There are a lot of questions to consider when looking at options for a known donor. We get asked them all the time, not just by users, but by people who have heard about this and are worried or wondering how it is safe. There are some common misconceptions about how sperm banks and known donors actually work. Let's go over a few of the most common:
- Using frozen sperm is safer because it is screened for STDs and genetic disorders.
- Using frozen sperm is better because the donor has no parental rights.
- Using a known donor is dangerous because donors often make the decision later to assert their legal rights as the biological parent to gain custody or visitation.
- Using a sperm bank is safer because they have a full history and medical background on the donor.
- Using frozen sperm is better because it's less costly and readily available.
- Using frozen sperm is more convenient, and has higher success rate.
The FDA sets rules on how sperm banks collect, test, store and deliver donated sperm. The sperm is tested at the point of donation, kept frozen, and then the donor is retested after 6 months to ensure they are still disease free. Donors are tested for a standard set of infectious diseases: HIV-1/2, HTLV-1/2, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis, CMV, Chlamydia and Gonorrhea. The sperm donor is also evaluated for a standard set of genetic issues, such as Sickle Cell and Tay Sachs (see example below).
A known donor can be tested for the exact same set of diseases by a private party. However, because it is obviously not possible to store the sperm and test the donor 6 months later, there will always be a very slightly higher risk of disease transmission. When using a known donor, it is of utmost importance to ensure that they have a recent STD test, and preferably a history of STD tests over the prior year. It is best for each recipient to cover the cost of their own STD test on the donor, even if he has been recently tested by himself or someone else. It is not enough to just see a copy of an STD test - it must be able to be verified that it 1) belongs to the person who is presenting it and 2) was performed by a licensed practitioner or lab. There are services online for verifying STD results, such as Healthvana.com, that can be used to assist in verifying the validity of STD results.
Private parties can voluntarily have their sperm tested for the same genetic issues that fertility clinics screen donors for. This is most often done by the same fertility clinics where sperm can be purchased. To find a clinic that does this kind of testing, look for clinics with "direct donor" programs.
Food for thought: Ask yourself this - what percentage of babies born every year had one or both parents genetically tested first? How many of the heterosexual couples that you know had the father genetically tested prior to conceiving a child? Is genetic testing something that is required to make having a baby safe, or is it perhaps a nice, but unnecessary. perk of paying a lot of money to use a sperm bank?
- Example sperm bank genetic screening
- Example sperm bank infectious disease screening
- Example of a direct/known donor program at a sperm bank
It is true that the laws in the United States and most countries automatically eliminate parental rights and responsibilities of the donor when inseminating with frozen sperm from a sperm donor. However, this doesn't mean that using frozen sperm is necessarily "better," and it doesn't mean it is impossible to eliminate the rights of the donor when using a known donor.
The biggest difference is that with frozen sperm, the rights of the donor are severed at the point of donation, and with a known donor the rights must be terminated after the baby is born through adoption. In states where adoption is not allowed for same-sex couples, or in the case of a single mother by choice, this may mean that the donor's rights cannot be severed legally. It is VERY important to know and understand the laws in your area before choosing which way is best for your family. Discussing the legal implications with a family law lawyer is a good way to make sure you understand the full weight of your decisions.
Food for thought: It would be completely possible for the laws to allow a known sperm donor to release his parental rights at the point of donation as well. All it would require is the recognition of a legal, notarized form of stated "parental intent" by the donor and recipient. This hasn't been done because there is a massive money making machine with a very vested interest in keeping it as hard as possible to use a private known donor, i.e. the fertility industry. Allowing individuals to establish their intended parental relationship up front would enable much higher safety and protection for those who excercise their right to choose how and with whom they conceive a child.
Using a known donor is dangerous because donors often make the decision later to assert their legal rights as the biological parent to gain custody or visitation.
There are thousands and thousands of children born to known donors every year*, and the documented cases of either donors or parents challenging the parental right and responsibilities of the donor are extremely few. The vast majority of known donor agreements continue through the term of the relationship (or lack thereof) and the child's life exactly as agreed by the parents. When they do happen, challenges are reported widely in the news, and because it's the only time anyone ever hears about known donor situations, it gives the impression that is happens often. As a comparison, child abductions are also widely reported when they happen, but we would not say that children in general are often abducted. This in no way diminishes the importance of these situations when they do happen, and protecting yourself as best you can through the laws in your area is critical. For most people, this means ensuring legal adoption of the child after birth.
This misconception continues to persist despite factual evidence to the contrary in large part because of published and persistent advertising of these "dangers" by those who have a vested interest in keeping people coming to buy product - namely the fertility industry.
