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Physical Health

How a shortage of donated sperm is hurting Aussies who dream of being parents

When Jane* found herself single and childless at almost 40 years old, she knew she had to make the most important decision of her life. 

With thousands of couples and singles seeking help to conceive every year, sperm donation is now a highly regulated and popular pathway to becoming a parent.

But because of high demand, strict regulations and disruptions from COVID-19, there’s a shortage of donated sperm available in Australia, making it harder for those who want to use a donor.

Fertility in Australia

As many as one in six Australian couples have trouble getting pregnant – and that number doesn’t include solo parents or same-sex couples. And In Vitro Fertilisation, known as IVF, is now responsible for one in 10 babies born to women over the age of 35 in Australia and New Zealand.

The process of IVF involves sperm being used to fertilise a woman’s eggs ‘in vitro’, or in an incubator outside the body. Sometimes, the sperm that is used for IVF treatment comes from donated sperm. Which means that, for many hopeful families, sperm donation could offer a way forward.

But there is a supply issue. In Victoria, for example, the number of men donating sperm has decreased by 23% over the last five years, and in 2020, the number of sperm donors was 21% lower than the year before.

Who uses sperm donors?

According to Virtus Health group, the typical reasons people use donated sperm to have children are:

  • Male infertility: 15%
  • Same-sex couples: 35%
  • Single women: 50%

For Jane*, who host Jess Rowe spoke to for an episode of our Navigating Parenthood podcast, “It was either have a baby on my own, or never become a mum”. When she decided she wanted to have a child, Jane chose to use a sperm donor through a fertility clinic.

Why is there a donated sperm shortage?

During COVID-19, the number of sperm donor applicants has dropped, as would-be donors aren’t able to access the relevant services – for instance, making it more difficult to get to clinics. Even in non-COVID-19 times, there are plenty of hoops sperm donors need to jump through.

Professor Rob McLachlan from Monash IVF says the sperm shortage is also due to demand outpacing supply.

“Using a sperm donor is now a widely accepted practice among single women and same-sex couples, so it’s a simple equation. The more demand goes up, the more supply is needed.

“Add to that the state regulations that cap the number of families a male is allowed to have [in Victoria and SA it’s 10, in NSW it’s five] and as soon as he has been allocated his families, he’s done. Supply needs constant renewal.”

Professor Michael Chapman from the University of NSW, who is also a senior fertility specialist with IVF Australia, says the shortage has also been affected by relatively new regulations that the donor must be willing to be identified, and potentially contacted, by any children conceived using the donor’s sperm once the child reaches 18.

“When anonymity was removed, at least in NSW, we were struggling to find donors for a good two or three years,” says Professor Chapman. “Some donors don’t want a knock at the door in 18 years.”

The decision to remove the anonymity of donors was made to benefit the child, says Dr Ryan Rose, Director of Research and Innovation at Fertility SA, and a researcher at the University of Adelaide.

“The removal of anonymity has without a doubt been a driving force causing the donated sperm shortage, but there were found to be significant impacts to the child when they weren’t able to know who their real fathers were. They felt like they didn’t have an identity.”

Another factor in the donated sperm shortage is payment. While it’s common to pay sperm donors for their services in the US, here it’s not permitted.

“Australia has always run its health services on the basis of altruism, whereas in the States you are paid for blood and sperm,” says Prof Chapman. “Due to shortages of donated sperm, most clinics now give the patient an opportunity to have imported American sperm,” says Professor Chapman.

But the lack of payment was part of the appeal for Jane, who believes the fact it’s not done for money speaks volumes about the good character of her child’s sperm donor.

“When you use a donor, they can fill out a questionnaire and they can talk about their reasons and they can give more or less information,” she says.

“One of the benefits of having an unknown sperm donor was that I know the donor who’d come to that decision would have done their own implications, and their reasons for wanting to do it were something I felt comfortable with.”

What are the risks of “private” sperm donation arrangements?

The shortage has led some people to look for private donors elsewhere. But experts warn that this comes with grave risks.

“Sperm has to come from somewhere,” says Professor Chapman. “But finding a donor in the pub on a Saturday night or on a website isn’t a very safe process.”

In fertility clinics, sperm is screened for infection and genetic abnormalities numerous times, and sperm is quarantined (frozen) for three months to undergo safety checks. Private donors, on the other hand, don’t have to comply with any medical tests.

What’s the process for becoming a sperm donor?

Becoming a sperm donor is a multi-step process. The donor must undergo counselling sessions, genetic and infection tests, and provide a family medical history.

It’s true that the process involves time and effort from the donor, but when you consider what’s at stake, it’s no surprise.

Preferred sperm donors are:

  • aged between 18-50 years
  • in good health
  • contactable by the clinic for the duration of the process
  • willing and able to submit a family medical history
  • low-risk for sexually transmitted diseases
  • under the number of families that’s the legal limit in his state.

Why do people choose to donate sperm?

Professor McLachlan says many donors decide to donate because they’ve had friends who used IVF to have children and they’ve seen the joy a child can bring. Ultimately, if you’re a physically healthy male and tick the required boxes, you can donate.

“Fertility issues don’t discriminate. If a donor was fit, willing and able, we would never turn him away,” says Professor McLachlan.

“Society has come a long way. We are much more comfortable talking about things like sperm donation, erectile dysfunction and vaccines for cervical cancer, more than we were 20 years ago. The donors I see are very relaxed about the process.”

For Jane, as a single mother running her own business, she certainly knows what it’s like to be busy, but says her son is everything she ever hoped for. “He’s just a little ray of sunshine.”

Words by Kerry McCarthy
First published September 2021

NAVIGATING PARENTHOOD PODCAST

Listen to Jane’s story on our Navigating Parenthood podcast, which features many more stories about the journey of parenthood. *Name has been changed

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