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The challenge of “sperm ships”: the need for the global regulation of medical technology
  1. D Hunter1,
  2. S Oultram2
  1. 1
    School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Ulster, Coleraine, Northern Ireland, UK
  2. 2
    Centre for Professional Ethics, Keele University, Newcastle-Under-Lyme, UK
  1. Mr D Hunter, School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Ulster, Cromore Road, Coleraine, Co. Londonderry BT52 1SA, UK; d.hunter3{at}


This paper discusses the notion of using international shipping legislation to provide healthcare technologies to inhabitants of a country on a ship in international waters based just outside the country’s border. This allows technologies that would otherwise be unavailable, regulated or banned to the citizens of a particular nation to be available, just offshore. This is because in international waters ships are governed by the laws of their home nation not those they are nearby. We focus on the example suggested recently in the UK of “sperm ships”, flying Danish flags to circumvent IVF regulation in the UK. While we acknowledge that this general strategy could be used to do good by providing healthcare where it would not be otherwise available, it also provides a significant challenge to the effective sovereignty of the state and its ability to regulate healthcare technologies for the benefit of its citizens. We discuss this challenge to the regulation of healthcare and suggest a few tentative solutions.

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  • i We are using “sperm ships” as a generic term for all uses of this international legislation to either provide medical care or to engage in medical/biotech research in international waters, rather than just as a means of providing reproductive technology.

  • ii Pennings defends this sort of position in “Reproductive tourism as moral pluralism in motion”,7 however in the face of high risk technologies and to some degree the technologies that we think are morally obnoxious, this position seems untenable.

  • iii There may be reasons to doubt this—for example, see the debate about cosmopolitanism versus nationalism.15

  • iv The amount varies from country to country, it is typically 12 miles, although some countries have claimed either more or less than this.19

  • Competing interests: None.

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