Unequal access to fertility treatment

Sharyn Graham Davies

23 May 2019

When there is demand for a product, strict regulation generally just forces the transaction underground. 
For example, the “war on drugs” in many countries has not decreased demand, but merely put people at greater harm.
A similar thing is happening with sperm in New Zealand, where those who are desperate to have children but who can’t access our regulated services are doing what they can.

They are resorting to creative solutions that include a vial of fresh sperm left in the letterbox and quickly deposited in the right place. But of course, doing this comes with some risk.

For instance, sperm donors might start making claims on the children, or may not inform potential parents of possible health issues. At other times, donors may not be up front about how many donations they have made, meaning a child could have dozens of siblings whom they won’t know about.

Women who can’t access, or have used up, publicly-funded IVF are facing these risks because of the high cost of our safer, regulated industry.

The wealthy can afford the $14,000 needed for sperm donated through a fertility clinic and can rest assured they will get what they signed up for. Those who can’t pay get forced onto the DIY scene.

Those in need of eggs or a womb aren’t so lucky, as these things just aren’t as easily extracted or accessed as semen.

It also seems likely that given the severe shortage of donor sperm, finding it from non-Pakeha men is difficult.

Despite all this though, we are lucky in many respects to live in a country that regulates the fertility industry.

For example, we can be pretty sure that we’ll never have a Kiwi Octo-mum, a nickname given to American Nadya Suleman who was implanted with six embryos, resulting in eight babies.

New Zealand regulates the fertility industry in part because it believes all children should be able to know who their biological parents are, so they have a sense of their place in the world.

To this end, within the regulated industry, no anonymous donation is permitted; and this is a key reason that there is a donor sperm drought in this country.

The rules also ensure that our fertility industry is based on people doing things for altruistic reasons. People cannot buy or sell eggs or sperm, or embryos. And they can’t rent out their wombs for profit.

The situation is very different in other parts of the world.

A United States friend of mine recently told me how a fertility broker came up to her one day on the campus of her Ivy League University. Being young, pretty, white, blond, and evidently smart, she was offered US$100,000 for her eggs - a tempting offer indeed for any financially-struggling student.

While regulation is important, it is crucial that going forward we look at ways of also engaging the informal fertility sector, so that we can ensure that marginalised communities are not disproportionately disadvantaged.

To ensure this, we need more research on new ways of creating families through assisted reproduction. In fact, we are hoping that our $81,000 PhD scholarship will attract a scholar who will join our research team and focus on precisely this issue.