Changes to sperm testing may mean more donor choice for Canadians

Canada's new regulations around sperm safety could result in more options in imported donor sperm. For parents looking for diversity, that's a good thing. 

Canada's regulations on sperm are set to change as of February 4, 2020. 

What exactly this will mean for people wanting to buy donor sperm, people wanting to sell donor sperm and people wanting to donate sperm is anyone's guess. The only discussion of this at the Canadian Fertility and Andrology Society (CFAS) annual meeting last month took place informally over lunch tables and in front of exhibit booths. There appears to be a lot of confusion and a lot of concern. 

Below, I write about the possible short-term consequences of two of the changes. One change is that test kits will no longer need to be Health Canada-approved. FDA-approved will also be okay. Another is that donors will no longer have to be tested for infection with every donation. It looks like the testing regime will be in line with what is done in the US. 

Will the regulations mean more sperm available? Quite possibly. 

But this will be an evolving space. What will happen to the already very small domestic sperm market? Will increased foreign competition combined with regulations that  firmly forbid compensation spell its demise? Will foreign exporters find our demand is too flat and our market too small and pull out again? We'll have to wait and see.

*

Like many parents with a child born through anonymous sperm donation, Nancy Bowe joined the Donor Sibling Registry to be in touch with a few of her daughter's half-siblings. That was about a decade ago. She knew there would be a lot of them—her Hamilton fertility clinic said he'd been popular—but when she looked at the photos of the families listed there, she realized she knew one. Her ex-partner's ex, it turns out, had chosen the same donor. 

A neighbour five doors down had considered the same man, she learned one day while gardening out front.  

Bowe says it highlights the fact that there just isn't a lot of choice for Canadians. "Donors are far too limited," she says. This is especially true if you're looking for a particular ethnicity or health attribute—or even if you just want to use a Canadian donor. 

Almost all donor sperm used in Canada is imported from the U.S. Sperm safety regulations in Canada, which were introduced in the 1990s, require that a donor be tested for infectious diseases at each donation, and specifically, that he be tested using a test kit approved by Health Canada. That, combined with the Assisted Human Reproduction Act in 2004, which makes it illegal to pay a man for his seed, made sperm donation and sperm banking a little more onerous. There are currently only about 50 Canadian donors on offer in Canada.

As a result, most Canadians using donor sperm use American donors. The U.S. has a larger population and donors can be paid openly, so there’s more choice. (Health Canada is fine accepting paid-for sperm from the U.S. even though it strictly forbids payment here.) But since any sperm entering Canada still has to meet our idiosyncratic safety standards, some U.S. sperm banks have not been doing business here. And even among the banks that have, most can only send a fraction of the samples they have, since not all of their donors are tested in the way Health Canada requires. 

This is about to change. As of Feb 4, 2020, safety requirements for sperm used in Canada will be updated. Sperm banks exporting here will no longer have to only use test kits approved by Health Canada when they do the infectious disease and other testing. The new rules mean that test kits cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will also be accepted. Even more importantly, sperm donors will not have to be tested every single time they donate, which is currently required in Canada. Instead, Canadian testing requirements will become largely the same as U.S. testing requirements, which means that almost all U.S. sperm samples will soon be Canadian-compliant. It may also mean that much of the world's banked sperm will be Canadian-compliant.

"The numbers could go up dramatically," says Haimant Bissessar, owner of Hamilton-based Can-Am Cryoservices, which distributes sperm from the U.S. banks Fairfax Cryobank, the Seattle Sperm Bank and NorthWest Cryobank. Right now, if you consider both Canadian-grown sperm and US imports, there are about 450 individual sperm donors for Canadians to choose from, Bissessar estimates. Next year, that could increase to 1600 donors—or more. 

That's partly because all the banks currently exporting here will be able to export even more—practically all their samples will have the Canadian stamp of approval. But also, as a result of the new safety regulations, additional banks are considering entering the Canadian market, including two of the world's largest, California Cryobank and Cryos International Sperm Bank, based in Denmark. Cryos has already made arrangements to ship samples from the U.S. branch of its operations, based in Orlando, Florida, via Can-Am, but is hoping to sell their European samples here too. 

And it's not just the giants who are reconsidering Canada. Smaller, niche banks, such as the Sperm Bank of California (TSBC), are also mulling moving into the Canadian market. "With new regulations, we would be happy to re-evaluate shipping to Canada," says Alice Ruby, executive director of TSBC. The bank, established in 1982 in Oakland, was the first to serve lesbian couples and single people, the first to give donor-conceived adults the opportunity to know their donor's identity, and the first to limit the number of families using any individual donor, to a maximum of 10. According to their website, two-thirds of all children created via TSBC donors are being raised by queer couples, and an increasing number of their recipients, recipient partners and storage clients are trans or genderqueer. 

The bank has only shipped to Canada a handful of times over the past two decades, Ruby says, and those were cases where families wanted genetic siblings or where there were no donors available who shared an ethnic identity with an intended parent. TSBC prides itself on its ethnically diverse catalogue of donors.

More ethnic diversity would be great, says Bowe, who had to settle for an Italian donor in an attempt to match her appearance. Her mom is white British and her dad is light-skinned Bahamian. “There’s few to pick from when you’re looking for neutral brown,” she says.  

For Bowe, the question has now turned to what precautions her daughter will need to take. With so many people using the same donors and no tracking of how many kids are born to each one, she worries that her daughter could inadvertently date a half-sibling. Many donor sibling groups now number more than 50 — some exceed 100. Bowe doesn’t know how many are in her daughter’s sibling group, but she reckons there could be a lot, all about her daughter's age, many living close by. "They're out there. I know people in my own circle," she says. "When does it become serious enough to do a DNA test?"

A version of this story published in DailyXtra yesterday.

*

Guidance Document. Safety of Sperm and Ova Regulations 

Health Canada Directive: Technical Requirements for Conducting the Suitability Assessment of Sperm and Ova Donors

*

Email me at alison.motluk@gmail.com. 

Follow @HeyReprotech and @AlisonMotluk on Twitter.

To read previous HeyReprotech stories, go to the archive.