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New Zealand fertility experts are asking whether money could be offered to encourage men and women to donate sperm and eggs for childless couples.

Long waiting lists for fertility treatment mean many New Zealand families seek medical assistance abroad, in conditions doctors say could be substandard.

Fertility experts say the Government should follow the example of Britain, which has made several proposals to encourage donations of egg and sperm.

UK women can receive up to $550 in lieu of lost earnings for their help.

British fertility regulators have suggested raising this amount to thousands of pounds. The regulators want to discourage the flood of Britons seeking potentially poor treatment in countries such as Spain and Cyprus, or from unreliable internet donors.

Paying donors is illegal in New Zealand under the Human Assisted Reproductive Technology Act.

The trend towards having babies later in life means the demand for IVF is rising - one in six New Zealand couples have fertility problems, according to the Nurture Foundation.

The waiting list for infertile couples could be a year or more. Some may never get treatment. Gay couples often wait the longest, because of a clause which allows donors to choose where their sperm or eggs end up - some want their donations to go only to heterosexual parents.

Dr Richard Fisher, of Fertility Associates in Auckland, said his practice saw one couple a week go overseas to seek in vitro fertilisation (IVF) - the fertilisation of eggs outside of the womb.

Most go to the United States, which has a thriving market in egg and sperm donation. The donors are usually young, meaning a higher success rate in producing a baby.

Dr Fisher did not fully endorse paying donors, but said it was an issue worthy of public debate.

"The view of our patients would be that being able to pay their donors would make their lives infinitely easier. And I don't have any concerns about commodification - I feel that people understand the emotion involved in donating.

"There has been a long history in New Zealand of not charging for things you give, such as blood. So we are in some ways captured by our history."

Another fertility doctor, Guy Gudex, warned that in the US, unlike New Zealand, egg donors did not have to identify themselves. This could become problematic further along the line if a child wanted to find out its genetic parents.

Dr Gudex said he was slightly uncomfortable with the idea of paying for sperm or eggs, and said there was no evidence that payments would encourage more donations.

But he felt Britain had started an important conversation on the subject.

"It's been an issue there for several years. The [UK authorities] have put a lot of thought into it. New Zealand needs to do the same - there needs to be some public debate."

New Zealand couples who could not afford treatment in the US sometimes opted for cheaper medical help in India, Thailand, Argentina, or Romania.

Dr Fisher said he could not have complete confidence that his patients would get the same standard of care in those countries.

There are no controls on the importing of human eggs into New Zealand. But once they are in the country, there are conditions on how they can be used. And the donor can not remain anonymous.

Health Minister Tony Ryall told the Herald that sperm and egg donation was a highly complex area, and he wasn't in a position to make any decisions yet.

The Advisory Committee on Assisted Reproductive Technology will report to the ministry next year.

* 1 in 6 New Zealand couples have problems with fertility.
* At least one couple go abroad every week to seek treatment.
* Most couples face a one-year wait before getting IVF treatment.
* Half of egg or sperm donations are from friends or family.