The largest-ever study into unregulated online sperm donation is being supported by University of the West of Scotland academics.

The four-year study, led by Leeds Beckett University, and also including UWS and the Universities of Manchester, Sheffield and Sussex, aims to shine an academic light on what is and is not working well and to collaborate with people who are actively involved in the process to identify and bring about positive changes.

Many people need help from a sperm donor to start or build their family, but there are often barriers to them receiving this help at an NHS or private clinic. Instead, some people look for a sperm donor online via unregulated connection websites and social media groups. However, there is very little information available about what this involves and how it might change their lives. 

The project has received £910,358 of funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). UWS will be contributing to the project by leading a series of life story interviews with around 50 people involved in unregulated online sperm donation.

David Carless, Reader in the School of Health and Life Sciences at UWS, said: “Firstly, we will explore the interpersonal relationships at the heart of online sperm donation that occurs via connection websites and social media groups. This includes research with people receiving sperm, people donating sperm, their life partners – if they have one – and website owners.

“From these interviews, we will be using a range of arts-based methods to create accessible and engaging products, such as comics, drawings, stories and/or films, which effectively communicate people’s experiences of online sperm donation.

“During a later phase of the project, people involved in online sperm donation will be invited to a series of workshops to review and reflect on these products. We will ask them to explore their ideal futures for online sperm donation and to work with us for positive change through, for example, producing a public awareness campaign, advocating for changes in the law, or better informing support services.”

Sperm donation arranged via connection websites and social networking sites is currently unregulated – it falls outside the regulatory control of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. Yet it is fast-growing in part at least because policies and practices in the UK for clinical donor insemination are restrictive, leading some people to seek alternative online routes to finding a sperm donor. This is particularly the case for women in same-sex relationships and single women.

A pilot study suggests there are more than 350,000 potential recipients on over 60 English-speaking connection websites and social media groups around the world and that recipients experience many benefits to online sperm donation but some have been subjected to a range of online and offline abusive behaviours.

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