and academic achievements. Whether this approach to solving the donor shortage in the UK, will prevail, remains to be seen. The HFEA public consultation will begin in January 2011 and will run for three months. The results of the consultation will be available in May 2011.
Amandeep Gill is a Professional Training PSL at Jordan Publishing.
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