Freezing sperm is more socially acceptable now than it has ever been. The recent media coverage of ‘Viking’ sperm shows just how far our interest in assisted reproductive processes and procedures has come. The opening of the UK’s national sperm bank at the end of last year served to raise awareness of our need for frozen sperm and shone a spotlight on the altruistic nature of many donors.
Whilst freezing sperm should remain an important part of the fertility treatment process for those people who have trouble conceiving; it should not become common practice for those not requiring IVF or another form of assisted reproductive treatment.
We were surprised to read Dr Kevin Smith’s suggestion that all 18-year-olds should freeze their sperm for use in later life. Dr Smith, from Abertay University in Dundee, argues that freezing younger, healthier sperm when our fertility is at its peak will prevent future generations of children developing disorders such as schizophrenia and autism, both of which have been linked to sperm produced by men who have decided to become fathers later in life.
Dr Smith goes on to suggest that men in their 40s would benefit from using frozen sperm ‘banked’ during their late teens, rather than sperm produced naturally at that age. While this would certainly remove some of the risk of passing on illnesses associated with older sperm, it disregards the increased risk of an older couple relying on being able to conceive through IVF or another form of assisted reproduction.
It’s true that the success rates for older couples using IVF are generally better than natural conception success rates. But leaving conception until your 40s is a huge gamble – even for men and women who take the decision to freeze their sperm and eggs. Female fertility declines rapidly once a woman reaches 35, so even if her partner or sperm donor has healthy, active sperm, the success will also be reliant upon the condition of the woman’s eggs. This goes for both natural conception and IVF.
Both men and women have biological clocks, and it is important to understand the limitations of your own before deciding to freeze your sperm or eggs. As with all treatments involving the freezing process, success rates are often lower than expected, and using frozen eggs or sperm should never be viewed as an insurance policy for those who make the decision to have children later in life.
Freezing the sperm of every teenager who has a vague notion of wanting to have children at some point in later life would be both incredibly time-consuming, expensive and a waste of NHS resources. And, if freezing sperm became the norm, would we then also need to offer social egg freezing at a similar rate, placing an incredible burden on NHS staff and funding? Furthermore, once NHS resources have been exhausted, the only other option open to sperm freezing patients is to go private, which, in reality, relatively few teenagers could afford.
A better way to address the issue of sperm health in older men would be to encourage young people to have babies during their most fertile years. Putting better structures and systems in place to incentivise them to do this (without suffering financial hardship or damaging their careers) would give young people more opportunities to start their families in their 20s or early 30s when their bodies are at their most fertile. Increasing the number and availability of affordable homes, offering better maternity/paternity packages and improving subsidised childcare would make for a cheaper, fairer system.