Scott Brown is Director of Client Experience and Communications at the California Cryobank, and is a frequent speaker on sperm banking in the national media. He has dedicated his career to helping intended parents achieve their family building dreams.
The sperm bank industry basically grew up servicing heterosexual couples with male infertility issues, and there’s been a huge shift in the last 10, 15, 20 years towards helping lesbian families and single mothers start their families, and what we’ve really started to do is recognize that they have a different set of criteria and needs when it comes to choosing a donor.
There’s got to be something there beyond the hair color and eye color, because they are not trying to match anybody. And the result of that has been how we present our donors has changed dramatically. It’s not just about a list of statistics; it’s now about photographs and audio interviews and sort of building this three-dimensional human being to help the lesbians and single moms understand exactly who the person is that they’re choosing, and then ultimately when they have the discussion with their child one day, making it easier for their child to connect to understand who this donor was.
So once we receive an online application, we start looking at the donor from a number of different aspects. We require completion, graduation, or enrollment in a four-year university, if he’s Caucasian, 5 foot 10, brief medical history, you know, brief family medical history with sort of just generic questions, like if any of this stuff jumps out at us as a problem, that guy won’t make it. But assuming he makes it past that online screening, we bring him in and then the fun begins, which will include reviewing three generations of his family medical history, STD testing for the basic HIV, Chlamydia, blah blah blah, all the fun stuff.
We need the donor to have a specimen quality in the upper 15 to 20 percent of the male population. He might be perfectly capable of fathering a child on his own one day, but we need like super-sperm, we need high volume, high quality, high morphology, which is the shape of the sperm, high motility, which is the percentage of sperm that swim well. We need guys to have really good specimen quality.
Donors come to our labs, they collect a specimen, our technicians take that specimen, they review it under a microscope, they add cryopreservant to it; there’s a process it goes through to make sure the sperm is frozen properly and thaws well, so that it survives the entire process. It gets placed into little tiny vials, those vials get put into liquid nitrogen; it’s then stored for 6 months, a quarantine process so we can test the donor again after the fact. Once that donor’s blood work comes back as clean, those vials are available for sale and they get shipped out the door.
A lot of lesbian couples we work with have concerns that they want this to be a natural process, that they’re offended by the assumption they need to use a doctor when other people don’t need to use a doctor, and what I try to express to them is that the goal here is family, and the way you get there isn’t as important as that you get there, and so there are sort of happy mediums. And one of the things that most physicians, particularly those who are used to working with same sex couples, will allow for is that they’ll do the catheter, they’ll insert the catheter into the uterus and then the sperm will be connected on with a little plunger, little hypodermic, and they’ll allow the non-birth mother to actually drop the plunger. So technically speaking, the partner or wife will be the person inseminating her wife.
Choosing a sperm donor is actually really easy. It sounds like it’s a overwhelming decision and it kind of is, because I get it, like it’s a lot to take in, but really, it’s almost like shopping for anything else now. You go to the website, you look at all these different criteria: height, weight, eye color, hair color, ethnic background, education, blood type, all these kinds of things. You make some choices, suddenly your choice of 500 donors shrinks down to like 8 donors, based on all these criteria. You start reading about them, you read about their likes or dislikes, their hobbies, their talents, their family medical history, you listen to audio interviews with them, you look at baby photos of them, and you look to make a connection. You want that “it” thing, and it happens, it happens for everybody. No matter how skeptical somebody is when they come into this process, there is that moment of where “this is the guy.”
We offer a program that’s called an Open Donor Program and basically what that is is the donor at the time of donation is committing to a minimum of one contact with any child who requests it. That contact remains anonymous and is facilitated by us, so the child will call us, write us a letter, however they want to contact us, 20 years from now send us a hologram, I don’t know, whatever they’re going to do. And we will then reach out to the donor and say: we have this request, blah blah blah. The donor at that point can choose to answer a letter, it can be a phone call, it could potentially be an in-person meeting. But we will facilitate that contact back and forth until both parties have decided that they want to sort of drop the veil of privacy, and can be introduced directly and have whatever type of a relationship they want.
A lot of our lesbian couples and single women, too, are concerned with sort of the donor’s motivation. You know, why does this guy want to be a sperm donor? And typically the answer is multifaceted. Certainly they are getting reimbursed, they’re getting paid, but it’s a lot of work for what they’re getting paid, particularly in the screening process and they have to write a lot and research their family medical history and they get poked and prodded and tested, and they’ve got to donate on a regular schedule. Like, it involves a lot. So the majority of guys in our program really do have an altruistic side to what they’re doing and basically the typical answer is: “Hey, it was a great way to help people and make some money.”
It’s you’re watching not only, as you know, single women and lesbian couples and gay male couples start to build their families and you see the shift in culture and acceptance throughout the country, but it’s rewriting the fabric of what it means to be a family; it’s the new American family and it’s happening on, you know, a much broader scale I think than most people realize, particularly in sort of the coastal New York, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, you know, Boston. But it’s this evolution and these families are now really sort of having the opportunity to come into their own and to celebrate their families and be part of something bigger. And it’s a great thing to be a part of something; we’re very proud to participate in at whatever level we can, so it’s actually really great.