Thursday, August 12, 2010

Would you buy sperm from these men?

As the world's first 'test-tube baby' celebrates her 32nd birthday, Susan Daly looks at IVF in the 21st Century

Saturday August 07 2010

Few postal workers have their birthday marked by the media every year. Louise Brown, the world's first so-called 'test-tube baby', is an exception. Now the mother of a two-year-old boy in Brighton, England, she celebrated her 32nd birthday last Sunday, a fact noted in several newspapers.

Brown lives an ordinary life -- an achievement in the circumstances -- but her birth is still a source of fascination because it hailed a new era in human reproduction. Unbelievable as it seems, when around 600 babies are conceived each year in Ireland through IVF, at the time it provoked some criticism for 'interfering' with nature.

The ethical questions surrounding assisted baby-making have not disappeared, in particular around the use of anonymous egg or sperm donations and the rights of the child to know their biological parents. (Louise Brown was conceived from material taken from her parents, John and Lesley.)

The latest concerns are over unregulated 'fertility matchmaking' websites that put members in touch with sperm donors. Fertility experts worry that they are exploiting vulnerable would-be parents and putting their health, and the health of babies conceived through unscreened sperm, at risk.

Many of these types of sites encourage 'recipients' and 'donors' to register details which can then be browsed by other users. Membership costs around £10 a month to £300 for an "introduction" between a recipient and donor.

The donor indicates on their profile if they want to remain anonymous, have contact with the child after it reaches 18 or even have a co-parenting role. Most users whose profiles Weekend Review scanned wanted to be anonymous donors.

"I would be very nervous of these sites," says Helen Brown, chairperson of the National Infertility Support and Information Group (NISIG). "They are preying on the vulnerable, probably on single women or single-sex couples, but also on the fact that to get donor sperm and IUI (artificial insemination) in a clinic costs between €600-€800 a time.

"People might think these websites are a bargain, but for that higher price in a clinic, they procure the sperm, wash it, check it, ultrasound the woman to make sure she's ovulating and so on."

Dr David Walsh is director of Ireland's largest private fertility clinic, Sims Fertility, and he too is concerned by the health risks.

"The sites are acting as brokers and of course it's money-making. But the real problem here is that it is unscreened sperm," says Dr Walsh.

"If I donated sperm to a licenced establishment, they won't release that sperm until nine months later when it has been quarantined for diseases that incubate over a number of months."

The 2005 Irish Commission on Assisted Human Reproduction recommended that only frozen donor sperm be used in fertility treatment.

Some site owners claim to have set up their businesses out of altruistic motives. But clearly the logistics of procuring "fresh" sperm from a UK-based website should be a hurdle for Irish women but it turns out that some are not deterred.

"I'm sure there are Irish people on these sites," says Dr David Walsh. "And it's probably a cost issue because most clinics would treat single women now, for example. We have seen this before, a few years ago, where it seemed essentially that sperm was being delivered in the equivalent of a pizza box on the back of a motorbike."

Solicitor Marion Campbell, a leading specialist in family law, warns that these sites are "unlegislated for and unregulated" in Irish law.

'Any contract the two sides makes between each other about 'no contact' or co-parenting on these websites doesn't stand up in law. Where are the rights of the child to know who the father is in all this?

"I know people can be desperate to have a baby and they will do anything to achieve that, and it leaves them very open and vulnerable."

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