A delay in fertility treatment as a result of COVID-19 and a lack of donated sperm at fertility clinics has resulted in a perfect storm. That storm is taking place in a new marketplace for donor sperm, the social media platform Facebook.
Couples and single women who are unable to receive fertility treatment on the NHS are turning to Facebook for find their sperm donor. This is causing great concern at the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). They are concerned about the significant risks as well as illegal financial transactions. In the UK, sperm donors can only be compensated a reasonable amount, set at £35 for NHS clinics.
The HFEA states that a fifth of NHS fertility services stopped collecting donor sperm due to COVID-19 restrictions. Private clinics have also reported a dip in donations with Oxford Fertility stating they have seen a 66% decline over the last 12 months. This situation is adding to the delay that couples who are struggling to conceive are experiencing as a result of the lockdown. And this, in turn, is what is driving the surge on social media.
Issues with online donor groups
Several donor groups have popped up on Facebook, but there are issues. One issue is that some men are looking to donate naturally, i.e., actually having sex. This is driven by the false belief that natural insemination is more effective than insemination via syringe. Another issue is that the seminal fluid can carry pathogens including HIV. The problem here is that, because the online groups are not regulated by the HFEA, there is no way of knowing whether the donor has been checked for sexually transmitted diseases. Similarly, there are no checks on the quality of the sperm or the genetic background of the donor. This means that inheritable genetic diseases could be passed on in the donated sperm.
Finally, there are legal questions. There is a risk that an online donor could still be seen as the child’s father in the eyes of the law and even be pursued for child maintenance. This is something that an authorised clinic guards against. Sally Cheshire, chair of the HFEA said, “If consent is not correctly taken and at the right time, then parenthood status may not transfer and the donor will still be the father in the eyes of the law, with all the parental and financial responsibilities that brings.”
With all this in mind, Gwenda Burns, Chief Executive of The Fertility Network, a UK charity offering support to sperm donors and patients, acknowledges the heartache caused by delays to treatment. But she has called for the Facebook groups to be banned. She argues they are taking advantage of distressed people desperate to start a family.
The pros of using Facebook donor groups
Some people have had positive experiences. This speed is important for those who are on waiting lists and who have limited time left in terms of their biological clocks. Getting to know the donor online also allows a certain amount of choice for the buyer. Professor Joyce Harper, Head of Reproductive Science at the Institute for Women’s Health, University College London, compared the online groups to dating sites and said they could have benefits for people who want to get to know their donors, rather than go through an anonymous process like in a sperm bank.
And it’s not just the delays caused by COVID-19 that are driving the growth of Facebook groups. Under UK rules, same-sex female couples are not entitled to NHS treatment unless they have had at least six cycles of artificial insemination and failed to become pregnant. Gemma was 38 when she and her female partner decided to start a family, they couldn’t afford the kind of delays she would encounter on the NHS. However, private clinics were not an option.
Prohibitive costs to use a sperm bank
Gemma said, “It was far, far too much money, it would take me years to save up.” Obtaining sperm from a sperm bank costs between £600 to £1300 per sample depending on the country of origin. So, Gemma turned to Facebook, specifying on her profile that she wanted artificial insemination (AI) only. As a result, around 20 or so potential donors got in touch. She said, “Some of them were lovely. Some of them were not. Some of them genuinely want to help you. And some of them ended up being really sleazy.”
She eventually settled on one donor and after lengthy conversations on Facebook, she met with him when she was in her ovulation window. He did not want to be paid, and the couple only refunded his £36 train fare. After two further attempts with the same donor Gemma found out she was pregnant. She and her partner now have an eight-month-old daughter.
So, with eyes wide open to the pitfalls the option of using Facebook would appear to be viable. Facebook itself is neutral on the subject.
A spokesperson for the platform said, “We allow people to discuss sperm donation on Facebook, but we work closely with law enforcement to remove content that breaks local law.”
Gemma herself feels strongly that the cost of sperm in private clinics is too high and that it should be available on the NHS. She concluded, “To me, it feels like it’s a money-making scam, which is why people meet up with guys in toilets. Because we haven’t got thousands of pounds to go to a clinic, so we’re having to revert to this.”
Safety, health, genetics and legality
That said, it’s worth considering why the costs are high. It takes us back to the valid points of safety, health, genetics and legality. Maybe in the future, if enough people are finding their own way around the problems of sperm donation, a government commission will look at the issue fairly and squarely and regulate social media donor groups appropriately.