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Naming sperm donors will hit treatment here

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Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

A BAN on anonymous sperm will "dramatically limit" the number of available donors and may force heterosexual couples, same-sex couples and single women struggling to get pregnant to travel abroad for treatment, the country's fertility clinics have warned.

For more than two decades, thousands of Irish babies have been born using regulated sperm from anonymous and non-anonymous donors.

As there is no donor sperm bank in Ireland, clinics including Galway Fertility, SIMS IVF Dublin, Cork Fertility and Clane Fertility source their sperm from fully regulated banks in the US and Europe, in particular from Denmark where the vast majority of sperm is imported.

New figures obtained by the Sunday Independent reveal that sperm sales from Cryos International - the world's largest sperm bank, based in Denmark - led to an estimated 2,000 pregnancies in Ireland from 1999 to 2015. The company deliver anonymous and non-anonymous sperm to nine clinics in Ireland. Private clients can also legally purchase sperm online.

From 2012-2015 almost 55pc of its Irish sales were for anonymous sperm, while 45pc bought non-anonymous sperm. From 1999-2007 it only used anonymous donors.

Health Minister Leo Varadkar recently announced that Cabinet has agreed to allow the Department of Health to begin drafting legislation relating to assisted human reproduction and associated research. This will inform the regulation of a number of areas concerning assisted human reproduction, including sperm donation.

Under the new Children and Family Relationship Bill, anonymous sperm and egg donation will be banned and a sperm donation register will be established to help children trace their genetic identity.

All gamete (sperm and egg) donors must provide personal details and understand that once a donor-conceived child reaches the age of 18, they may request access to these records.

Jenny Cloherty, laboratory director of Galway Fertility Clinic, warned the ban will have considerable "unintended knock-on effects" on both patients and clients.

She told the Sunday Independent: "Less than a quarter of donors we can buy are non-anonymous, and most of those are already above quota in Ireland or are not good matches for our patient profiles."

The vast majority of donors at Galway Fertility Clinic are responsible for one or two families in Ireland. However, it is likely that a limit will be placed on these arrangements under the proposed reforms.

"In other countries where anonymous donors are not allowed, this has lead to long waiting lists for patients or patients travelling to less regulated countries," said Ms Cloherty, a founding member of the Irish Clinical Embryologists Association established in 1998 to self-regulate the area.

"Another concern is that people will be tempted into very risky situations where private arrangements are made outside the supervision of a medically regulated clinic." she said.

Dr David Walsh, medical director of SIMS IVF Clinic in Dublin - the leading providers of egg and sperm donation in Ireland - welcomed the proposed clarity of the Bill. But said there are "some serious problems" with the way it is drafted.

"Banning anonymous donation will remove that option for more than half the patients who want to have family that way and they will be forced abroad," he said. "There is no long-term evidence on the beneficial effects of legally enforced identifiable donation."

In theory, Dr Walsh understands the intellectual argument for banning the use of anonymous sperm, but believes the consequences won't be known for a generation.

"Basically if the same donor has donated to four families they are all going to know who each one of them are, and we don't know if that impact is going to be good or bad," he said.

Based on SIMS Clinic figures, an estimated 1,200 babies have been delivered in Ireland using donor sperm. Of these, more than 1,000 were anonymous.

The clinic has also found that men and heterosexual couples opt for anonymous sperm donations because "they feel threatened by their infertility and it can affect their masculinity".

Frustrations are also growing over the Government's lack of consultation with licensed fertility clinics.

Mr Walsh added: "We haven't received one letter or email to say the law is going to change yet, so we have patients coming in who are very, very upset over what they've read in the news and we are none the wiser. The whole thing seems to be managed very badly, there is no information, there is no involvement of the stakeholders and the people who are actually going to be providing the service in the future."

However, he believes concerns could be corrected with simple changes to the wording of the Bill and the setting up of an awareness campaign.

The public health service offers a limited assisted reproduction service at present, - in the main, it is provided through private facilities.

The new regulation sets out approval criteria for donors including donors being over the age of 18 and written confirmation that they will have no parental rights.

A spokesman for the Department of Health also confirmed that donors will be entitled to "reasonable expenses" including travel costs, medical expenses and any legal counselling costs incurred by the donor.

Ms Cloherty of Galway Fertility Clinic contends that anonymous donor sperm where a full medical profile - including extended family medical records - is currently available to the client before they buy.

"These records can be made available to the child, teenager or adult, at a time that is deemed appropriate by their parents," she said.

"I would think this is more beneficial than knowing his actual name, or waiting until the child is 18 to find out any information at all."

Over 700 donor sperm treatment cycles have been completed at Cork Fertility Centre since 2002. In all cases, the hopeful parents have the choice of using an anonymous or known donor.

Dr John Waterstone, medical director of Cork Fertility Centre, said the proposals are "unacceptable and unworkable".

How the new law will affect donors

Under the proposed Children and Family Relationships Bill 2015, all sperm and egg donors will be required to provide their name, place and date of birth, nationality, place and date of donation and contact details.

Once a donor-conceived child reaches the age of 18, they may request access to these details - recorded as part of a national donor-conceived person register.

It is also likely that a limit will be placed on the number of families the same donor can donate to.

Prior to any donation, sperm and egg donors must be over 18, give written consent, confirm that he/she has no parental rights or responsibilities, agree to the inclusion of their personal details on the register and understand that a donor-conceived child may seek to contact him/her.

Sunday Independent