Unregulated sperm banks are ticking time bomb
By Lina Giannarou
How many pregnancies are recorded per year in Greece by sperm banks? What is the fertilization success rate of any given donor? How many children has each individual donor helped to conceive?
Shocking as it may sound, none of the above questions can be answered in Greece today. Even though an increasing number of women are turning to various methods of assisted reproduction – around one in six couples are estimated to be experiencing fertility problems – the law regulating such issues has yet to be enforced by the Health Ministry, while the National Authority for Assisted Reproduction stopped operating in 2010, just five years after its establishment.
The absence of a regulatory authority and oversight effectively means that sperm banks around Greece are working without any official monitoring and without any central control.
Experts warn that there are two very significant dangers in allowing such a situation to continue.
The first concerns the number of children a single donor is allowed to sire. The law stipulates that this number should not exceed 10 in a bid to reduce the risk of consanguinity, but it is believed that this measure is being routinely violated. The reason is that there is no central registry to cross-reference donations with births.
According to one source in the sector, another reason why sperm banks turn a blind eye to regulations is that checking sperm donations for suitability is a costly affair.
“The screening process costs around 2,000 euros for every donor who makes it to the final phase [just one in 10 meet the requirements]. Given that the sperm banks charge between 100 and 200 euros for each vial of sperm and if we assume that the 10-child rule is enforced, then it becomes clear that the sperm banks don’t turn a profit. It is a reasonable hypothesis that they sell more sperm than they should from the same donor and simply don’t register all of the successful pregnancies.”
Officially, it is the job of the National Authority for Assisted Reproduction (NAAR) to maintain all records from fertility clinics and sperm banks around the country, as well as to record the confidential data of donors and recipients of genetic material. However, NAAR, which was founded in 2005, ceased to operate in 2010. The responsibility for keeping records therefore lies with each individual sperm bank or fertility clinic.
“On a practical level, since there is no such record in Greece, a donor may be the father of as many as 70 children around the country, raising a serious risk of accidental incest in 20-25 years’ time,” said embryologist Haris Kazlaris, a former NAAR member. “Furthermore, the absence of a record is in violation of European regulations, which require that all genetic material is traceable between the donor and the recipient. Normally, the authority should know exactly who received whose material, and this is not the case. Moreover, a woman wanting to have a second child through a sperm bank cannot always do so with the sperm of the same donor used for her first child.”
The second danger, according to experts, is the uncontrolled import of sperm from abroad, as local sperm banks find that demand far outweighs supply, especially given that becoming a donor is not a lucrative option. According to the law, a donor is compensated with the amount of 200 euros after a process that lasts for around 18 months and after making at least 20 donations. Without a financial incentive, few men are attracted to the idea of donating their sperm.
“This means that some professionals are tempted to import sperm from abroad in order to meet demand, and who knows under what conditions it is harvested and transported?” said Kazlaris.
Experts have been pushing for NAAR to be brought back into full operation, with the most recent move being a petition filed by the president of the association representing Greece’s fertility doctors, Themis Mantzavinos, with the Health Ministry.
The former head of the Authority, Xeni Skorini-Paparigopoulou, is not optimistic, however.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see any movement. If the Health Ministry were inclined to do something, then a reorganization of the structures could allow us to work within the framework of another committee, such as that for bioethics for example,” she told Kathimerini.
“A draft law we have submitted to the ministry, which defines the terms and conditions for issuing new licenses and checking existing licenses for all fertility clinics, could have been applied at any time. But it wasn’t. Maybe because it would mean the closure of certain public and private sector bodies and businesses. But it is clear that we cannot continue to operate without any form of oversight.”
It is estimated that there are around 70 fertility clinics in operation in Greece, either as medical centers or individual practices. There are also three sperm banks, one of which operates as a local department of a large Danish firm.
Despite the lack of proper records, sales of medicines required for fertility treatments suggest that the number of people trying artificial insemination is around 10,000-15,000 a year, and that the industry makes profits of around 50 million euros.