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Monday 08 November 2010

Gay sperm donor ban reversed

Posted in: Health & HIV
By Chris Banks - 2nd March 2006

A controversial ban on gay sperm donors in New Zealand looks set to be gone by the end of this month, says Dr Richard Fisher, Medical Director of Fertility Associates.

The issue received widespread media coverage over the New Year following a series of articles about the shortage of sperm donors in both New Zealand and Australia. A gay man in Wellington approached a Fertility Associates clinic in January after hearing of the shortage, but was turned away because he was not heterosexual. “We're somewhat embarrassed about the whole kafuffle, given that our desire was always that we might potentially have gay donors,” Dr Fisher told

Fertility Associates operate under safety guidelines put down by an Australian committee, the Reproductive Technologies Accreditation Authority. “We had been acting under the verbal advice of the previous chairman that we shouldn't use gay men, because he was associated with a clinic that some years ago had some pregnancies affected with HIV,” says Dr Fisher.

Despite the clinic screening all donors for HIV, a process which involves quarantining sperm samples and testing donors twice for HIV at a six-month interval, gay men were being excluded at the first hurdle without even taking the test. “Our verbal advice has been that one of the risk limitations was that we should exclude groups who were perceived as being high risk, and amongst those were gay men,” Dr Fisher explains.

Curiously, no similar ban was in place for donors from areas of the world where HIV is particularly prevalent, a ban which is enforced by all blood banks. It's undeniable that gay men were being singled out for exclusion based on their sexual orientation, especially in light of the fact that all sperm samples were subsequently screened for HIV anyhow.

However, Dr Fisher expects that, following a meeting later this month, Fertility Associates will adopt its own set of risk reduction guidelines. “We're working through a process that ensures every donor who comes here will have the same testing, and providing they're not HIV+ at the end of six months quarantine, they'll be tested, we'll collect the sperm, it'll wait six months in quarantine, we'll test the donor again, and providing the person's not HIV+ they'll go into the bank.”

Dr Fisher says he's unsure at this stage what affect the lifting of the ban will have on the sperm donor shortage. “I don't know how much our previous restriction made a difference. We're keen to get donors who want to be donors,” he says. “We've had a number of gay men approach us after the very recent publicity about excluding gay men, but previously we didn't notice any significant increase in people approaching us.”

The sperm donor shortage continues to be compounded by the restrictions that some donors place on their contributions. “The donor is giving a gift, and may be as discriminatory as he wishes. There is nothing in the Human Rights Act that says if you donate, it can go to anybody,” Dr Fisher explains. “There are a number of people who say they want their donations to only go to heterosexual couples.”

Meaning that lesbian couples and single women are being particularly short-changed by the current small pool of donors. “We never know what the restrictions will be,” he says. “For example, some of our Maori donors will choose to restrict it to a particular iwi. And from that point of view, they're giving away their genetic material and they can be as discriminatory as they wish. Some put restrictions of age on as well.”

By the same token, recipients can be equally as discriminatory about their donors, however nobody is spoilt for choice at the moment. “They have less choice than they would want, and what we would want as well,” says Dr Fisher. “Recipient couples end up being offered a profile of the donors, and they say yes that's suitable for me, or no that's not.”

While donors have no legal or financial responsibility for their offspring, opening an account at the sperm bank does involve a little more than an opening deposit. The law requires that your name go onto a special register, which can be accessed by the child once he or she turns 18. “It has been true in our clinic for ten years that you had to be potentially identifiable s a donor,” says Dr Fisher. “We didn't want someone being a donor who one day would refuse access to a child who wanted to know more about them.”

It is this aspect of becoming a sperm donor that frightens many people away, but despite the shortage, Fertility Associates has no plans to follow a recent Australian clinic's example of bribing potential donors with free trips overseas. “That's a primitive approach to recruiting donors, really. It's a commercial rather than a social model. We think people should donate sperm because they want to, not because they get paid for it,” he says. “We want to have donors who are committed ,who recognise the child might one day want to know who they are and a bit more about them.”

If this sounds like you, then there isn't too much longer to wait. Fertility Associates' final policy review is only weeks away. “We're just putting a policy together which should be absolutely non-discriminatory which we are hopeful of producing after a meeting which is on the 22nd of March,” Dr Fisher says. “At the moment if somebody rings up and says we'd like to be a donor, we're saying could you call us back in a month, because I think we'll have it all sorted out by then.”

Chris Banks - 2nd March 2006

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