Picking Sperm, Part Two: Sperm Bank Ethics

The Next Family

By: Julie Gamberg 


So you’ve thought everything through and you know that a sperm bank is the best route for you, or for you and your partner. Now you have to choose a sperm bank, and decide between a completely anonymous donor, or an“identity release” or “willing to be known” (different sperm banks use different terms) donor –one who agrees to some sort of contact when the child turns eighteen.  Although there are definitely good reasons for using sperm from an anonymous donor –like the desire to mirror one’s specific mixed racial background as closely as possible (which can be almost impossible without an anonymous donor), or the requirement to have a donor who is CMV negative –it appears that the primary reason women choose a fully anonymous donor is the wider variety. A bigger selection can seem like it will mean a better chance of getting that medically healthy, super cute, funny-in-his-essay, compassionate, athletic, artistic seed.  Also, sperm banks with a wider pool of anonymous donors tend to be large and web-savvy, with a frothy commercial appeal in how they market the donors. These are banks where you can shop online and it’s fun! -which is a huge relief when making such a complicated and difficult decision. These sites often have baby pictures and adult photos available online, are very user-friendly, and have lots of cool features like celebrity lookalikes, unlimited profiles for one flat fee,and online donor voice records. In fact,not by accident I’m sure, these sites often mirror the popular and well-funded dating sites, like match.com.


Although the appeal of having a fun, upbeat shopping experience is understandable, the short-term benefits of using these banks may be outweighed by the long-term repercussions. For starters, activists argue that the field is not well enough regulated.  Wendy Kramer and her son Ryan, who founded the Donor Sibling Registry, a site where donor-conceived offspring can register by clinic and/or donor identification number and choose to meet half-siblings –and possibly their anonymous donor, should he choose to register –strongly believe that the first priority should be the long-term needs of the child.  This includes having a low donor-to-family ratio and allowing for the offspring to have the choice of at least a one-time meeting with the person who makes up half of his or her DNA. They consider this a fundamental human right. Several countries, such asNorway, Holland, England,Sweden, Germany, and Italy, agree.  In these countries, anonymous donation is illegal. As donor-conceived children grow up and tell their stories (and there are many on the DSR website and in some recently published books), two issues are echoed again and again: these children need to be told if they were donor-conceived (this especially applies to straight, two-parent families who can easily withhold this information), and they need to have the opportunity to meet their donor. It seems that nearly all the negative issues reported by donor-conceived offspring occur when these needs aren’t met. Fortunately these are both issues that parents can control and it’s important for the long-term well being of your child-to-be to think them through in advance.


If you do decide that you want to ensure your donor-conceived offspring the opportunity to meet his donor, it does matter which sperm bank you use. There is no set standard for the donor-to-family ratio. From my survey of about a dozen of the largest or most well-known sperm banks, the donor-to-family ratio ranges from a low of 10 to a high of 60. Sixty families! At an average of 1.5 kids per family, that means your little one could have approximately 90 half-siblings. There is also no fixed definition for what a “willing to be known” or “identity release” donor means. On the webpage of the very popular California Cryobank, they explain that “open donors” are “committed to one contact…” which “may be in the form of an email, standard letter, phone call or meeting in person – the type of contact is decided solely by the donor.” This means that at the end of the day, your child might be unable to get a name, genetic information, or even simple questions answered. Your child’s one single contact might come from an anonymous email account or  a form letter sent to all of the donor-conceived offspring, both of which would fulfill the legal and ethical obligation according to the terms set by California Cryobank.


Contrast this with Pacific Reproductive Services, a lesbian-owned sperm bank, where the donor is required to have actual contact at least once. Or, the sperm bank I’m particularly fond of, The Sperm Bank of California (TSBC), the only non-profit sperm bank in the country, and also one of the oldest (operating since 1982). According to their website “TSBC conducts research on the psychosocial implications of donor insemination …” as well as being “the first sperm bank in the United States to create the Identity-Release® Program, serve lesbian couples and single women, provide extensive personal and family medical histories on donors, offer instruction on how to perform inseminations at home, document conception and birth rates, track and limit the number of births per donor.” They also thoroughly discuss identity-release with their donors and prepare them for contact if so requested by offspring who have attained the age of 18. At such time, TSBC then releases an entire profile, including full name, birth date, place of birth, updated contact information, and how the donor would like to be contacted.


Unfortunately, TSBC’s web searches are clunky and their donors seem, on the page, more like good, nice guys, rather than the Brad Pitt/Zac Effron combo of whom the other sites seem to have ample amounts. Their simple, straightforward site cannot begin to compare with the sleek Xytex website which offers a one-click “ultra unlimited package” – 90 days’ of unlimited use, profiles, photos, “PhotoSpans,” and audio interviews.  On the Xytex homepage is a rotating box with baby and adult pictures of donors, including a photo of a cute, trendy looking young man.  And then there’s a quick search feature, where you can plug in three parameters and immediately begin searching. As you might imagine, medical history is not one of them. In fact, the parameters on the Xytex site provide the perfect illustration of how buying sperm on the internet propels us to fixate on the superficial. What, according to Xytex’s webpage, are the three most important factors to take into account when performing a quick search? Hair color, eye color, and ethnic origin. At least the last one wasn’t height.


I have to admit, when I first considered using a sperm bank, I signed up for Xytex’s three months’ of unlimited profiles and loved the ability to just keep clicking on profile after profile, seeing adult photos, reading both the short and the extended question essays.  I thought about ordering their really cool service where I could submit my questions and the donor would answer them by voice. But I kept coming back to the integrity of banks like TSBC – where there would only be nine other donor families; where the donor receives thoughtful communication about the gravity of his choices; where a donor is meant to really understand that he is signing up for releasing his full identity; and, where he most likely would have warm and compassionate contact with a potential adult child of mine.


I did not, in the end, conceive with a sperm bank or a co-parent, but rather with a unique known donor situation that feels perfect for my single-parent family. No matter how things come about, donor-conceived children are lucky. They are wanted and they are born to a parent or parents doing everything possible to create a thoughtful, loving family. Which is a beautiful thing. Even if you don’t pick the most beautiful sperm.


For more thoughts on picking a sperm donor and known donors, please see Part One.



[Photo Credit: Furhan H!]

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