It’s been a busy, busy week, mostly paying attention to writing and editing various contributions to DC Network’s next Journal – including a transcription of the panel of six children and teenagers at the London conference earlier this year – but last night I also attended a focus group for parents of DC children and adults commissioned by the HFEA. Earlier in the day groups had been run for donor conceived people, donors and those seeking donor conception treatment. There were eight people, including one couple and one solo mum in the parents group, with children ranging from two year old egg donation twins to my two of 27 and 31. We were all DC Network members. Whilst this makes me very proud of the willingness of the DCN family to get involved in helping shape the future in this way, it undoubtedly means that the voices of those who choose not to join the organisation go unheard. They, and particularly those who are not telling their children about being donor conceived, are the ‘hard to reach’ of the donor conception community. We were pressed several times by the facilitator to try to think what the information and support needs of the latter group might be but all of us found it hard to put ourselves in the shoes of people who would seem to be choosing to opt out of thinking about what being donor conceived might mean for their children. The group I have considerable sympathy for are those who know in their hearts that their children deserve to know, but because of the faith or cultural communities they live in, fear discrimination, stigma and prejudice would result, should donor conception become known about. I also worry about families where one partner (usually but not always the non-genetic parent) is adamant that the child should not be told the truth, whilst the other would much prefer openness and bears the burden over the years of evading questions or even directly lying about likenesses in the family. As several of last night’s participants said, everyone needs to attend a preparation course before commencing treatment with donated gametes and SOME people, as a result, should be making other choices about ways to create a family.
On another topic, I have just listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 called The New Viking Invasion about why so much Danish sperm is being imported into the UK. Fertility writer and commentator Kate Brian researched and narrated this light-hearted but also serious look at the popularity of Danish sperm, asking the important question first of all, why are there not sufficient sperm donors in the UK to meet the need. Allan Pacey, fertility expert from Sheffield and current Chair of the British Fertility Society hit one of the important nails on the head when he talked about the failure of clinic infrastructure and NHS funding procedures to take account of the costs of screening donors. Doctors get paid for treating patients, they don’t get paid for the interview and screening processes that have to take place before a donor can be accepted…and of course many are not, because their sperm is either not of good enough quality or does not freeze/thaw well. Clinics also like to keep their own patients, so they won’t tell them if there is a clinic down the road that has put effort into recruiting donors. They would prefer them to import sperm from abroad. Even Jane Stewart, consultant from Newcastle, somewhere that has always had a shortage of donors, agreed that the problem with recruiting donors in the UK is not identifiability. In the words of Laura Witjens from National Gamete Donation Trust, the European Sperm Bank (ESB) in Denmark is able to recruit so many donors because ‘that’s what it does’. It has no other remit but to facilitate the donation of sperm, distribute it around the world and get paid to do this.
In 2006 there were no imports of sperm from Denmark. Now Danish sperm accounts for a third of the sperm imported into the UK (the rest probably comes from Xytex in the States). Does this matter? As Allan Pacey said at the end of the programme, the UK has a lot in common culturally with Denmark, we have been invaded by them once, perhaps it doesn’t matter that we are being invaded by them again. But there is the little matter of how the children may feel and indeed if these donors really understand that being identifiable (as all donors whose sperm is imported into the UK have to be) means they may be contacted once those children are 18. And with the number of families created world-wide being far greater than the 10 permitted in Britain, how do both donors and offspring feel about this? We will not be able to know how the children feel for some years yet as even the first ones created with Danish sperm can only be around 7 now, but the donors interviewed by Kate in Copenhagen seemed very open to these contacts if a little naive and laid-back about what that could mean if large numbers were wanting information or meetings. Following considerable prodding by Kate, the woman she spoke to at ESB said that on average each donor probably produced about 25 pregnancies, but Allan Pacey felt that individual super-successful donors were probably used much more than this, given that ESB (or any commercial sperm bank) is a money-making enterprise and high pregnancy rate donors could bring considerable profit.
What sounded like good news, and I have no idea how far plans have got, was Laura Witjens mention of a national sperm bank for the UK. Now there’s a great idea. There was some talk of the British not being as open about sexual matters as the Danes (and lets not kid ourselves, sperm donation involves a sexual act) but I am unclear how true this is these days and if straight talking Dutch woman Laura is involved, I am sure such prudishness can be overcome. If this is what the UK REALLY wants, then I am sure it is possible…but do we want it enough?
If you are in the UK you can listen to the programme again on Catch Up for the next week.
Also see Kate Brian’s article in Guardian Comment is Free 1st July http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/01/uk-sperm-donor-impotent-rethink-overseas-donations