State Overhauls Monitoring System for Sperm Banks

Health Ministry to preparing new regulations for Israeli sperm banks; Regulations based on May 2007 state comptroller's report.

The Health Ministry is preparing new regulations to formalize the operations of sperm banks in Israel. The regulations will require more detailed family histories from donors and those seeking a donation; limit the number of possible children from each donor; restrict donors to using just one sperm bank; and ban the practice of sperm mixing (in which more than one person's sperm is used).

The regulations are based on the findings of a May 2007 state comptroller's report, which found severe failings in the area, plus an internal set of guidelines that were never implemented and following meetings with the directors of sperm banks across the country. The ministry intends to legalize the regulations.

The new regulations were presented last week at a conference of the Tel Aviv branch of the Israel Society of Obstetrics and Gynecology. They would require sperm banks to collect more demographic details about donors and those seeking a donation - including the names of the parents and origins of donors' grandparents - and details of core family members for the applicants.

The regulations also state that a donor can store sperm samples in only one hospital, with sperm bank directors already working on setting up a national donor database to ensure the guideline is enforced.

"The database would feature a series of numbers from the donors' identity cards, which would allow us to identify donors seeking to donate to more than one hospital," said Prof. Arieh Raziel, head of the sperm bank at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center. The regulations also instruct sperm banks to recommend that women seeking a donation undergo genetic checks in accordance to the origins of the donor.

Prof. Joel Zlotogora, head of the department of community genetics at the Health Ministry, recently informed sperm bank directors about a baby from an egg donated abroad that was born with spinal muscular atrophy (SMA ), because his parents were not aware of the importance of running a genetics test.

Although the regulations include a guideline suggesting not to take "too many" donations from the same donor, they do not place a specific limit. According to Raziel, "The American Fertility Association recommends the limit of up to 25 children from every donor in a population of 800,000. Although there is no exact number in the regulations, it's been made clear to bank directors that the number of children per donor should be limited, perhaps to even less than the American numbers."

The 2007 state comptroller's report found four donors with more than 20 children each, and donors who deposited over 100 sperm donations.

The new regulations also contain rules for defrosting and destroying sperm samples. Samples from deceased cancer patients, donated before chemotherapy, will be defrosted if no claims have been made a year after the donor's death. Samples from donors who have stored them for backup with no connection to a medical treatment will be defrosted ten years after their deaths.

The regulations allow for new family models and unmarried couples seeking to use the bank services. Such couples would be requested to sign a joint statement when seeking a donation, while a man seeking to donate sperm to his unmarried partner would need the authorization of the court.

The Supreme Court is currently hearing an appeal filed by the state in February 2009, against a verdict that ruled a married man may donate sperm to a woman he is not married to - contrary to the state position.

"Sperm mixing" from two different donors or a donor and a husband will be banned under the new regulations. Sperm mixing is practiced in fertility clinics in some Western countries when a woman wants to be impregnated by a partner with a low sperm count, or when a homosexual couple seeks to share the donation to father a child.

The unimplemented guidelines introduced by the Health Ministry in November 2007 will also be integrated into the new regulations, including the decision to give sperm bank directors the power of attorney in rabbinical tribunals and courts, for the purposes of investigating the identity of anonymous donors to prevent incest.

Also in the guidelines are the attorney general's decisions on cryogenically freezing sperm samples from deceased persons, which state that only the spouse or civil partner of the donor can order the freezing of a sample from the deceased, and that the sample can only be used after a mourning period of six months.

In recent years, various proposals for exposing the identity of sperm donors have been discussed, but none were ever implemented. Currently, the consensus in the healthcare system is that sperm donations should remain anonymous - partly so as not to discourage donors from donating to the already depleted sperm banks.

Strict regulations for Israel's sperm banks were first introduced in 1992, in the wake of the global HIV/Aids epidemic. The regulations ordered that every sperm sample must be frozen at -196 degrees Celsius for three months, to ensure that it is not infected with the virus.

Israel has had 15 sperm banks, 13 of them public and two private, but only seven are still active. Sperm samples are not included among the standard healthcare services and the prices of imported sperm samples can cost hundreds of dollars (up to five times more expensive than sperm frozen in the country ). Despite the price gap sperm imports have been on the rise, especially for religious women, who have been advised by their rabbis to get a donation from abroad to avoid the slightest risk of unintentional incest.