TOG release: Shortage of sperm in UK fertility treatment

In a paper published in The Obstetrician & Gynaecologist (TOG), Dr Allan Pacey, Senior Lecturer in Andrology at Sheffield University Medical School says that the sperm donation levels in the UK are so woefully low that clinics and women are resorting to other means to obtain donor sperm.

A previous audit showed that 85% of applicants of sperm donation were rejected because of poor semen quality.  Of the remainder, the sperm of only 3.6% of the accepted applicants were used in assisted conception, after further screening.  This means that not all sperm collected is used, so the actual supply is further reduced.

A change in the law in 2006 resulted in the removal of donor anonymity.  Individuals conceived through donor insemination have the right to know who their genetic father is when they reach 18 years of age.  Since the start of the HFEA register in 1992, personal details of the donor’s physical characteristics such as ethnicity, height and eye colour have been recorded though these details are not identifiable to the donor.  New previsions in the current law have been made for men who donated at the start of the register, but before the new regulations took effect, to return and offer identifiable details voluntarily, in the same way as present donors do.  This means that from 2010, theoretically, it may be possible for someone who was conceived through donor insemination in the 1990s to trace their biological father.

The main issue however is that in recent years, sperm donation has fallen sharply and there is now a national shortage.  There have been reports of long waiting lists and the closure of services.  Doctors, alongside bodies such as the National Gamete Donation Trust and the British Fertility Society have been examining ways to address this shortfall and to encourage men to donate their sperm.  One solution has been to import sperm from countries such as Denmark.

More worryingly, however, is anecdotal evidence that women patients are travelling to clinics overseas to seek treatment.  There have also been reports of women purchasing fresh sperm online for DIY insemination.

Dr Pacey said, “We are really in a terrible position in the UK with regard to the provision of sperm donor assisted conception.  Latest figures from the HFEA show that in 2007 the lowest number of patients ever (1,779) received treatment with donor sperm.  This is in part because patients are opting to receive other treatments (eg. ICSI) but it is almost certainly as a consequence of a serious shortfall in the number of sperm donors available in UK clinics.”

Jason Waugh, TOG editor-in-chief said, “Regulation is important to ensure that standards are met so that mothers can give birth to healthy babies.  However, there is also the issue of laws which are prohibitive.

“It is important for fertility services to operate in an open and transparent manner but it is equally important to address this crisis in donations otherwise women who are desperate to have a child will be driven to seek sperm from sources that may be unregulated and questionable.”            


The Obstetrician & Gynaecologist (TOG) is published quarterly and is the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' (RCOG) medical journal for continuing professional development. TOG is an editorially independent, peer-reviewed journal aimed at providing health professions with updated information about scientific, medical and clinical developments in the specialty of obstetrics and gynaecology.

To speak to Allan Pacey, please email or call 020 7772 6446.  To speak to Mr Waugh, please call 020 7772 6446.


Pacey A. Sperm donor recruitment in the UK. The Obstetrician & Gynaecologist 2010;12:43–48.

Date published: 22/01/2010
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