Reproductive Attorney, Law Office of Brian Esser
Whether a person elects for an at-home insemination, an intrauterine insemination or some version of in-vitro fertilization, she will need to use sperm to conceive.
The person who provides the sperm is referred to as a “donor” though, counter-intuitively, they are usually paid. We characterize donors into three buckets:
While there are many decisions to be made here, we think of there being a few primary ones, namely:
A known sperm donor is typically someone who is a part of the future moms’ lives. This could be a friend, an acquaintance, or, frequently, a brother or relative of the mother who will not be using her eggs.
There are lots of positives to using a known donor. First, if the donor is a relative, it gives both moms a chance to have a genetic connection to the child.
Second, you’ll have a good sense of who this person is — they’ve been personally vetted by you. This matters because, as you’ll see with donors from sperm banks, many women feel they’re given limited information and can’t formulate a sense for what kind of person the donor is.
Third, you can also take extra steps that make you feel more comfortable with this donor, like doing any specific genetic screening that you want performed. Alternatively, many patients wonder whether sperm banks do a thorough job medically vetting donors (more on this to come).
Fourth, using a known donor also minimizes the risk of surprises later, like learning this same donor has fathered 50+ children who are genetic siblings to your child.
Fifth, you can create a unique family structure, whereby a known donor can also be a part of a child’s life from early on if that’s what the moms want.
Sixth, it’s typical to need more sperm than expected. That’s because fertility treatments seldom work the first time and because many parents want more than one child. Many lesbian couples who acquire sperm from a bank come to learn it’s hard to get ongoing specimens from a donor they like. A known donor is more likely to be able to provide additional samples when needed.
Seventh, presumably the sperm from a known donor can be acquired more cheaply than through a sperm bank, however this will likely be counterbalanced with additional costs.
Eighth, unlike sperm sourced from a sperm bank, known donors can contribute fresh samples (compared with sperm banks which only offer frozen samples). In treatments like IUI, this delivers better results.
Of course, there are also drawbacks to using a known donor.
Most importantly, there can be legal risks, especially if the donor has involvement with the child. Some of these risks can be mitigated through legal agreements and making sure to do the insemination at a clinic so that it’s well documented that they’re a donor, not a father.
Second, there can be complications if, down the road, you and the donor don’t see eye-to-eye on what the relationship should be between the child and the donor.
Next, you will likely need to contend with a number of logistical hurdles that can delay treatment. These include psychological counseling and evaluation for you and the donor, and clinics requiring that such sperm be quarantined for a period of time to protect moms from communicable diseases like STDs.
Lastly, you’ll likely need to cover the costs to have the donor’s sperm tested and his physical and mental health assessed, and possibly any costs he accrues for attorneys to review documents relinquishing any claims of parentage to the child. These costs may supercede the cost of having simply purchased sperm from a sperm bank.
The alternative to using sperm from someone in your life is to procure sperm from a sperm bank. Here we’ll try and clarify how this process works as well as the tradeoffs in comparison to using a known donor.
There are 3 - 5 large sperm banks (200 - 500 donor’s sperm available at any one time) in the United States and a handful of smaller sperm banks.
Often banks operate as a network, establishing recruitment centers near large, state universities where they screen candidates (medically and psychologically) before collecting their sperm.
If selected, donors waive their paternal rights, agree to testing, provide several samples, and create an online profile for customers of the bank to review.
The costs of using a sperm bank vary, and prices between the major banks range by 10 – 15%. There are really two costs: the cost of information, and the cost of sperm itself.
Information: You should assume you will pay for varying tiers of information on donors on the sperm bank’s portal, with top tier access running around $250 every three months.
Sperm: The costs to acquire a vial of sperm range from $500 - $1,000, and rise if:
For context, the average number of vials each person will use for an IUI treatment is 3 – 7 in total and the costs of sperm rise 4 – 10% per year.
Ultimately, since treatment is inefficient (sperm gets used up quickly) and most parents want more than one child, customers find they need more sperm than they expected. These customers often regret not buying more sperm (from a donor they like) earlier, because donors eventually stop providing samples and other customers may have stepped in and bought all that was left.
First, compared with trying to select a known donor, sperm banks provide a broad selection (though many customers complain they find it hard to find what they’re looking for). What’s more, you can get access to the sperm almost immediately.
Second, sperm banks handle much of the logistical hassle that falls to those using a known donor: physical, psychological, and medical screening has been handled. The donor has waived all rights and claims to the child.
Third, most sperm banks are highly LGBTQ friendly, as lesbian women comprise nearly half of their business.
First, the experience of finding a sperm donor through a bank can be painful. While banks claim to reject 90% of applicants to donate, many customers find the volume of donors to be overwhelming and the quality to be underwhelming.
Second, sperm banks make little information available to customers. Customers want to see adult photos while banks usually just supply younger photos of the donor. Personal essays are penned by 18 and 19 year olds, and leave customers to wonder what this person will be like as a fully-formed adult. Specific schools attended are purposely made vague because they are seldom viewed as “elite” institutions.
Third, many worry that banks often know less about their donors than customers are led to believe. While banks are meant to follow FDA and ASRM screening guidelines, standards vary between banks and sometimes even within the same bank depending on the recruitment center.
The headline below profiles a case where a sperm donor was advertised as having a 160 IQ and a PhD but was later revealed to have neither — instead he had been convicted of burglary and diagnosed with schizophrenia before donating. His samples were used to father 23 offspring and were obtained from a large bank that’s generally considered reputable.
Fourth, sperm banks provide frozen sperm. Frozen sperm carries lower rates of success than fresh sperm. Fresh sperm can only be provided by a known donor.
If you choose to get sperm from a bank, the next major decision is often whether you’d prefer to buy sperm from an “open” donor or from an “anonymous” donor (which will cover in the next chapter).
An open donor is a donor typically selected from a sperm bank, who has agreed to make his identity available to future children when they turn 18 years old. Alternatively, an “anonymous” donor has instructed the sperm bank never to release his identity to the offspring.
In making this decision, women will want to think through their feelings about their future children (as adults) having the option to reach out to the sperm donor.
A sperm bank recently made data available on what percentage of adult offspring actually follow up and request access to their sperm donor’s identity.
As you can see, children of lesbian couples requested their donor’s identity 37% of the time. While that’s less than the percentage of children of solo or single mothers, it still reflects the very real possibility if you elect for an open donor, your child will take advantage of the information available to them.
Of those who requested information, the primary motivation was to get “more information with reference to self,” namely what traits do they share in common. Most eventually planned to make to make contact with the donor and over 90% of donors said they’d be open to reciprocating contact. Nearly 90% of the adult offspring harbored “no or low” expectations for what might arise from such interactions.
Similarly to an open donor, an anonymous donor provides sperm to a sperm bank.
However, they do not consent to the adult offspring learning of their identity (much less reaching out). Roughly 60 - 70% of donors to sperm banks today are listed as anonymous.
There is a very real question as to whether preserving the donor’s “anonymity” is realistic with the advent of consumer genetic testing.
There’s an ever increasing chance that in the future, if your child really wants to find out about their paternal genetic heritage, they’ll be able to use services like 23andMe or Ancestry, and ultimately learn the identity of their biological father. Within minutes, thanks to social media, they may be in touch - allowing little time for a planned, lucid weighing of the positives and negatives.
Given this donor elected to remain anonymous, there’s a real possibility such an interaction might not go well.