What "Shopping" At A Sperm Bank Is Really Like — According To Experts

Illustration by Ly Ngo
If you think choosing a sperm donor is about as easy as narrowing down blue eyes or brown, you are way off. There are often pages upon pages of donor options, and it can be easy to get overwhelmed by choice — this is your future child, after all.
And not only is there a near paralyzing amount of choice involved, but the process can be long and expensive, and loaded with medical jargon that can feel exclusionary. All that can breed misinformation and confusion. Let's un-confuse it all, shall we?
First, the basics. Donor insemination is a procedure in which sperm is inserted in a woman’s vagina in the hopes of getting her pregnant. Where does this sperm come from? Some people choose to use semen from a partner or a friend, while others purchase it by the vial from a sperm bank.
The New York Times says that the number of babies born using donor insemination is increasing, and cites one estimate of between 30,000 to 60,000 births per year that used sperm donors. The reason for that imprecise range is that, while people who've used donor sperm are asked to report if they have successful pregnancies, only 20 to 40% of them do, according to Wendy Kramer, founder of the Donor Sibling Registry, speaking to The Times.
Ready to get started? Instead of diving head first to a website full of eligible sperm, arm yourself with info straight from the source: We spoke to representatives from sperm banks and fertility clinics in the U.S. and Canada, the director of a support group for women looking to have children on their own, and fertility doctors. Read on for their thoughts and tips on visiting a sperm bank.
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Who goes to a sperm bank?

The short answer? Whoever wants to.

Alice Ruby, executive director of The Sperm Bank of California, said that about 60% of their families are two-mom families. While historically most of the women who use The Sperm Bank of California are over 35, anecdotally she knows that lesbian couples are coming in younger and younger. “We think that’s related to marriage equality and the increased acceptance of same-sex couples in society,” she says.

But sperm bank services aren’t just for the wifed up. There are plenty of reasons for needing or wanting this service to get pregnant, such as being a single woman seeking to get pregnant on her own. Ruby says that about 25 to 30% of her clients are single. A straight couple might also look to donor sperm if the male partner has azoospermia (no sperm in his semen) or a disease like HIV that they want to avoid passing on, says John Zhang, PhD, of New Hope Fertility Center in New York City.

Other demographics vary, as well. Kyle Macdonald, business development manager at the Canadian fertility clinic and sperm bank Repromed, says that its patients come from a wide variety of age ranges and backgrounds.
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How do I choose a sperm bank?

Finding the right sperm bank for you involves more than just seeing if it has a donor you’re drawn to. The first thing to consider is how it vets donors. While many banks do genetic screenings, it's not mandated, according to The New York Times.

Single Mothers by Choice is a membership organization that provides support and information for single women who want to become — or already are — mothers. Jane Mattes, the director, told Refinery29 that while sperm banks do have donor requirements including medical history and a mental health screening, the industry as a whole is loosely regulated. “There aren't any government regulations, and industry standards are not clearly defined. That being said, the banks are generally reputable, but standards could be more rigorous and better defined.”

Luckily, most banks have a section on their website dedicated to their donor screening process. You’ll find that many go above and beyond genetic screenings to include something a little more, well, subjective. Ruby, for example, summarized her clinic's donors as “healthy, nice guys from a variety of ethnic backgrounds.”

While this does sound weirdly similar to your Aunt Ruth’s dating requirements, sperm banks do have more concrete criteria for donors. But they vary. Ruby’s sperm bank requires that donors are able to work legally, provide a family medical history, be at least 5-foot-7, and be between 20 and 39 years old. Another sperm bank, Fairfax Cryobank, in Fairfax, VA, looks for donors between 18 and 39 years old and also performs medical screenings and physical exams.

Another area to consider is offspring limits. Does the sperm bank cap the number of donations from a donor? That will affect how many half-siblings your future child could have, which you may want to limit. The Sperm Bank of California, for example, allows up to 10 families from each donor, while Fairfax Cryobank puts its limit at 25 reported families. A family is defined as children from the same donor who live together.
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Will I want to meet the donor?