*It is challenging to find statistics on the number of children born to known donors, as these arrangements are private and not recorded. Much like the statistics on things like how many parents feeds organic baby food, the statistics rely largely on voluntary surveys, and are therefore always only representative of a population whose size is not completely knowable.
Sperm banks interview their potential donors and have them fill out a profile and medical history when they first donate. Some (very few) will also run a background check to make sure they have no criminal history, and a very, very few may verify any eduational degrees they state they have. The rest of their interview is no more or less accurate than any profile the donor may fill out anywhere else - the bank does not have any way of verifying that they do, in fact, play 3 musical instruments and love to play soccer. They don't verify medical history beyond what can be screened for in blood tests, so things like the age their grandparents lived to, occurrence of cancer or heart disease in their family, etc. may not be accurate at all.
Most donors only donate for a period of weeks or months, and those samples are then frozen and sold over a period of years, sometimes a LOT of years. Even if the donor was completely honest when he filled out the profile, it may or may not represent anything about him decades later. For example, an 18 year old college student planning on going pre-med might end up becoming a journalist.
The point here is that the donor profile at a sperm bank is not any more (or less) accurate than any place a person writes about who they are. If the donor is inclined to be dishonest, there is nothing at all stopping them from outright lying on their profile; the sperm bank will have no more idea than you would reading a profile on a dating site. Remember, the sperm bank has a very good reason to present the donor as attractive, diverse and talented as possible. That's their product, and they want you to buy it. The difference is, you have NO way of knowing if anything they are telling you about their product is true. And sadly, neither do they.
So, how do we verify what someone says about themselves on a social network or a dating profile? We meet them in person, and we see if what they say about themselves holds water. We talk to them face to face, get to know them a little, and make a judgement for ourselves if they are being honest. This is one of the biggest reasons that many people prefer a known donor. Meeting someone in person lets you hear their story directly from them, and get that "gut-check" feel on the kind of person they are. This person is going to be half of your child, and having some idea of what kind of person they are is pretty darn important.
This flip side of this is that there are parents who wish to know nothing about the donor. In this case, we would encourage those parents to consider a sperm bank as their conception choice, at least until the laws change and allow acknowledgement of a sperm donor relationship between private parties. The only way to verify disease and criminal history and to legaly sever his parental rights is to know the donor's real identity. If you are unwilling to do the testing, research and follow through necessary to protect yourselves and your future child, it is best not to consider a private known donor.
Frozen sperm is not less costly, nor more convenient. It is illegal by law to purchase human tissue, so by law fresh sperm is free. The only cost may be reimbursement of the donor's travel expense, legal advice and adoption fees. (Sperm banks don't charge for sperm, but for the service of collecting, screening an storing it.)
Example: had my wife and I conceived our first child with frozen sperm in the same number of cycles that it took with fresh (which is a huge assumption given the far lower rates of conception with frozen sperm), it would have cost us over $30,000. That is JUST to purchase the sperm for at-home insemination, it does not include any medical assistance.
Vial of Donor ID sperm from Fairfax Cryobank: $600
Shipping per vial: $175
Vials used per cycle (recommended: 4 (2 per insemination, 2 inseminations per cycle)
Cost per cycle = $3,100
Total cost: $34,100
In contrast, the cost of a known donor was as follows:
1 1/2 hours of legal advice: $350
2 full STD panels on the donor: $300
Miscellaneous insemination supplies: $75
Legal fees for adoption attorney : $1,550
Total cost: $2,275
This is obviously just our personal situation, and the costs may vary based on what options are chosen. We could have done the adoption without an attorney for only the cost of the county fees (about $400), but we felt having an attorney was easier. Expenses for fresh sperm may be higher for those who are having it shipped from the donor, because the shipping kit costs about $150 per cycle.
Frozen sperm is less effective than fresh, and it is harder to time the cycles correctly to achieve conception with at-home insemination. Where fresh sperm lives inside the woman's body for up to 5 days, frozen sperm lives about 6-24 hours (6-12 hours for washed IUI vials, 12-24 for ICI). Insemination with frozen sperm must be done within about a 6 hours window, whereas fresh sperm has a 24-48 hour window prior to ovulation to have to same 20% conception rate. The effective conception rate with frozen sperm is far lower, requiring more cycles to conceive.
For this reason, many women chose IUI, which is an expensive medical procedure. This dramatically increases the cost of using frozen sperm, and is a serious pain in the you-know-what compared to at-home insemination. Bear in mind, these are not infertile women who require fertility treatments, so the LGBTQ population of fertile women conceiving with frozen sperm are subject to incredibly higher costs than their fertile straight counterparts with male partners. It's a huge cost barrier, and often cost prohibitive for lesbian couples.