The UK government's plan to make fertility treatment increasingly available to single women and lesbian couples has hit a slight snag - there are not enough sperm donors coming forward and coming to provide 50 per cent of the raw materials.
The problem stems partly from changes in the law in April which mean that sperm donors are no longer guaranteed anonymity. Accordingly, any child produced from donor sperm can ask for his biological dad's details when he or she turns 18. Sheffield fertility clinic owner Professor Bill Ledger told the Guardian: "We are seeing longer and longer waiting lists because of the loss of anonymity. The situation has become so bad, that we are looking at importing anonymous sperm from abroad."
This crisis comes just as the Department of Health prepares a consultation paper for release tomorrow which will ask clinics to be more flexible in offering treatment. At present, many clinics deal only with heterosexual couples because of the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority Act (HFEA) which insists they must "consider the welfare of the future child and specifically the need for a father figure before offering treatment".
The new proposals aim to bring the HFEA up to speed with modern society after a Commons select committee last year slammed it as "offensive" to "unconventional families of single parents and single sex couples". The Department of Health is also looking to deal with websites including "Man Not Included" and "SpermDirect" which offer to whisk just-milked sperm straight to women's homes.
A Department of Health spokeswoman confirmed: "There's an issue with the websites because they're a loophole and that's what we want to clamp down on. The original HFEA Act was drawn up before the internet was being used to offer services like this."
Of course, the Department of Health faces two problems here: the existing law makes it difficult for some to get fertility treatment, thereby encouraging them to use sperm supply websites; and the removal of donor anonymity and subsequent crash in donor numbers again may force women to seek seed on the open market.
Professor Ledger disagrees that these websites should be banned, preferring instead proper regulation. "Using these services has got to be a step better than asking some half-drunk man to have unprotected sex, which is presumably what happens otherwise," he told the Guardian.
The Department of Health proposals are open to public scrutiny and suggestion for 12 weeks after which it will announce its recommendations. ®