Should New Zealanders be allowed to import donated sperm from other countries?
New Zealand not only has a man drought, we're also in a sperm drought.
The well-documented shortage of sperm donors is arguably because there is a ban on anonymous donation - all donor-conceived children can find out who the donor is when they turn 18 - and there is no financial incentive for donors. Compensation for minor expenses, such as travel costs to get to the fertility clinic are covered, but that's it. Donors cannot be paid a fee.
Single New Zealand women and couples may ask friends or family members to donate but for many this option isn't available to them, or even one they want to pursue as it's all a bit too close to home.
Others head overseas to countries like the USA where there is an ample supply of donors and New Zealand laws don't apply. There donors can be paid and remain anonymous which may be appealing for some would-be parents who don't want to tell their child they were donor conceived, or have the donor resurfacing in their lives later on.
Others do it simply because they feel as though they have no other choice.
Going down this route not only has implications for the resulting child, it's also costly.
The significant medical, travel, accommodation, legal and other associated costs that come with having treatment in a foreign country puts this option out of reach for many.
A potential solution to the shortage of sperm donors in New Zealand is to allow sperm to be imported from overseas. The export of donor sperm is a growing industry in liberal Scandinavian countries such as Denmark which is home to the world's largest sperm bank, Cryos.
The bank has been in operation since 1990 and currently exports sperm to more than 80 countries around the world, enabling would-be parents to undergo treatment on their home soil.
The Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology, which is responsible for considering emerging legal issues around IVF treatment, has undertaken a review of whether New Zealanders should be able to use imported sperm.
The importation of eggs was also considered as part of the review due to the equally significant shortage of egg donors in New Zealand.
The Committee recommended to the Minister of Health that New Zealanders undergoing fertility treatment should be able to import both sperm and eggs so long as the donor is not anonymous and has not been paid a fee in their home country to make the donation.
In other words, importation should be allowed so long as it complies with current New Zealand laws.
A mix of curiosity and a keenness to help may appeal to some donors but the same disincentives for local donors also apply. As a result, it's hard to imagine overseas donors lining up in droves to donate their genetic material. Back home, those wanting to become parents will continue to miss out on having children.
The Minister of Health, Jonathan Coleman, is still considering the Committee's advice which he can either accept, or reject. An alternative option could be to allow sperm and eggs to be imported from well established and reputable banks where the donor is not anonymous but has been paid. This may be the compromise needed in order to make sperm and egg importation a viable option.
Dr John Peek of Fertility Associates says while it's hard to estimate the exact level of interest, most people waiting for a donor would be willing to source, or least consider sourcing, sperm and eggs from an overseas bank in the US and Europe if it was possible to do so.
"Many of the donor banks have identifiable donors, and we know that some banks would be willing to limit the number families of children for particular donors to fit within New Zealand guidelines - 10 children per donor."
Paying donors raises ethical concerns, but in reality New Zealanders who use a sperm bank like Cryos would pay a fee to the bank to recruit a donor, obtain the sample, freeze it, and send it over, so isn't it fair that the donor also gets paid for their contribution to the service?
Egg donors in particular have to go through an invasive and uncomfortable procedure in order to retrieve the eggs.
There are other important issues to consider - for example whether or not it is fair to the child to use a far flung donor who may be hard (or impossible) for the child to contact and meet further down the track should they want to.
There is also the question of whether we should be paying New Zealanders who are willing to be donors. This may help increase the uptake of donors but we are still a small population - the potential increase may not be significant enough to keep up with demand.
All in all, there are arguments on both sides of this debate to consider. Sperm and egg importation could be seen as a risky venture into unchartered territory and perhaps a step too far, or the next natural step in reproductive evolution.
Interestingly, across the Tasman some Australian fertility clinics are already importing sperm from banks in the US that have identifiable donors.
Will we follow in their footsteps?
This article was also published on stuff.co.nz