Repromed, as well as several sperm banks, let you decide early in the search process whether or not you’ll want your kid to meet their donor one day. Be sure to check out the specifics at any clinic you're considering, if this is something you’re interested in setting limits around.

There are two basic options: anonymous and open-ID. An anonymous donor is one who has not consented to the release of their identity to offspring conceived using their semen, explains Macdonald. “An open-ID donor is one where they have consented to the release of their identity to the donor conceived child after the age 18.”
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How Do I Choose a Donor Part 1: Where to Begin

So now you’re ready to start picking the donor. Sperm banks typically have an online catalogue, and you can pay for additional information if you think it'll help your process. Macdonald from Repromed, for example, explains that paying for access to Extended Donor Profiles allows a patients to view “audio interviews, photographs, donor essays, etc., to help them in the selection process.”

But searching through the catalogue can be tough; it’s like online dating, but with a lifetime of consequences.

Mattes says that the main question you should ask yourself when picking a donor is how you’re going to talk about him to your child. “When your child is going to ask you, ‘What was my donor like, why did you pick him, who is this person who helped create me?’ you hopefully will be able to convey positive feelings.” To that end, she advises patients to pick a donor who is the kind of person they'd want to marry.
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How Do I Choose A Donor Part 2: Info To Consider

The short answer is that there’s no rubric for figuring out what you’ll want in a donor. “Height may be the deciding factor for one patient where a donor’s interest in classical music could be the reason for another,” says Macdonald.

Haimant Bissessar, the president of Can-Am Cryoservices, a Canadian company that imports and distributes donor sperm and eggs, said similarly that a majority of selected donors have post-secondary education and are over 5-foot-10, and attractive (an admittedly subjective characterization that'll mean something different to different shoppers). Bissessar says that while some women may not even look at a donor’s photo and only consider medical history, others may prefer a donor with a postgraduate degree, even specifically seeking out a physician or lawyer.

“Most people are looking for a donor who is a similar ethnicity to the person who’s trying to get pregnant or their partner," Ruby explains of her clinic's patients. "Or they already have existing children and they’re looking for an ethnicity match to their existing children.”

What about personality? This is where the additional materials may prove helpful. “Our profiles have information on what level of education he’s obtained, what he studied, what his life goals are,” Ruby explains. Audio interviews, often part of the more expensive package, can give you an idea of how you would interact with the donor.

Mattes advises patients to “just be comfortable and happy with your choice, but not too attached, so that if you have to switch you are not unable to find another donor.”
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How Do I Choose a Donor Part 3: What Medical Information Should I Consider?

As in regular life, looks aren't everything — and beyond personality, you'll want to consider your donor's health factors, too. This is one area in which it's helpful to consider how the donor would fit in with your family. Ruby says that sometimes people say to themselves “Hmm, there’s a lot of cancer in my family. So I’m going look at donors, I’m going to look at their health history, and I’m going to choose donors that don’t have cancer in their family.”

Mattes explained that another big factor is the number of successful pregnancies from a donor’s sperm. “You want somebody who can achieve a pregnancy, and some sperm is just more successful.”
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How Much Will It Cost?

The price of donor insemination ranges from $300 to $4,000, according to the American Pregnancy Association, and depends on whether you’re using a partner’s sperm or anonymous sperm. The California Cryobank charges less for anonymous donors than open donors (which makes sense in a BYO kind of way, if you think about it). The type of sperm you’re using can also affect price. For example, at The Sperm Bank of California, unwashed sperm costs $700 while washed sperm costs $780 (but more on that later).

Thomas Price, MD, president of the Society for Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility, also says that some sperm banks charge more for sperm with certain, more desirable traits, although his clinic does not typically work with those sperm banks. For example, certain professions or education levels can sometimes increase price, although he says it varies tremendously. (But those of you shopping for a future doctor: They're onto you.)

