Sperm donation – the risks and benefits

For thousands of prospective parents every year, conceiving with donor sperm is a very real prospect. As one of the oldest alternative family building methods, sperm donation remains a very popular choice for those who cannot conceive naturally for social or biological reasons.

Fertility clinics in the UK no longer need to consider a child’s ‘need for a father’ before offering such treatment. This has opened the door to many more same sex couples and single women than was the case even a decade ago. In tandem, clinics overseas offer their donor sperm programs to UK citizens, making conceiving with a foreign donor a viable option.

It is also possible to conceive with a known donor or friend, either with the assistance of a clinic or informally at home (removing the associated clinic costs completely). But for some, who wish to avoid treatment fees but do not know a willing donor volunteer amongst their peers, finding a donor online is an attractive alternative.

Simon Watson recently hit the press as the UK’s most prolific sperm donor, with an estimated 800 offspring. The 41 year old finds his (worldwide) recipients via a Facebook page and says that, on average, one baby per week is born as a result of his donations. Whilst a convenient option for many women, the risks of using an unlicensed sperm donor are significant.

  • Primarily, there is no guarantee of the medical safety of conceiving with unscreened sperm. Recipients are open to the risk of sexually transmitted infections as well as hereditary disorders, which may pass to the child.
  • There is a large degree of uncertainty as to how many half-siblings the resulting child will have. In cases like Mr Watson’s, there could be 1,000. This significantly increases the chance of two half-siblings unknowingly meeting in the future and striking up a relationship. The fact that this vital genetic information is not stored on an official central register for such donor conceived children to access means that some will be left in the dark as to their paternity and the existence of half-siblings.
  • Crucially, the legal status of unlicensed donors is murky. They may be treated as the child’s legal father, with the rights and responsibilities that brings. Whether or not this is the case, if the donor and recipient know each other’s identity there is a risk that the donor will seek involvement with the child in due course, potentially leading to a court application to secure a more formal role in the child’s upbringing, if a dispute arises.

The safest route, to avoid these pitfalls, is to conceive with a sperm bank donor via a licensed UK clinic. Not only is parental autonomy guaranteed, but protection against medical risks is assured and the donor’s identifying information (and details of other donor siblings) is recorded for future access by the child.

If a donor has already been selected (i.e. a friend), conceiving at a UK clinic following the requisite screening will similarly protect from the medical risks and ensure a record of the child’s conception and the donor is made, in line with other such treatment. The inherent risk of the donor seeking further status in the future is unavoidable where he is known; though there is a balance to be drawn between this and opportunity of the child to build a relationship with their genetic father, which is the preference of many parents.

Whatever route is chosen, an awareness of the options and what they each encompass is key to planning the most suitable arrangement for each individual family. For more information, contact our fertility and parenting solicitor, Nicola Scott.

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