The sale of fresh sperm over the internet is to be banned following a government clampdown. Ministers will outlaw anonymous donations and introduce new rules forcing all sperm samples to be frozen and screened.
The Department of Health will this week write to internet sperm providers telling them they will face strict new rules forcing them to freeze sperm for six months and screen it for viruses, including HIV.
The government action follows complaints that the internet sperm donations are not fully regulated and that some samples, biked by courier to women's homes, are old or may not always match the requirements of clients for physical type or background.
The new rules, which will come into force next year, will mean that fresh sperm will no longer be able to available to women by mail order.
A source at the Department of Health said: "We are saying they will not be able to sell fresh sperm direct. They will have to guarantee it has been screened for six months, the same way as clinics do. They will be subject to the same rules and will have to freeze sperm."
Internet sperm sites charge up to £2,000 for sperm donated by men which, they say, is of good quality and is subjected to rigorous screening. The anonymous service, provided by websites operating in the UK and abroad, has helped thousands of women, many of whom are single or in lesbian relationships, to conceive.
Under the new rules, internet sperm will be subject to the same rules governing UK sperm banks and fertility clinics. They have to freeze sperm for six months, the incubation period for HIV, to ensure that it is safe to use. They also check that the sperm is sufficiently strong and mobile to survive the freezing and rethawing process and enable women to conceive.
The change in the law will be welcomed by fertility groups which have called for stricter rules on internet sperm sites. "We are not happy with the use of fresh sperm. It's good that this loophole will be closed," said Allan Pacey, secretary of the British Fertility Society. "It's a good idea to change the law because at the moment there are real safety issues."
The change in the law will also end the right of internet sperm donors to remain anonymous.
There has been a huge increase in demand for fresh sperm via the internet since the Government introduced new rules affecting fertility clinics in the UK. Clinics have complained that they have been unable to persuade men to donate sperm after the Government withdrew the right of donors to keep their identity secret.
Currently children conceived using donated sperm at a clinic have the right to contact their father when they reach 18. But internet sites are not currently governed by these rules and can take donations from men who will remain anonymous when their offspring grow up.
"Currently the health concerns from internet sites are very significant because the sperm is not screened for months. There is a very big worry," said Josephine Quintaville, director of Comment on Reproductive Ethics. " We would welcome getting rid of anonymity."
The Government will this week tell the internet sites they will have until April 2007 to comply with the law. The Government will tell them that an EU directive governing the use of human tissues will mean they can no longer be exempt from the same rules governing sperm banks and fertility clinics that do not operate online.
The clampdown follows a consultation on reform of of fertility laws where concerns about internet sites were raised. The new rules are likely to mean that frozen sperm will in future be biked round to women's homes and can be kept in the freezer before self-insemination.
CASE STUDY: 'We were both worried by the risk of disease'
Lesbian couple Eve Carlile and Ros Hudson discussed having their own child for nine years before they decided to use a sperm donor.
Following private treatment at a fertility clinic in London, they now have a one-year-old son, Jude. Ms Carlile, 30, a solicitor, said they eventually decided against ordering sperm through the internet.
"We didn't use [the sperm donor website] Man Not Included because we were worried about the safety aspect and sexually transmitted diseases. That was really a major reason; doing that is incredibly risky," she said .
She and Ms Hudson, 31, an accountant, were clear from the beginning that they did not want contact with the father of the child. The couple do know that their son's biological father was of Macedonian descent, and his profession a physiotherapist but no more than that. "The thing is, if you wanted a donor who was 6ft tall with red hair, and the sperm is turning up on the back of a motorbike courier, how do you know if the donor really was 6ft tall with red hair?" asked Ms Carlile.
"When you look at sperm donation, you want to try to replicate something and how do you know what you're really getting if you do that over the internet?"