Frozen human embryos being removed from liquid nitrogen storage (Oliver Strewe / Getty Images )
Dan Schau was on the hunt for a second job when he came across an advertisement for sperm donations in a Seattle newspaper last year. The ad said men who qualified could receive free health coverage—and cash—for donating sperm at a local clinic several times a week.
“I wasn’t making a whole lot of money at my job,” Schau said, “and I thought, well, I might as well; it’s free health care, and a little extra money.”
And so in early 2012, the 31-year-old Seattle resident joined the ranks of men around the country who anonymously donate their sperm through certified clinics to couples and single women who are unable to reproduce on their own. There is no record of exactly how many sperm donors exist in the U.S., but researchers assume the numbers have grown in recent decades.
The field of reproductive technology has grown, advanced and come under increasing regulation since the sperm-and-egg donation industry took off in the 1990s. And as more children of donors become adults, the field seems to be experiencing its moment in popular culture.
MTV in November began airing “Generation Cryo,” a reality show that follows a teenager’s quest to find her sperm donor father and her 15 half-siblings. The recently released film “Delivery Man,” starring Vince Vaughn, chronicles the fictional story of a sperm donor who learns he is the biological father of 533 children, while the 2010 film “The Kids are All Right” told the fictional story of two teenagers’ search for their biological father. Meanwhile, The Associated Press this week reported on the growing number of twins born as a result of the increasingly popular in-vitro fertilization process.
But even as the job of sperm donor gains visibility, the stereotype of a cash-strapped young man belies the strict requirements donors have to meet and the rules they have to follow to be successful.
Though every sperm bank’s procedures are different, typical sperm donors have to pass multiple screenings for sexually transmitted infections and scores of genetic diseases and abnormalities before they are considered. They also have to produce enough sperm that can withstand the freezing process most sperm undergoes when it is stored in a sperm bank.
Once a sperm donor is accepted into a program (most are turned away because they can’t meet the requirements), he is usually expected to make repeat visits to the bank’s lab multiple times a week. In Schau’s case, he must visit the sperm bank between one and three times a week for more than a year. He said he is paid $40 on each visit, and then more money every few months depending on how much of his sperm is usable.
Sperm donors might also have to change their lifestyles to keep up with the demands of the job, according to Rene Almeling, a sociologist at Yale University. She said stress, sleep-deprivation and alcohol consumption can decrease sperm counts, and many banks recommend donors abstain from any sexual activity for at least 48 hours before each donation.
The majority of donors are completely anonymous, meaning their names and contact information are kept confidential by their sperm banks. But in recent years more and more donors and clients are expressing interest in open-donations, which would allow banks to release the donor’s identity to his biological children when those children turn 18, according to Rebecca Mateski, the lab director at the Midwest Sperm Bank, based in Downers Grove, one of a handful of labs in the Chicago area that performs artificial inseminiation.
“I think it’s more accepted now,” she said, particularly as more same-sex couples gain legal rights and turn to alternative reproductive technologies to help them start families. Mateski also said donors at her bank have told her the prospect of helping people in need motivated them to apply.
“Usually the standard reason is, to help people. Maybe they had an experience of someone having infertility in their family and they’ve seen what it does, and what these women go through, and they just want to help clients, lesbians, married couples, single women, whomever,” she said.
Almeling said the premise of “Delivery Man”—that one man could father more than 500 children—sensationalizes the industry, but also highlights a problem of how little hard data are available on the subject.
“There’s no regulation in place to give us any real numbers about how many donors on average have however many children,” she said. “There are substantiated reports of donors with 10, 20, 50, 75 even up until 150 offspring, and the reason that can happen is that once people buy sperm and go off and have children, nothing requires them to report back about it.”