Shouldn't donors donate for 'altruism' rather than reward?

Shouldn't donors donate for 'altruism' rather than reward?

Many men and women who long for a baby - but are beset by fertility problems - will read with envy the news that Samantha Cameron has given birth to a baby girl and say a silent prayer that they too will be so blessed.

Yet the fact remains that, in many cases, their prayers will not be answered because of a chronic shortage in the number of people willing to donate eggs or sperm to help them conceive.

This week's announcement that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) will review its policy on paying sperm and egg donors raises, yet again, the issue of how we reconcile questions of need, knowledge and ethics.

In my view, the review is no bad thing. Sometimes we have to go back to the drawing board, if only to decide the first design was the best one. I firmly believe we should not pay people to be donors.

Let's be clear what this is about. One in seven couples has fertility problems, causing untold heartache. They have planned the nursery in their dreams and watched their friends completing their lives with children, but have to face the news that it won't be so easy - if at all possible - for them.

After trying in vain, they seek advice, and all the time the clock is ticking, especially as women are leaving it later to start attempting to conceive. They may seek IVF, at which point they may discover that the problem is within one of them, in terms of producing eggs or sperm.

So they turn to the idea of donation. Yet some fertility clinics have waiting lists of up to two years, because of the shortage of donated eggs and sperm. That is why some couples go abroad as 'fertility tourists' to get what they need. Or even buy sperm over the internet.

Needless to say, the HFEA is worried about this situation, which would almost certainly be improved by paying donors. At the moment that is banned; the altruistic men and women who donate are rewarded with £250 to cover loss of earnings.

But in Spain donors get £740 for each cycle of eggs and there is no shortage of women coming forward. So what would happen if the ceiling were to be raised?

Donors could be paid thousands for eggs and sperm, as in America where good looks in donors are coveted. What a tawdry transaction it would be - for wannabe parents to fork out a fortune for donor services, insisting on a blue- eyed girl or athletic boy or a donor with a PhD. It hardly bears thinking about. Yet it could happen, which is why experts like Mr Tony Rutherford, chairman of the British Fertility Society, are worried

After all, he argues, if financial gain became the principle inducement, why not pay the going rate?

It raises the disturbing prospect of people selling their eggs and sperm as they might a used car or old table on eBay. Yet we are talking about babies, little human beings.

At the centre of any debate stands that truth: this is not about commodities, but people.

believe the dignity of parents, donors and the unborn would be threatened by introducing marketplace values.

The HFEA website advises: 'To donate can be a life-changing decision. Understand your rights, responsibilities and the implications of this altruistic act.'

There we have it - enshrined (for now) at the heart of the HFEA's purpose. Altruism is a selfless concern for the well-being of others. It doesn't ask: 'What's in it for me?'

'Isn't the answer not to increase the reward but to increase the altruism?' It focuses on doing good - the highest aim a human being can have. Altruism is mistrusted by cynics, but never fails to lift the heart. Can there be a gene for altruism?

If so, it would please me, as a parent, to know that my child had inherited it. Given all the heart-ache involved with fertility treatment, one shining light has been the selfless generosity of anonymous men and women who want to use their good fortune (as fertile beings) to help those who are not. That's a motivation beyond price.

Other issues will be involved in the HFEA's review, leading to a three-month public consultation that will start in January (to take part, email

One change might be to allow donated sperm to be used to start up to 20 families, rather than the current limit of ten. But that would not be needed if there were more donors.

Isn't the answer not to increase the reward but to increase the altruism? To me, £250 does seem too low and to double the amount would not be unreasonable in the current economic climate.

But what if the HFEA also began a skilful marketing campaign to encourage donors? I believe that not enough young people know how to go about being a donor and what is involved.

They might not understand their right to anonymity, for example - in April 2005 sperm and egg donors lost their right to this.

It's not beyond the HFEA to set that matter straight and spread the word that donation is a marvellous thing to do. Let the authority weigh up all the issues - but then, I hope, conclude that it has had the principle right all along.

Article: by Bell Mooney 26th August 2010

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Posted: 26/08/2010 11:46:59


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