Big sperm clinics evolved in order to give women more control by making the process of getting a sperm donor less secretive and safer, and also to offer the highest-quality product. Today, that means genetically sound, disease-free sperm that has been quarantined for six months. That’s just the minimum to meet FDA mandates. Donors also pass psychological health checks, background checks, and tout their Ivy League degrees or resemblance to A-list celebrities . Dr. Cappy Rothman, the medical director of the California Cryobank, told me that his customers will walk away knowing more about their donor than he does about his wife of 40 years.
The problem is that with less secrecy and more established legal standards, sperm donation has also become an expensive and exclusive process. Vials of sperm cost up to $500 each, and an insemination through a private doctor’s office can run more than $1,000 for each pregnancy attempt, depending upon one’s insurance. Single women and lesbian couples now make up 50 percent of the business of sperm banks like the California Cryobank, which sells on average 30,000 vials of sperm a year. In the United Kingdom, clinics that are part of the national health care system will not inseminate a single woman in her 20s, nor will they offer any background information about a donor. Unlike in the United States, the concept of an “Open Identity” donor who would give the child the opportunity to meet his or her biological father at 18 does not exist in the United Kingdom. And for donors, says Rothman, “It’s now harder to get accepted to our bank than it is to get into Harvard. We only accept nine out every 1,000 applications.”
This has led to the booming gray market. Since free sperm donors are the Wild West of sperm donation, there are no official statistics on how many there are. Based on an extensive web search, most of the donors are based in the United States and England, but some come from as far away as Bahrain. There has been no official legal crackdown on free sperm donors because technically it’s not illegal, but the FDA does have mandated requirement that sperm donors must meet. “If it was a sperm bank not meeting the mandate, no one would be arrested and thrown in jail for a civil suit, but the bank would be shut down,” says Dr. Rothman.
He also speculates that many gray-market donors are those who were rejected from larger clinics because they didn’t pass the rigorous physical and psychological standards. Also, 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 them from all paternal rights and obligations if a child is conceived using their sperm.”
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