A few years ago, after my husband-to-be and I discovered that his sperm had been damaged during radiation therapy treatments, we sat down to talk about using a sperm donor to get pregnant.
I wasn’t so interested—the idea seemed to me sad, clinical and financially forbidding—but Michael disagreed. If his wounded sperm couldn’t create a kid, why not put our heads together and find the right guy to inseminate my eggs?
“The child will still be ours,” Michael said. “Maybe with your huge hair.”
“But he won’t have your face,” I thought, but didn’t say it out loud because I’d said it before. Eventually, I gave in.
Soon after we married, we’d sit down on the couch with a bowl of popcorn and click through donor records (height, weight, ethnicity, education, hobby, astrological sign, medical history and more) and partial audio interviews made available for free through the Fairfax Cryobank website. In the beginning stages, listening to your typical young buck describe his No. 1 life goal as “competing to win, against myself” or “making other people smile,” we thought we might sooner gag on clichéd blather before we choked on buttered popcorn. But little by little, we warmed to the odd game—we stuck with it long enough to locate a few donors whose voices and photos (which we bought for a modest fee) appealed to us enough to order a vial or sometimes two (depending on current discount offers). The process felt a lot like dating a
third party. When two rounds of IUI (intrauterine insemination) didn’t work, we sought another stud, and then another, seeking better articulated answers to the life-purpose questions we were still puzzling.
As I worked up to trying IVF (in vitro fertilization), I learned that several of my single girlfriends were surfing donors and buying sperm from various banks around the country, trying their luck—and
pursuing possibly their last late-30s chance to carry their own biological babies—with strangers’ stuff. I learned that several longtime lesbian couples in my circle used donors years ago to build their beautiful families. Inspiring information. I wanted to know even more.
The happy fact that I’m now six months’ pregnant with fraternal twins—the product of my eggs plus the fast-swimming sperm of a surly and smart Fairfax donor originally from Georgia, the country, not the state, who opted against sharing his photos or making his identity available to potential offspring when they reach 18 (each donor’s choice)—has me redirecting many of my 40-ish friends still in search of Mr. Right to the sperm site.
If you’re short on sperm yet certain, like I was, that you want to attempt to have your own biological baby rather than first foster a child or adopt, you’re ready to begin shopping—right now. Shopping is a user-friendly process that does not demand financial commitment. Once you’ve chosen a bank that’s geographically convenient, you simply create a username and password and begin to check off boxes bearing those physical traits and lifestyle choices you prefer: For me, requirements were advanced education, dark hair or reddish brown hair to match my husband’s, and Euro roots like his. You might want to match your hubby’s photo to your donor’s face. (That costs extra.) You might want to locate a bodybuilding Korean male with wavy hair who’s not yet finished college but knows he wants to remain anonymous to future offspring as much as he wants to start his own business…or an Aries African scientist who has left his ID-search option open and whose donor page already boasts a customer-reported pregnancy.
Each vial I purchased for IUI cost me $750 on average; each vial I purchased for IVF cost about $500. Pricing may be a little higher or lower depending on education level and other factors. (Unfortunately, most insurance plans do not cover donor sperm or related procedures.)
If you choose, you can obsess over each donor’s family health history. I was at first put off by the idea that one attractive guy’s two grandparents had suffered heart failure, but the more I shopped, the more I gathered that no donor is invited to fill a cup without first proving a mostly robust three-generation-long line. (If he has children of his own, he must file four generations of medical information.)
Michelle Ottey, Ph.D, Fairfax Cryo lab director and manager, confirmed my take.
“If there are things that would rule them out, they’re rejected,” Ottey said. “If the donor’s mother had breast cancer at 40, and her sister had ovarian…and their mother had breast cancer, they’re out.”
How does Ottey verify the applicant’s answers are accurate?
“They fill out the application and have to verify it many times,” she said. “We don’t put a donor on the site till month seven.”
By month seven, at Fairfax, the successful donor has been formally interviewed by a bank staffer, and then tested for various infectious diseases, including HIV and even HPV—only Fairfax checks this one—as well as other genetic diseases. Per FDA regulation, his sperm sample has been held in quarantine for 180 days, at which time the donor must pass a second blood-draw to be certain he’s still disease free.
The bottom line is: The sperm is expensive because these donors are carefully screened and each one is successful in his own way, in terms of sperm motility and count, in terms of genetic history, even in terms of social interaction.
“There is a huge perception that a donor can walk off the street,” another Fairfax rep (who asked to remain anonymous) explained. “It’s harder to get into than Harvard.”
Who Donates? Why? (And Does He Have 3,000 Kids?)
About 60 percent of all donors are college grads age 21 to 29—they are typically in grad school or beginning their careers, according to Ottey’s recent donor survey. All Fairfax donors are required to be enrolled in or have completed college.
(That doesn’t mean everyone is an A student or an SAT stunner; staffers consider “the big picture.”) About 20 percent range in age from 18 to 20. The remaining donors are 30 to 39. (The FDA requires an age range of 18 to 39 for active donors.) Most donors stay with the program approximately 12 to 18 months. The bank encourages each to build enough stock to provide future sibling donations.
Ottey’s survey revealed that most donors are motivated by financial compensation, which seems like a no-brainer; more surprising to me is the news that an equal number of donors reported a motivation “to help families” have kids.
