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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006, 11:33 GMT
Donor crisis 'fuels IVF tourism'
By Helen Briggs
BBC News

Home pregnancy test (AJ photo/Science Photo Library)
There are no official figures on waiting lists for egg donation in the UK
British couples desperate for a baby are travelling abroad for fertility treatment because of a shortage of egg donors in the UK.

Patients blame the change in the law that gives children born through egg or sperm donation the right to trace their biological parents.

Some UK hospitals have closed their waiting lists because they are unable to recruit egg donors.

Women are going abroad or making their own efforts to find egg donors at home.

St Mary's Hospital in Manchester is advising couples to find friends or relatives who are willing to donate eggs rather than relying on the altruism of strangers.

"We had a waiting list for egg donation and nobody ever came off it, so we closed it down," Cheryl Fitzgerald, Consultant in Reproductive Medicine, told the BBC News website.

"All our egg donors are on a known basis; patients find a donor and bring them in."

National drive

Patient groups such as the National Gamete Donation Trust (NGDT) are calling for a nationwide scheme that would collate official statistics and run centralised campaigns for donors.

The reality is that donors aren't here any more and people are being forced to go abroad
Debbie, IVF patient

"It is hard to put it into facts and figures but there is a huge shortage of sperm and egg donors," said Pippa Morris of the NGDT.

"There have never been enough donors."

"The time has come for some sort of national co-ordination. It's just been agreed but is in the early stages."

The body that regulates IVF clinics in the UK, the Human Fertilisation Embryo Authority (HFEA), concedes that provision is "patchy" in parts of the country but says both sperm and egg donation was falling long before the change in the law.

But the true extent of the problem is largely unknown because there are no official figures on waiting lists for sperm and egg donation around the country or data on the number of British patients travelling abroad for treatment.

The HFEA is unable to offer advice on clinics outside the UK but says couples need to consider the risks and implications of going abroad for treatment.

Dame Suzi Leather, chairwoman of the HFEA, said they had received some complaints about treatment that might be dangerous or banned in the UK but had no powers to act.

She told the BBC News website: "If treatment is happening abroad and patients want to access that, that's their right to do so.

"Our advice would simply be to inform yourself of the legal situation.

"We can't guarantee anything about the standards available."

Cultural attitudes

However, many patients are becoming disillusioned with the HFEA, saying they fail to understand the issues facing infertile couples.

Ultrasound scan (Michael Donne/Science Photo Library)
'You can't give people a better gift than the gift of a baby'

"The reality is that donors aren't here any more and people are being forced to go abroad," says Debbie, aged 44, who has twice travelled to Spain for IVF.

"The HFEA has to accept that this is happening."

Spain is a popular destination for British couples because it has a high standard of medical care and better success rates than in the UK but is only a few hours away by budget airline.

Many clinics have set up international departments to transcend language barriers.

Debbie chose Spain because there was no waiting list for egg donors, something she puts down to a different cultural attitude from in the UK.

"A lot of love of the family in Spain is part of the whole thing - encouraging them to see what a great gift they are giving people," she said.

"You can't give people a better gift than the gift of a baby, a family."


Another patient, who asked to remain anonymous, told the BBC News website that the shortage of donors in the UK was the main reason why women were travelling abroad for treatment.

We were extremely lucky that it did work for us first time
Patient who went to Spain

"People are going abroad because women are more willing to donate abroad," she said.

"There doesn't seem to be the stigma attached to it that there is in this country."

"We're not a particularly giving society in the UK even from the point of view of giving blood."

At the age of 37, after suffering premature ovarian failure, she was put on the waiting list for egg donation in the UK but heard nothing for three years.

She was then told that the clinic had been unable to attract donors, and decided to go to Spain for treatment. She now has a young child.

"We were extremely lucky that it did work for us first time," she said.

She said donors were health-screened in the same way as the UK and she had no concerns about the way donors were recruited.

"Your main focus is being able to have a child of your own but it is not to the detriment of your own health," she added.

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