Ottawa fertility doctor urging Health Canada to adopt new sperm donor standards

An Ottawa fertility doctor says stricter Canadian standards for sperm donations could have helped avoid a debacle which has led several families, including one in Ottawa, to file lawsuits against a Georgia-based sperm bank.

Dr. Arthur Leader says current sperm donation standards are needlessly outdated

The website of Xytex Cryo International sperm bank in Atlanta, Georgia. (David Goldman/Associeated Press)

An Ottawa fertility doctor says stricter Canadian standards for sperm donations could have helped avoid a debacle which has led several families, including one in Ottawa, to file lawsuits against a Georgia-based sperm bank.

The lawsuits follow news that an American who fathered more than 30 children through sperm donations, including at least seven in Canada, has admitted he lied to a sperm bank about his background

Arthur Leader is head of the Ottawa Fertility Centre. (University of Ottawa)

"I think it's very unfortunate because I know how much effort patients put into selecting a donor," Dr. Arthur Leader, who runs the Ottawa Fertility Centre, told Ottawa Morning

"They pay extra to get the profile of all the information on the donor and they have almost an emotional bond with that individual when they make the selection. If you have a person that has a genetic illness that can be transmitted to your offspring, that's probably the last thing that you'd want to do when you go through the very detailed process of selecting a sperm donor."

Leader, who has chaired a reproductive health committee for the Canadian Standards Association, said new standards have been established in collaboration with Health Canada, but for whatever reason they haven't been adopted.

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"I think the Health Canada officials have been very supportive of the development of standards but there's been no will at the level of the senior management at Health Canada or the minister to see those regulations come into force, despite the fact that Health Canada has been a party in the development."

Health Canada has not done anything since 2000 to update the regulations or the standards.- Dr. Arthur Leader 

Leader said new standards would ensure that Canadian companies importing sperm would be forced to obtain medical records with information such as a donor's physical and mental health as well as his genetic background.

Outdated regulations

"Health Canada is charged with regulating the use of donor sperm but the regulations currently in place are outdated. They go back to 2000, they're not evidence-based, they're not based on standards, and Health Canada has not done anything since 2000 to update the regulations or the standards," says Leader.

"So when donor sperm comes into Canada it basically has to meet one requirement: that it's free of infection. And every sample that comes into Canada has to be checked and validated that it is infection-free. But in terms of genetic risk, there's nothing that is required."

CBC Ottawa asked Health Canada to respond to Leader's comments. Here's part of its statement: 

"Health Canada is committed to protecting the health, safety, dignity and rights of Canadians who use or are born of assisted human reproduction technology.

"As part of this commitment to the health and safety of Canadians, the Department regularly reviews its Acts and Regulations to ensure that regulatory frameworks keep pace with the latest scientific advancements.

"The safety of semen is regulated … pursuant to the Food and Drugs Act. The aim of the Semen Regulations is primarily to minimize the risk of transmission of infectious diseases.

"Health Canada has reviewed the information it was provided about the aforementioned case, as well as information gathered from routine inspections of the importer/distributor in question and has determined that there was no breach of compliance with the existing regulations."

Man went to police

Police in Georgia said James Christian Aggeles showed up at a police station in Athens-Clarke County last week, saying he wanted to turn himself in.

Aggeles is at the centre of multiple lawsuits against the Georgia-based sperm bank Xytex Corp., including three suits from Ontario families that allege they were misled about their sperm donor's medical and social history, which they claim included a criminal record and mental illness.

Two lawsuits were also filed against Xytex in a B.C. court this summer in connection with this case. 

A lawyer for Xytex said the company currently has no comment on the information in the police report.

Families questioned donor's background

Earlier this year, in statements of claim filed in a Newmarket, Ont., court, three families alleged Aggeles lied about his mental health history and his education when he filled out a Xytex questionnaire, but was never questioned by anyone at Xytex.

The families all allege Aggeles was promoted as a highly educated, healthy and popular donor.

The allegations in the lawsuits, which involve families from Port Hope, Ont., Ottawa and Haileybury, Ont., have not been proven in court.

A lawyer for Xytex said Tuesday the company looks forward to "successfully defending itself."

'Bizarre contradiction'

Leader said that back in 2000, when the current regulations came into place, most of the sperm banks in Canada were shut down by Health Canada. Very few of them reopened, he said.

"The regulations prohibit compensation for the sperm donors, and finding altruistic donors has proven to be really difficult ... In the U.S. they can be paid so we have this rather bizarre contradiction that we can pay Americans to be sperm donors but we can't pay Canadians."

Currently, said Leader, sperm donations that come into Canada are only checked for infections such as HIV. Any other information, including a donor's medical history, is accepted on what he called the "honour system."

He said at the very least, genetic disorders that could be passed down to offspring should be verified.

"Currently, we don't require that. And in this particular case, there was a gene associated with schizophrenia this particular donor is thought to have, which can be transmitted. You can't know everything but you should at least make the effort to know as much as possible." 

When it comes to families looking for a sperm donor, Leader said right now, it's buyer beware. So he encouraged people to do their homework.

"I think if they have concerns about the history of the donor and the background they should direct those questions to the sperm bank and if they don't get a satisfactory answer, move on to see if they can find another donor.