According to “Brad” an anonymous donor with whom I spoke, a donating dude’s payment varies based on whether he provides a sample once or twice weekly.
“Roughly, the best case is upward of $100 to $125 per week if you go twice,” Brad said. “So you can earn upward of $500 a month.”
For Brad, who is in his mid-to-late 30s, money isn’t the motivation.
“My wife was in an accident when she was younger,” Brad said. “We don’t have kids and just attempted our eighth IVF. She doesn’t want my awesome genes to go to waste! If I can help another couple or individual, it makes me feel good.”
Though Brad has always maintained a regular workout schedule and refrained from drinking much and smoking—donor requirements—his sacrifice seems to me more intense than it might be for the average donor, since he and his wife have to reserve some of his donation days for their own fertility schedule.
To make matters more challenging, “I am required to have a 72-hour abstinence before I donate,” Brad told me. “So if my wife says, you’re not going to donate this week, I need some loving, I don’t donate.”
As I listened to Brad, I kept wondering how many kids he might have out there in the world. I know that the Fairfax Cryobank limits pregnancy numbers by inviting customers to report their success stories via the site. But based on last year’s Vince Vaughn movie “Delivery Man,” my mind pictured an army of Brad.
“Once we have 25 reported, except for siblings,we stop distributing the donor,” Ottey told me.
“Oops, I never reported my pregnancy,” I admitted, figuring a decent number of other donor-pregnant women might likewise forget or not think to report.
“Well, please do!” Ottey urged me. “Our newsletter reminds people to report.”
(Because I’ve been busy, I still haven’t reported the news, nor have I ever requested the bank’s email newsletter. I get so much spam.)
To ID or Not to ID
While there is no strict donor psychological evaluation process, each applicant discusses with a clinic supervisor whether or not he will remain anonymous to his future children.
“We make sure these donors recognize that children will result from this transaction,” Ottey said. “We have no donors whose sperm hasn’t yielded children, except the most newly recruited.”
The section of Ottey’s donor survey I find most intriguing concerns the anonymity question.
“Eight percent of respondents said they changed their mind to ‘anonymous’ after the educational screening period early on,” Ottey said, “but 30 percent of surveyed donors said they first thought they were originally going to remain anonymous but decided, after learning more, to be open ID.”
At this time in the U.S., it is a donor’s right to remain anonymous, though this law could change at a later date.
“We realize that we don’t have control over the laws, and they may change,” said Dr. Stephanie Beall, a physician at Shady Grove Fertility Center in Towson (and the same amazing woman who got me pregnant via IVF with my Georgian donor sperm last October). “That is a scary possibility—anonymity may not be upheld.”
Ottey disagreed with Beall’s “scary” prognosis, but acknowledges the potential for legislative turnaround.
“We don’t feel like it’s looming; we do grant that it may happen,” Ottey said. “There are some very vocal proponents of ID-only in the U.S. When you look at the international picture, it’s very different from country to country. Usually, even when the law requires ID availability, it doesn’t happen retroactively.”
The New Normal
For Brad and his wife, the decision to opt for ID-open was easy.
“I almost can’t wait to find out,” Brad said. “I want to know how many people I’ve helped, how many children are out there growing and experiencing life.”
Would Brad consider having a close relationship with one of his kids once they pass 18?
“It would depend on the child,” he said. “If the child was interested in having an uncle, I’d be interested. An uncle or a good friend or confidant would be appropriate.”
Donor “Twitch” (not his real name) imagines a vastly different scenario for his biological child, a baby daughter he conceived through scheduled intercourse with the wife of one of his best friends from Marine days who suffers infertility after testicular cancer. He’s currently en route to the couple’s home city to establish residence and become a bigger part of his daughter’s life, from several blocks away.
“We might say to her that she was loved so much we decided to birth her in this huge circle of family,” Twitch said. “She’ll know I was the biological father from the get-go. Sam [not his real name] is the
father. I’m going to be very special ‘Uncle Twitch.’”
Baltimore residents Lisa Stambolis, pediatric and adolescent clinical director at Healthcare for the Homeless, and her life partner Lania D’Agostino, a painter and sculptor, opted for an anonymous sperm donor from Fairfax Cryobank back in 1994 to conceive their daughter, Anais D’Agostino, now a 19-year-old college sophomore. Stambolis has a son, Michael, 31, from a previous relationship. They have a different take on sharing the ID.
“Why does it matter who the father is?” asked Stambolis, who carried their daughter at age 33 after D’Agostino, then 38, spent seven years trying unsuccessfully to be inseminated. “There have been times when our daughter wanted to know. But at the end of the day, it’s Lania and I who are her parents…who love her. We created a world.”
As my husband, Michael, and I anticipate the arrival of our twins, we discuss various approaches to sharing their story with them. (It’s our plan to do so fairly early on.) A small array of instructional children’s books abounds these days—“Before You Were Born: Our Wish for a Baby” by Janice Grimes, R.N., “Hope and Will Have a Baby: The Gift of Sperm Donation” by Irene Celcer—but I like to think we’ll know what to say on our own when the time feels right. I like to think of Twitch telling his daughter his truth that love brought her to life. I like to imagine Michael finding his own unique words to convey: “I’m your father in the everyday, forever way that matters most.”