A California man the US government considers a one-man sperm bank who has fathered 14 children by donating his sperm for free has been ordered by US authorities to stop as he poses a health hazard.
Trent Arsenault, a 36-year-old bachelor who professes a strong religious upbringing, sees his sperm giveaways, which he advertises on the internet, as acts of compassion.
But the US Food and Drug Administration has ordered the San Francisco Bay-area man to stop or face up to a year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Arsenault is challenging the order in court and its enforcement has been delayed pending a ruling.
Arsenault said he would not give up without a fight. "Whatever happens with me sets a precedent, which could mean a lot of childless couples," he said. "Does the government need to be in people's bedrooms?"
His battle with the FDA, which has drawn national media attention, could test the limits of the agency's authority to regulate private donations of sperm offered as gifts directly to prospective mothers rather than through commercial sperm banks.
Such donations have grown more frequent as single women, lesbian partners and heterosexual couples with fertility problems increasingly turn to alternative sources for artificial insemination.
Arsenault, who provided semen in sterile plastic containers to women who then arranged for themselves to be inseminated, promotes his services on a website touting his fitness as a donor.
During the past five years, he has given his sperm on more than 328 occasions to at least 46 women, resulting in 14 births, according to the FDA's best estimates from documentation Arsenault provided. The agency says this posed a health risk.
"Under FDA's regulations, sperm donors are required to be screened for risk factors that may increase the chances of transmitting a communicable disease," FDA spokesperson Rita Chappelle said in an email.
Sperm banks must perform a battery of tests to ensure that donated sperm does not carry human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B or C, syphilis, chlamydia, gonorrhoea, human T-lymphotropic virus, cytomegalovirus or genetic disorders.
Arsenault said he had himself screened every six months for those diseases but could not afford the specific FDA-approved tests he is supposed to undergo within seven days of each sperm donation, at a cost of $1,700 (about R13 200).
The costly testing regimen is the main reason sperm banks charge hundreds of dollars for their services, said Sherron Mills, executive director of the Pacific Reproductive Services in San Francisco. Rates there range from $425 to $600 (between R3 300 and R4 600) or more per insemination.
FDA regulators last year paid four visits to Arsenault's home in Fremont, California, east of San Francisco, to inspect what they considered his sperm-bank operation. In the fall they made a last visit, accompanied by police, to deliver a cease-and-desist order.
Chappelle declined to say whether the agency is investigating any other freelance sperm donors, many of whom advertise their services on the Internet. But Arsenault has retained a lawyer who is handling his court challenge.
Besides providing greater health safeguards, Mills said, sperm banks offer their customers stronger legal protection from donors who might try to assert their paternity rights.
Arsenault signs forms waiving any parental rights. But Mills said such agreements have been voided in some California cases when a medical doctor was absent from the transaction.
Eleanor Nicoll, spokeswoman for the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said the involvement of a physician is beneficial in and of itself. "If you're trying to address a medical problem, you should seek medical treatment," she said.
But Arsenault argues that outlawing the kind of free service he provides runs the risk of driving some women to seek sperm donations from more questionable sources.
"If you shut out the sperm donors, they are going to have to meet some bar dude," he said. "Spouses would have to cheat on each other."
(Reuters Health, Laird Harrison, December 2011)