A shortage of donor sperm has resulted in delays to fertility treatments and has fuelled demand for alternative options through social media.
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has forced fertility services to scale back and has led to a decrease in sperm donations. Private banks are reporting a fall in donors, NHS services have been required to stop collecting sperm, and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has reported that a fifth of NHS clinics have stopped the majority of their fertility services. This reduced availability has resulted in some would-be parents turning to Facebook sperm donor groups.
Gwenda Burns, chief executive of the Fertility Network, told the Sunday Times that 'Clinics and banks haven't been able to recruit due to restrictions and safety reasons, and the number of people waiting for donations has continued to grow'.
The UK has long struggled with recruiting enough sperm donors to meet demand. IVF cycles involving donor sperm have more than quadrupled since 2005, but the number of donors has only doubled in the same period. The UK has become heavily reliant on overseas sperm banks to make up the shortfall, importing more than 7000 samples each year, the vast majority from American (49 percent) and Danish (45 percent) donors.
The fall in available sperm through regulated fertility clinics has led to those trying to conceive turning to alternative options, including sperm donor groups on Facebook - many with thousands of members.
Joyce Harper, professor of reproductive science at the Institute for Women's Health, University College London, said in the same Sunday Times article that the groups were 'one step up from a dating site' and could have benefits for those wishing to have an ongoing relationship with the donor, which is not possible through a sperm bank.
But, she said, the motivations of some of these donors are questionable, with some women being coerced into sex. 'They have got to the place where they were going to exchange the sperm and the guy has turned around and said, 'I haven't done it yet. I think it would be better for you if we had sex.'
These groups are also not subject to the HFEA regulations that govern licensed sperm banks. As a result, there is no formal screening for genetic disorders or STIs which could be passed on to the child. In addition, in an unregulated group, it may not be possible to verify a donor's information.
Such informal arrangements have risks for the donors too: lack of proof that the prospective mother's husband or partner intends to be the legal parent of any child conceived could leave the donor with unwanted legal responsibilities and potential liability for child maintenance.