The XX Factor

Is Free, Private Sperm Donation a Good Idea?

The cover-story of this week’s issue of Newsweek has the provocative title “You Got Your Sperm Where?” The answer turns out to be pretty banal: from a semi-random guy willing to masturbate into a cup.

To be fair, the piece details what the author, Tony Dokoupil, sees as an emerging trend in reproductive logistics—the use of the Internet to connect would-be mothers with willing sperm donors, all for free. Specifically, Dokoupil tells the story of Beth Gardner, who, along with her wife, eschewed the fertility industry’s sperm banks to seek out a private donor; the experience eventually led them to start a website, (FSDR), to serve as a kind of moderated Craigslist for donor connections.

With this sperm on demand, there is the obvious concern over STIs and general health history that sperm banks supposedly mitigate; but, as Gardner points out on her site, anyone can spend $200 on STI tests and even get a genetic profile, if they wish. Doing those things through a sperm bank—with the considerable price markup—doesn’t really provide any additional assurances. And while we’re on the topic of cash, it’s important to note that fertility services can be prohibitively expensive: Gardner points out that it can “easily cost $10,000-$30,000 to conceive.” I checked this out, and a general consultation of a few banks revealed that $500-$1,000 (including the goods as well as genetic information, fees, shipping, etc.) is a more reasonable estimate. Still, getting pregnant can obviously require multiple attempts, not to mention much more considerable charges stemming from doctor and fertility clinic visits. In terms of basic numbers, DIY is definitely the cheapest option.

On the issue of regulation—which one of Dokoupil’s subjects (a donor) encounters first-hand during a run-in with the FDA—I have to conclude that, due to the fact that no money is being exchanged and no corporate guarantees made, the government probably shouldn’t interfere with what is essentially private sex, regardless of the mechanics of the act. Though there is a 2005 law which requires that sperm donors undergo STI and communicable disease tests, the idea that this should apply to non-profit activities seems dubious. As Gardner puts it in the piece, “If it’s legal to go to a bar, get drunk, and sleep with a random stranger, then it can’t possibly be illegal to provide clean, healthy sperm in a cup.”

Still, while the idea of two private citizens deciding to have a baby together may not really be that revolutionary, there is one major downside. As a man, my only real qualm reading Dokoupil’s piece was with regard to the legal status of the male donors. I’m all for Gardner and other ladies having a baby if they choose to, but the real danger here, far more than health, would seem to be the fact that their “generous” male donors could potentially be faced with child support lawsuits from 10+ kids at some point. While a 2008 case in Pennsylvania found that the donor was not liable for support, there is no federal decision on the issue at large; being held responsible for ongoing support as well as back-pay is still a very real possibility.

I suspect that if they thought about that prospect, the donors might find their seed-sowing impulse a little less powerful. Most sperm banks provide protection for just this situation through anonymity clauses, but, according to the story, part of the appeal of private donation is the possibility of a relationship with the child. So, as the private-donor “industry” grows, new legal safeguards are going to have to be worked out that remove financial liability while maintaining the possibility of contact (unless, of course, the donor decides he wishes to contribute).

Aside from this prickly issue, though, private donor pregnancies represent a viable new option somewhere between traditional conception and the cold anonymity of the sperm bank.