Sperm Donation: A Different Animal Than You Might Think

What is it like trying to get pregnant with donor sperm?

Posted Sep 02, 2014

A couple of years ago, I was at a child’s birthday party, and the birthday girl’s mother mentioned that her daughter’s father was there. And that he’d brought his new girlfriend, who was really hot.

“But it’s ok,” she said. “He was a donor.” 

I gave her a blank stare, and then said something idiotic along the lines of, “Were you in a relationship?”

“No,” she said. “He was a donor.” 

I guess when she first said that, I thought she was using the term “donor” as a pejorative term or perhaps a bit informally. Like maybe they got pregnant by accident, and she was never expecting to the relationship to last but wanted to keep the baby.

Of course, the term sperm donor can refer to men who donate to a sperm bank, as well as men who known to the biological mother. The Motherlode blog from the New York Times is running a lovely series about a known sperm donor now.

Here are some factoids about sperm donation, for those who know as little about this subject as I do:

  • In addition to having the potential to contact their biological fathers in some cases, children conceived through sperm donation can connect with half-siblings through online groups.
  • There’s no limit to how many offspring one sperm donor can have, although some people feel that there should be.
  • Tall men seem to be more in demand as donors.
  • Some donor banks even offer a “face matching” service if you want the donor to resemble someone you know.
  • Some women write about how, after years of searching for the right mate and wondering  when they would become a mother, it is incredibly liberating to make the decision to move ahead independently.
  • As with so many things, fresh is better than frozen. But frozen often gets the job done and is the only option with a donor who’s not a personal acquaintance.
  • Articles about this subject tend to use the term “prewashed semen” as if that’s something we will all understand without explanation.
  • Lesbian women have the same success rates with donor sperm as heterosexual women. I never would have expected them to have different success rates, actually. But Nordquvist et al confirmed this.

Speaking of success rates, how well does fertilization via donor sperm work for women over age 35? (If you’ve read this blog for a while, you were probably expecting us to get to this point.) Also, how do the success rates compare to egg freezing an emerging option for women in their mid-thirties and beyond?

DeBrucker et al published these cumulative success rates after 12 cycles as follows:

Age 20–29: 87%

Ages 30–34: 77%,

Ages 35–37: 76%,

Ages 38–39: 66%,

Ages 40–45: 52%

The age difference is a bit misleading, though. The authors noted, “The drop-out rate in the older groups was much higher than in the younger groups, however, not because of medical reasons or absence of follicular development. The most important reason was the advice of the treating doctor to refrain from any further treatment because of his anticipation of low success rates associated with advancing age.” They conclude that success rates are acceptable up to age 42.

This is all a rather detached way of describing a process that often involves sorting through binders of men to find one whose genetic material you wouldn’t mind hanging out with for the rest of your life.

Here’s how the decision process was described by a lesbian couple we interviewed for our book:

Mary:  I chose the sperm. That was the one thing I latched onto.  I don’t have sperm; I’m going to get the sperm. I’m going to choose the sperm. It’s my thing. I got this.  I’m on it. I seem like all of the donors from one clinic were assholes. You’re reading the profiles, and you are like, “Are you serious?”   For example, “I’m a doctor, and I think it’s my responsibility to share my genetic background.” Um, delete!

For one sperm bank, they give you a selection of information about the donors, including essays they write.  One such question is: What kind of animal would you be?  We had about 50 of them, and I was getting more and more frustrated, because if I read about another horse, stag or lion, I was going to go ballistic.  I was at my wit’s end, and this one said, “I’d be a sea horse”.  I’m like “What the …” First of all, it’s not an animal and second of all, what does it mean?  What are you saying about yourself that you would be a seahorse?

Jane: That was a breaking point.  We’re in the kitchen, and she just lost it. 

Mary: She was great about it, she was like (in a placating tone): “We don’t have to have a sea horse sperm.”

And I’m like, “Good, because we’re not, because no kid of mine will come from a seahorse.” 

I walked upstairs and took a break. Finally, I came back to the list, and I found the guy.  There are all of these dumb questions, and he answers them by writing out all of the lyrics for his favorite Talking Heads songs and making doodles of faces. I’m like, “This is the guy!”  He understood that this whole process, while necessary, was ridiculous and arbitrary. They left him alone in a room, and he did what he wanted to do, which is exactly what I would have done. That is how I would have approached it.  He is mechanically minded, which I am as well. He loves to tinker.  He had what I wanted to merge with her genetic material.  You can tell by the way our daughter studies things, it worked out. She has Jane’s intelligence and this guy’s intelligence.

Jane: Another important criterion was that he was willing to be contacted when the child turns 18.  If that was something that our daughter wanted in life, we wanted to give her that option. It’s giving her something that we weren’t able to otherwise.

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