The head of the British Government's watchdog on IVF has said that the longstanding ban on selling sperm and eggs should be reconsidered to address a shortage of donors.
Professor Lisa Jardine, of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, told the London Times that payments to donors might reduce the number of couples travelling abroad for fertility treatment.
New rules brought in in 2005, which mean that the children of sperm and egg donors can trace their donor parents and strict rules against payments have meant that fewer people are now donating their sperm and eggs for fertility treatment services.
The number of treatment cycles using donated eggs fell by 25 per cent between 2004 and 2006; the number of women using donated sperm fell by 30 per cent. These trends have convinced Professor Jardine that the authority should reconsider its 2006 ruling that donors can get up to £250 in expenses but no direct payments.
Her move will raise concerns about a market in human tissue and exploitation of women as egg donation is invasive and involves an element of risk. In countries that allow payment, such as the United States, Spain and Russia, young women often donate to wipe out debts or to fund university fees.
In addition, egg and sperm donation deliberately deprives a child of the right to be raised by his or her mother or father even as a matter of principle. There are now thousands of donor-offspring seeking their biological parents.
Professor Jardine said that the law already treated eggs, sperm and embryos differently from other tissues, so there was no danger of setting a precedent for the sale of organs such as kidneys. Payment would also ensure that more women were treated in licensed domestic clinics, rather than in countries with less stringent regulations.
“I’m not saying the decision arrived at before I became chair wasn’t the right one at the time,” she said. “But given the evidence that egg shortage is driving women overseas, I feel a responsibility to look at it again.”
She said the principle that women could be compensated for donating had been established already through egg-sharing schemes, in which women were offered cheaper IVF for agreeing to give away some of their eggs.
The professor also called for a debate on the ethics of sperm and egg donation across generations and within families. She pointed to a case in which a lesbian couple had conceived with eggs donated by one partner, which were fertilised by the other woman’s brother. Each partner had one of the resulting embryos implanted and carried to term.