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Sperm on tap a click away

Date

Thanks to the internet, getting hold of a Y chromosome has never been easier, KAREN HARDY writes

From Facebook to Twitter, to countless number of websites and chatrooms, it's never been easier to find sperm.

From www.donatedontwaste.com.au, where you can learn howto send your swimmers on asperm bootcamp, to www.spermdonorsaustralia.com.au - ''more fun than giving blood'' - getting hold of a Y chromosome is only a Google search away.

At the same time as unregulated sites are gaining in popularity around the world, it seems regulated supplies are drying up.

In Britain, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has announced plans to increase payments made to sperm donors in the hope it will increase the number of regulated donors.

In Australia, where it's illegal to pay for human sperm (under the Human Tissue Act 1982), legislation that allows a child to access the details of their donor parent when they turn 18 has also contributed to the shortage.

''There's a shortage of donors right around Australia,'' says Dr Chris Copeland, the scientific director of the Canberra Fertility Centre.

''There are a number of reasons. Firstly, it's Australian culture. Australians are poor donors of everything. Why would sperm be any different?

''Secondly, the donors themselves do not like the concept of their information being released. I would suggest when we first started to apply that in 2004 we saw our donor numbers drop by 95per cent. We have recovered somewhat since then; it's a matter of re-educating donors about what it all actually means.''

Dr Copeland says research suggests that children of donors don't necessarily want to meet the donor parent, they just want to know they exist, that they have an identity.

''What we've actually found is that the children of donors are actually more interested in contacting other children from the donor; they're looking for their siblings, their half-siblings, it's all part of identity.''

Dr Copeland acknowledges that many people are turning to DIY methods of assisted reproduction. Cost is a prohibitive factor with patients looking at about $10,000, before Medicare, for a cycle of IVF with donated sperm. Find a willing participant on the internet and all it might cost you is the price of an eye dropper.

But Dr Copeland is wary of such practices. ''It's much safer [to go through an accredited clinic] mainly because the process is scrutinised,'' he says.

''I remember a former colleague, a very conservative man, whose view was this is so much safer for a woman then going off to have a one-night stand in a bar, where there are so many risks involved, physical risks and risks to health.''

He says many clients he sees ''have already been involved in what they call the turkey basting concept, where they basically try to inseminate themselves''.

What the Canberra Fertility Clinic offers, he says, is a medical service with all of the associated safeguards.

All donors are screened for ''everything that can be screened for'' and both donors and recipients undergo extensive counselling before the process even begins.

So who's out there, either looking for sperm, or ready to hand it over, so to speak? Is it your typical 40-something career woman whose biological clock is ticking like a time bomb? A recent British survey found that up to a quarter of females using the unregulated sites in Britain were under 25.

Is your typical sperm donor some middle-aged, randy divorcee who wants to spread his seed around the world? Typically, he's just a regular guy in his 30s who wants to help make a difference in someone's life.

(Typically, however, he's not a red head. London's Daily Telegraph recently reported that Denmark's Cryos sperm bank, which provides sperm to women in 65 countries, has started turning away red-haired donors because there is very little demand for their sperm.)

Dr Copeland says the clinic's recipient clients do tend to be older women, women whose outcomes may actually be much poorer. The clinic doesn't discriminate on the basis of age, sexuality or marital status.

''If a younger woman comes in, we'd be very careful. There'd have to be genuine reasons why they were choosing the process; there'd have to be extensive counselling, and reasons why they weren't making an attempt to find a partner.''

Dr Copeland says one of the big underlying reasons why women seek out a donor, but one that is rarely talked about, is that many of them have been victims of sexual abuse.

''If there are reasons like this, genuine reasons, then we might consider it,'' he says. ''We have to discover if women are taking this as an easy way out because, at the end of the day, it isn't an easy way out. They've got to understand that.''

The Canberra Fertility Clinic advertises ''over 7000 babies since 1986'' and Dr Copeland is proud of their success stories.

''But we've had our failures as well,'' he says. ''Assisted reproduction is not a panacea to female fertility.

''We see more than our fair share of women who have left it too long. They may have struggled with relationships, with other things, but we can't fix that for them.

''These treatments aren't cures. They're a way around the problem, but nothing is certain.''

Except perhaps, for a woman's desire to have a baby, with the help of the internet or not.

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