The UK is facing a major sperm shortage that may be tempting fertility clinics to accept poorer quality sperm, the British Fertility Society (BFS) warns.
Some clinics rely on imported sperm to keep up with demand.
However, the BFS chairman, Dr Allan Pacey, said he was “worried” that some clinics may be setting a lower bar to “get donors through the door”.
He said women may be subjected to more invasive and expensive techniques if poor-quality sperm were used.
There are thought to have been fewer sperm donors after the right to anonymity was removed in 2005.
The demand for donors has been falling as advances in fertility treatment let more men father their own children.
However, a shortage of donors has still emerged.
Figures from the fertility regulator, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), show nearly one in four donated sperm samples is from abroad.
The figure was one in 10 in 2005.
Sperm banks in Denmark and the US are the major suppliers.
Dr Pacey warned this was limiting patient choice and increasing waiting times, which led to potential risky practices, including DIY insemination with a friend’s sperm or seeking treatment in a country with less fertility regulation.
He told the BBC: “We do still have a major sperm shortage in the UK.
“The worry is clinics might decide to change the quality of sperm they are willing to accept in order to get donors through the door and I think that’s a very dangerous road to go down.”
He said one possible example was sperm being accepted that would be suitable only for injecting into an egg – intra-cytoplasmic sperm injection – rather than for artificial insemination.
“That is putting the woman through more procedures, in terms of eggs being collected, than would be done if sperm of higher quality was collected and she could be treated with a simple insemination.
“My worry is clinics may be tempted to bend the rules, I have no evidence that they are, but I think when we have a national sperm shortage they’re the kind of things we need to be looking for and warding against.”
‘Fully inform patients’
Professor Yakoub Khalaf, of the assisted conception unit at Guy’s Hospital in London, commented: “We are now more reliant on external sperm banks than ever before.
“I don’t think it is an issue as such, but what I have observed is that when people get sperm from abroad they can be given an option of ‘suitable for insemination’, or ‘suitable for IVF or ICSI’ [sperm injected to the egg].
“But how can donor sperm be less than adequate for all treatments?”
He said that based on his experience of the quality of imported sperm “the same could be happening here”.
A HFEA spokesperson said: “We expect our clinics to use only donor sperm of a quality that will ensure the best outcome for the patient, and under our code of practice clinics are required to fully inform patients of the different treatment options available to them.”