Mad Cow Rules Hit Sperm Banks' Patrons

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 13, 2008

When Julie Peterson decided to have a baby on her own two years ago, she picked a tall, blond, blue-eyed Danish engineer as a sperm donor to match her own Scandinavian heritage. But when she went back to the sperm bank to use the same donor to have another child, she was stunned to discover that the federal government had made it impossible.

"I just cried," said Peterson, 43, who lives in North Carolina. "I was in complete shock. I hadn't thought about anything but having another baby with this donor. It was just so surprising and bewildering."

The sperm bank had run out of vials from Peterson's donor and could not replace them, because of restrictions health officials have instituted to protect Americans against the human form of mad cow disease. Since May 2005, the United States has effectively barred sperm banks from importing from Europe for fear it might spread the brain-ravaging pathogen that causes the affliction.

Now, as the remaining vials of Nordic semen frozen in U.S. sperm banks are running out, a small but desperate number of would-be parents are frantic. Peterson has flown repeatedly to Denmark, and went again this week, to try to get pregnant with sperm from the same donor. Others are going to Canada or Mexico, or haggling with other American women who have leftover vials.

"I think it's outrageous," said Laura, a Los Angeles lawyer who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her privacy. She decided against paying a New York woman more than $2,000 for a few vials from a donor she nicknamed "Sven," whom she used a few years ago to conceive a son. A vial usually costs less than $500. "I'd love to give him a full sibling. But I just couldn't do it. It's so unfortunate."

The restrictions on sperm from Europe were among the steps the U.S. government took in the wake of the mad cow outbreak in Europe in the late 1990s. In rare cases, people who eat meat from infected animals develop the fatal, untreatable illness called variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The ailment is caused by an infectious mutant protein that slowly eats away brain tissue. Some people have been infected through contaminated surgical equipment and transplanted tissue, such as corneas, but there are no known cases of infection from sperm.

Before the restrictions went into effect, two sperm banks -- California Cryobank in Los Angeles and Cryos International in New York City -- imported sperm from Denmark. The Nordic donors were popular because of their blue eyes and blond hair, and their tendency to be tall and have advanced degrees.

"The demand was huge," said Peter Bower of Nordic Cryobank of Copenhagen, which had supplied California Cryobank. "In addition to being tall and well educated, their motivations for donation are quite sincere -- they want to help childless couples. They tended to sell out very fast."

With California Cryobank's and Cryos's supplies virtually depleted, Nordic Cryobank filed a petition in June asking the Food and Drug Administration to lift the restrictions.

"The risk is insignificant," Bower said. "There's a huge demand, and the FDA is essentially saying to these patients they can't choose the characteristics of the children they want, even though there is absolutely no scientific evidence on their side."

Bower cites one study that concluded that getting mad cow disease from sperm is far less likely than being killed by lightning.

"They say the risk is theoretically possible, but the risk is too small and too insignificant to even be described," he said.

Because of the pending petition, the FDA refused to discuss the restrictions, which recommend against importing sperm from any donor who has lived in the United Kingdom or France for more than three months, or elsewhere in Europe for more than five years, since 1980. But some experts defend the guidelines, saying that while the risk is probably small, women have other options.

"I don't see it as a big negative," said Jacob Mayer, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. Mayer noted that if transmission occurred, it could affect not only the mother but also the child.

"You have to worry about the next generation," Mayer said. "I think most people would tell you they want this to be as safe as possible both for themselves and their offspring, and they'd want to eliminate any possible risk."

Other experts noted that spreading the disease by sperm has never been documented, even among regular sexual partners of people with the illness.

"The restriction is really arbitrary," said Charles Sims, medical director of the California Cryobank. "I did a review of the world literature, and we could not find any support for it. There's no record of any transmission this way. It's restricted because the FDA made an administrative decision to regulate all tissues on the same standards."

"You can never say never, but it seems like a very remote possibility," said David Ball, laboratory director at Seattle Reproductive Medicine, who helps set standards for fertility clinics for the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology. "There are a lot of people in the field who would question the utility of the regulation as it now stands."

Peterson had her first child with sperm she bought from Cryos, which began importing Danish sperm in 2001. But Cryos ran out of Peterson's donor and now has fewer than 200 vials of sperm from other Danish donors.

"We have just a few crumbs left," said Claus Rodgaard, who runs the bank. He said Cryos has more than 100 patients on a waiting list for its most popular donors, who use pseudonyms including "Dane," "Finn" and "Oluf."

Because there is no shortage of sperm from American donors, the biggest outcry has come from women seeking more exotic donors or those with a clear genetic lineage, as well as from women, such as Peterson, who want to have another child using the same donor as before.

"I'm Swedish-Norwegian and really wanted to have a gene pool that was similar to my own," Peterson said. "I wanted a baby that looked like me and wanted to share my heritage with my baby. Now I have a beautiful Viking baby, which is what I wanted. I was hoping to give her a full sibling."

After Peterson found out she could not get more sperm from the same donor from Cryos, she flew twice to Copenhagen to be inseminated with sperm from the donor. She did not get pregnant on the first try, and a pregnancy from the second one ended in miscarriage. Peterson, a chiropractor, thinks this week's attempt will be her last.

"It's a huge commitment both financially and with my time. I have to close my practice and go to a totally different country. But I'm committed to having my daughter have the same father if I can. But I don't know how many times I can do this if a baby doesn't come with this one."

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