02 Mar 2021 Sperm Donor Shortage Heightens Risk from Sperm ‘Super Donors’
Many would-be mothers faced with COVID-19-related sperm bank closures and donor shortages turned to social media and donor websites. Among the risks of online matching is the danger of unknowingly matching with a so-called sperm “super donor” who may have skirted weak rules to father dozens or hundreds of offspring.
As I wrote recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a shortage of supply at many sperm banks, due to closures and social distancing protocols, even as the demand for assisted reproduction services has grown.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a “perfect storm” of circumstances—enforced isolation, the slower pace of work-from-home lifestyles, business closures and fear of infection—that both sparked the desires of many to start families and cut off the already dwindling supply of donor sperm.
Frustrated with a shortage of donors at traditional sperm banks, many women have turned online, where social media platforms and third-party websites have become hubs of informal donor-matching activity. But as reported recently by The Irish Times, data compiled by sibling donor registries and via commercial ancestry DNA testing has revealed a new concern for sperm donor recipients: sperm donors who already may have fathered dozens or hundreds of children.
Patchwork of Sperm Donation Laws
As The Irish Times reports, in the decades since the first baby was born via in vitro fertilization (IVF) in 1978, the sperm donor industry has boomed, driven by new infertility treatments and later by single women and lesbians.
As an industry, however, it is poorly regulated. A patchwork of laws ostensibly addresses who can donate, where and how often, in part to avoid introducing or amplifying genetic disabilities in a population. In Germany, a sperm-clinic donor may not produce more than 15 children; in the United Kingdom the cap is 10 families of unlimited children. In the Netherlands, Dutch law prohibits donating anonymously, and nonbinding guidelines limit clinic donors to 25 children and from donating at more than one clinic in the country. In the United States there are no legal limits, only guidelines from the American Society for Reproductive Medicine: 25 children per donor in a population of 800,000.
There is even less regulation of sperm donation internationally. Sperm banks such as Denmark-based Cryos International, the world’s largest, may have rules and agreements prohibiting donors from donating at multiple venues, but little means of verification or enforcement.
For example, Cryos says it requires donors to sign a sperm donor agreement stating they have not previously donated to another sperm bank and will not do so in the future. The sperm bank also claims to adhere to limits established by each country on the number of births resulting from a single donor.
However, each bank may export a donor’s sperm to multiple countries, potentially resulting in scores or hundreds of births from a single donor. Unlike banks in countries such as The Netherlands, where donor anonymity is illegal, international sperm banks commonly register donors by alias or by number and depend on sperm recipients to report live births. A U.K. sperm donor told the BBC in 2016 that he had fathered at least 800 children worldwide.
Super Sperm Donors Father Hundreds of Half-Siblings
It is the offspring who are at greatest risk from the excesses of sperm super donors. As The Irish Times reports, the greater the number of siblings produced by a single donor, the greater the chance they will meet as adults, unaware of their biological relationship, and reproduce, multiplying the odds of transmitting genetic disease or disability. In small countries such as The Netherlands, population 17 million, where one donor was revealed to have fathered at least 102 children via sperm banks as well as unknown others that came from unregistered, online matches, the risk is magnified.
Judith Daar, dean of Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law and chair of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) ethics committee, told The Irish Times that, while it is generally not right to regulate assisted reproduction differently than natural conception, “it might be appropriate in extreme cases…to impose limits on the number of offspring that any one donor may have.”
The use of informal networks such as social media to match sperm donors and intended moms carries other risks as well. In some jurisdictions, laws mandate use of a qualified physician, require a signed donor agreement or restrict who can participated in assisted reproduction. Skipping the paperwork or failure to adhere to the laws could threaten the parental rights of the intended mother or even make the sperm donor legally or finally responsible for the child—as occurred in the case of a Kansas sperm donor we followed for years.
Daar also cautioned women to rely on qualified experts to screen donors for health and genetic disease, rather than relying on the donor’s word. Rightly so, as genetic screening of donors prior to any fertilization can also help to prevent the transmission of genetic disease or disability through unintended consanguinity.
Regardless of whether sperm donation occurs via a traditional sperm bank or through a website or another casual forum, all parties to a sperm donor arrangement should have a clear understanding of the applicable laws in their state or country and experienced legal representation familiar with those laws. For questions about sperm donor law or for assistance with a sperm donor agreement, contact us today.