Sperm banking has become big business. What used to be a secret transaction between an infertile couple and their doctor has become a commercial industry that now gives women — especially the single women and lesbian couples who make up 50 percent of the clientele of sperm banks — more control. Today that means FDA-mandated-genetically-sound-disease- free sperm, and donors who have passed background and psychological health checks, have Ivy League degrees and often resemble A-list celebrities.
The problem is that with less secrecy and more established legal standards, sperm donation has also become an expensive process. The California Cryobank now sells 30K vials of sperm a year, which cost up to $500 each. An insemination through a private doctor’s office can run over a $1,000 for each pregnancy attempt.
Gray Market Sperm
For those who can’t afford the expense, there is now a growing alternative of independent contractors that make up an on-line gray market of free sperm donors. It includes Craig’s list ads, Yahoo group with names like Free Sperm Donors and Spermdonorneed, and websites like DIY Baby, The Free Fertility Clinic, and Feelingbroody.com (a site in the UK that acts as a matchmaker between free donors and women desiring to become pregnant). Some even offer background checks and regular STD checks.
Unlike official sperm banks, this underground is entirely unregulated. A woman could get a self-proclaimed altruist, a savvy entrepreneur, a seed spreading egomaniac or even someone just looking for free sex.
There are no official statistics on how many there are out there and there has been no official legal crackdown on free sperm donors because technically, it’s not illegal.
“If it was a sperm bank not meeting the mandates no one would be arrested and thrown in jail for a civil suit, but the bank would be shut down,” says Dr. Cappy M. Rothman, the Co-founder and Medical Director of the California Cryobank.
Rothman argues that these donors are often those who were rejected from larger clinics because they didn’t pass the rigorous physical and psychological standards. He notes that a woman or couple who uses a gray market donor doesn’t have the legal protection offered by a regular clinic that the donor will not come after their offspring years later seeking paternity rights. “In most states these donors have access to the child that you can’t contract away,” says Rothman. “Based on the American Parenting Act, if the insemination is carried out by a physician, the donor signs a contract releasing him from all paternal rights and obligations if a child is conceived using their sperm.”
Ted (not his real name), a 51-year-old former commercial donor and self-declared sperm donation advocate, began donating on the Yahoo Group “Free Sperm Donors” because he believes that with the possibility of making thousands of dollars by donating, there is also more incentive for donors to leave out vital details in donor interviews and exaggerate their profiles. “It shouldn’t be about money,” he said. “Blood isn’t about money. Livers aren’t about money. No payments should be exchanged just because you’re transferring human cells back and forth.”
Dr. Rothman says, however, that Ted may also be donating through the gray market because he is too old to be accepted at a commercial sperm bank, which generally only accepts men between the ages of 21 and 38.
“There is an intrinsic danger men in men over 40 [donating sperm] because like women’s egg their sperm is more at risk for chromosomal abnormalities,” said Rothman. “He’s putting the public at risk and blaming sperm banks for being financially motivated.”
Eyes Wide Open
Creating a child and choosing to become a mother does not always happen in perfect circumstances. The questions are how much should a government regulate the process and who should ultimately decide what makes a person “fit enough” to donate?
But there are very real risks to any person venturing into this gray market that should not be ignored, which therefore places an onus on women themselves to make safe and smart decisions.
This article original appeared on women’s website Double X.