Alana Cattapan challenges the language of “shortage” used to describe the state of sperm donation in Canada.
The case of a couple in Port Hope has raised new questions about the nature of sperm donation in Canada. In this case, a couple bought sperm from an American sperm bank and have since learned that the neuroscientist they selected as a donor is, in fact, a college dropout with a genetically-linked mental illness. The couple is suing the sperm bank for providing misinformation about the donor.
An article in the Toronto Star has suggested that this case arose, in part, because of a “shortage” of sperm donors, linking the purported shortage to the fact that Canada prohibits payment to donors. This article asserted that the shortage compels would-be parents to import potentially dangerous sperm from outside Canadian borders. The language of shortage is used here to argue in favour of allowing payment to donors.
However, it is unclear that the acquisition of sperm from abroad is a problem at all. And if we are to accept that there is a shortage of Canadian sperm, paying donors is not a reasonable solution.
One might be concerned about importing sperm for reasons of health and safety. But in terms of screening would-be donors prior to donation, there is currently no regulatory oversight of donors that would suggest that Canadian sperm is better screened than its international counterparts. Additionally, all sperm samples imported into Canada are extraordinarily well-tested. In fact, Canadian standards are among the strictest in the world, and the standards applied to imported sperm are the same as those for sperm provided by Canadian donors.
Alternatively, one might think that acquiring sperm from Canadian donors is less costly than acquiring it from international banks. But this isn’t so. The price for acquiring sperm from Canadian donors is comparable to acquiring sperm from international donors, even though Canadian donors are not paid.
More perniciously, concerns about a domestic “shortage” of sperm may stem from sentiments of nationalism and xenophobia. One might indulge ugly assumptions about the virility of a population; Canadian sperm for a Canadian nation. However, there is only a “shortage” at all if we imagine the potential supply along national lines. The onus should be on those who disagree to explain why national boundaries should matter.
There is, however, at least one legitimate reason we might be concerned that there are very few sperm donors in Canada. Because Canada prohibits paying sperm donors and Canadians look elsewhere, we are engaged in an act of reproductive NIMBYism. There is a measure of hypocrisy in importing sperm for which donors are paid while it remains illegal to pay donors within Canadian borders.
If this is the problem—that we do not pay Canadian donors and Canadians engage in an open market in sperm donation abroad—the question remains, is paying Canadian donors the logical solution?
The answer is no. While paying Canadian donors would address the perceived hypocrisy, it is unclear that more Canadian men will be willing to provide their sperm simply because payment is available, or that sperm provided under these circumstances will be sperm that interested parties are willing to use. Just because Canadian men are not willing to provide their sperm for free, it does not mean that they are willing to provide it for pay.
And it doesn’t mean that we should change the law to allow payment to donors. Payment does little to address the reason that Canada banned payment for sperm donation in the first place. The 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act prohibits the payment of sperm donors (and other providers of reproductive tissues), as a matter of principle, in order to prevent the commercialization and commodification of human reproductive tissues. If this is still a value that Canadians hold dear, and I think it is, Canadians should not engage in an ethical race to the bottom to pay sperm donors simply because it is common practice elsewhere.
The problem, then, is not that there is a “shortage” of Canadian sperm. Rather, the problem is that there is a vast international market in sperm and very limited sperm that is provided altruistically. There is a discord between Canadian principles and international practice that leaves us feeling unseemly about buying sperm abroad.
The solution is not to pay Canadian donors, then, but to find ways to address the commercialization of sperm and to facilitate altruistic donation. These need not be domestic conversations; expanding the availability of donated sperm that is actually donated (not paid for) is something that should be facilitated around the world. It is an international shortage of sperm provided altruistically that is the problem, and the one that we must be trying to address.