Most sperm banks list their prices on their websites, based on vials of semen. Keep in mind that you may need to buy more than one vial if the first attempt doesn’t take. There are those aforementioned bonus info packages that cost more, and shipping, so it all adds up. If you buy additional semen you want to save for later (think: making siblings), storage comes with a fee, too.
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Will My Insurance Cover It?

Insurance is a fickle thing when it comes to donor insemination. Your insurance will probably pay for it if you’ve been diagnosed with infertility, but how infertility is defined also varies. The Human Rights Campaign defines it as going through 12 months of unprotected sex without conception, but check with your specific plan before wasting time. It can go down to six months depending on your age.

The Human Rights Campaign recommends asking your insurance company how it defines infertility, what infertility treatments will be covered on your plan, how infertility is documented, and, if this pertains to you, whether fertility treatment for same-sex couples is covered.
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I’m Ready To Place My Order

Once you’ve made your decision on the donor and figured out all the other nuts and bolts, you should be ready to place your order. You’ll order either washed or unwashed donor sperm. Sperm cells that have been separated from the seminal fluid are called washed sperm and are typically used with intrauterine insemination, according to Choice Moms, an organization that offers resources and supports for single women wishing to become mothers. Unwashed sperm, on the other hand, is not processed. Dr. Price notes that fertility clinics can also wash the sperm themselves. Ask your clinic which type of vials they prefer before ordering, MacDonald recommends.

Don’t forget to plan for the future. The Sperm Bank of California, for example, allows you to store extra sperm from your current donor. This lets you plan for the possibility of having more children from the same donor — and a future sibling for your child.

After you place your order, Dr. Price explains that your semen will typically be delivered within 48 and 72 hours. The treatment that proceeds from there varies from one individual to the next. He says that a young woman with no fertility problems, for example, will have a simple process that begins with urine testing or an ultrasound to determine ovulation. He notes, though, that it can get more complicated for anyone who has had fertility difficulties.
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I got some sperm Now what?

There are a few different methods of impregnation by donor sperm you might've heard of, but the most common processes to know are (IUI), in which semen goes on top of the uterine cavity, and in-vitro fertilization — a.k.a. combining sperm and egg in a petri dish before inserting it into a patient's uterus.

While it's possible for people to inseminate themselves with donor sperm at home, Dr. Price recommends working with a doctor who can screen you for STIs and more thoroughly explain the process. Pregnancy rates are also typically higher at fertility clinics, because sperm can be concentrated into a smaller volume and then inserted directly into the uterus rather than being inserted at home into the vagina or on the cervix via a cervical cap, he says.

If you’re considering donor insemination or IVF, or just want more information, start with a visit to your trusty gynecologist or fertility specialist. If you opt for IUI, the process is quite simple. Dr. Price explains that you undergo a speculum exam similar to a pap smear and then a tiny catheter is threaded into the uterus to place a small amount of sperm — about .5 ml or less — into the uterine cavity. Then, you rest for about 10 minutes and are sent on your way.

The IVF process is a bit different. Dr. Zhang explains that you’ll get the donor sperm, have your egg retrieved, and then embryos are created, transferred to your uterus, or frozen for later use (cue more storage fees, in this case).
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If at first you don't succeed...

Be prepared to go through multiple attempts. While The Sperm Bank of California concedes that it’s hard to generalize, it does say that “most of our recipients conceive within four to eight tries, all procedures combined.” Age, procedure, timing, and drugs used all affect how long it takes to conceive. Dr. Price says similarly that age is the main indicator for how many tries it will take before a woman gets pregnant.

Ruby advises women to “be prepared for it to not necessarily work right away, and find your support system.” Having friends, family members, or therapists who can be reassuring and available is helpful, she says. A positive outlook always helps — and you can take that all the way to the bank.

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