It’s the one banking crisis you probably haven’t heard about. The problem isn’t credit, liquidity, or cash. It’s sperm.
Sperm banks around the globe are in the grips of recession. In the U.K., fertility clinics recruited only 60% of the donors they needed to meet demand in 2007, and this year’s showing is no better. Supplies in France have been falling too, and now Belgium’s reserves are strained because of French “fertility tourists” crossing the border to access that country’s sperm. In China, new ultra-strict donor screening methods have Shanghai’s only sperm bank running so low that it hasn’t accepted new IVF patients in over a year. And domestic sperm supplies in Canada have dropped to the point that facilities are being forced to import from American clinics—even as American clinics are running dry themselves.
My suspicion is that some of these new regulations have less to do with bioethics than with our increasing expectations as consumers.
This global sperm shortage is unfortunate and unnecessary. It’s not due to any actual shortage of sperm, but is rather the result of recent crackdown in the sperm banking industry that has placed more and more burdens on those who would like to donate sperm.
In 2004, Canada outlawed cash-for-sperm incentives, which toppled the donation rate and compelled Canadian banks to start relying on imported sperm. The year after that, the U.S. banned sperm shipped in from Europe because of irrational fears of Mad Cow disease. Suddenly, supplies of Americans’ favorite sperm—tall, blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian stock—are in jeopardy.
But it’s Britain that has adopted one of the most damaging measures: In 2005, the government enacted a law allowing children to learn the identities of their donor fathers once they turn 18. As a result, Britain’s sperm donations plummeted from over 500 in 1991, to 307 in 2006. The country now relies on foreigners—many of them backpackers passing through—for a third of its supply. But even with contributions from these eager transients, clinics there are rationing.
For me, this issue is personal. I was conceived at one of the few sperm banks operating in the late 1970s, back when most people still considered assisted reproduction a miracle (or a crime against nature.) Thankfully, my parents were willing criminals, or perhaps more accurately, human guinea pigs—my mother especially. She received injections of a drug called Perganol that’s notorious for working too well, leaving surprise quintuplets in its wake. Soon after I was conceived, the clinic was sued over a case much like that. Lawsuits like these were part of the reason many clinics made great effort to keep their donors anonymous.
Attitudes have changed. Many of my donor-conceived peers have begun demanding more information about their biological fathers. While countries like Australia and Sweden haven’t gone as far as Britain, they have passed laws requiring clinics to track donor information. Earlier this year, a 26-year-old woman filed a class-action lawsuit in Canada to learn the identity of her donor father, prompting the judge to order the clinic to preserve its donor records while the case is decided. Actions like these have created a chilling effect on donations, and the donor shrinkage is now becoming painfully apparent. This is terrible news for people who need assistance getting pregnant.
I can sympathize with donor-conceived individuals like Ryan Kramer who have tried to track down their fathers using genetic databases. All I know of my biological father is that he was a tall, blue-eyed law student from the East Coast. For a time, especially during my adolescence, I craved to know more. I wished I’d been born later, after most clinics relaxed the rules.
Now I feel differently. What bothers me about the bans on anonymity isn’t that they will hurt the fertility industry, which at $3 billion a year in revenues is doing just fine. For me, it’s a lot simpler. Without privacy and compensation, many donors simply aren’t going to step forward, which is exactly what’s causing the shortage we’re seeing right now. And if, as a result of fewer donors, the sperm recession becomes a full-blown sperm depression, infertile and same-sex couples are going to find the difficult task of having a child a whole lot harder.
The internet and DNA testing have given us powerful new tools for finding and identifying people. This doesn’t mean those tools should be taken advantage of in all situations—some donors want to be tracked down, but many others simply want to be left alone. They donated sperm years ago in return for, say, college tuition and the promise of anonymity, the same promise given to a kidney donor. Unlike kidney recipients, of course, we products of IVF did not consent to the anonymous transaction. But my suspicion is that some of these new regulations have less to do with bioethics than with our increasing expectations as consumers. We feel it’s our right to know, even if that makes it more difficult for others seeking donated sperm down the line.
My parents, who lived hand-to-mouth, barely scraped together enough money to afford their fertility doctor’s modest fees. But even though they were poor, the service was within reach. That’s always been one of the great things about the sperm banking system: it’s low-rent. Donors get around $75 per specimen; single-serve vials of semen can be bought for a hundred bucks. Why? Because the world has more sperm than it knows what to do with, and the distribution system has put a premium on accessibility.
But when sperm banks dry up, will the price of sperm skyrocket? Will it become a product for only the wealthiest of would-be parents? I suspect these are real possibilities, should the shortage continue to worsen.
Now that I think about it, maybe I wasn’t born too soon.
Justin Clark is a writer based in Los Angeles. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism, his articles and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, LA Weekly, and Nerve.