Health

Health Canada eases barriers for sperm and egg donors

Updated screening rules for sperm and egg donors came into force on Wednesday that remove a ban that restricted gay and bisexual men from donating to sperm banks, Health Canada said.

“As a continuation of changes made to screening criteria for blood donations, Health Canada reviewed the donor screening criteria for sperm and ova donors and determined that the available scientific and technical information supported adopting a more inclusive screening approach, while not increasing the risk,” Health Canada said in response to questions from CBC News.

The regulator’s more inclusive approach replaces screening questions about men who have sex with men in the previous three months with gender-neutral questions about sexual behaviour with a new partner or multiple partners over the same time period.

Health Minister Mark Holland said the updated policy follows the latest evidence and ensures a stable supply to allow Canadians to grow their families. 

Lawyer Gregory Ko, a partner at Kastner Ko LLP in Toronto, called the change a milestone to celebrate but said it doesn’t go far enough. Ko said the new screening criteria are still exclusionary because they continue to discriminate on the basis of sexual activity.

“The questions will continue to exclude gay and bisexual men who engage in anal sex,” Ko said.

Ko is representing Aziz M., a gay man who filed a case in January 2023 against the federal government, challenging the constitutionality of the policy. 

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“The practical effect of that [policy] was that no gay or bisexual men could donate to a sperm establishment unless they knew the recipients,” Ko said.

A court order has granted Aziz partial anonymity and CBC News is complying. 

For his part, Aziz said he’s cautiously happy with the updated policy. 

“It is a step in the right direction,” Aziz said. “Some of my friends will be able to donate,  but still the fight continues.”

Aziz plans to continue his legal battle. 

Donor questions

Dr. Prati Sharma, a reproductive endocrinology and infertility specialist at Create Fertility Centre in Toronto, said in general, Canada does not have a very large pool of sperm donors.

“By including these men as potential donors it just allows access to those fertility patients who are looking for the right match,” Sharma said, adding it also reduces the stigma against gay and bisexual men being able to participate. 

Sharma said criteria to donate to a sperm bank include:

Once sperm is deposited, it is frozen and sequestered for six months. Then the potential sperm donor answers the same questions they were asked initially and blood and urine tests are repeated before the sperm can be released to a recipient. 

Precautions evolving

Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said receiving sperm is generally a safe process.

“I think the change is a step forward because it reflects better diagnostic tests and a better understanding of disease transmission routes and it mirrors what has been going on with blood donation,” Adalja said.

This picture taken on September 28, 2022 shows a member of staff monitoring the movement of donor sperm at Keio University Hospital in Tokyo
A staff member monitors the movement of donor sperm at Keio University Hospital in Tokyo in 2022. Semen analysis is part of the screening at sperm banks. (Yuichi Yamakazi/AFP/Getty)

Receptive anal intercourse has been identified as a risk factor for transmission of many sexually transmitted infections, he said. 

“The more traumatic, the more blood exposure, the more body fluid exposure, the more likely a sexually transmitted infection is going to take advantage of that route,” Adalja said.

The precautions for blood, semen and other types of donations are evolving, he added. 

“There is often a concern that someone may be in the very early stages of infection and not testing positive for something,” Adalja said.

“That is why some of these regulations still have some value but increasingly diagnostic technology is going to eclipse many of these regulations.”

Health Canada said it reviewed the donor screening criteria for sperm and egg donation as a continuation of changes made to screening criteria for blood donations.

 

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