The Great Lesbian Sperm Crisis

Semen is one of the most abundant resources on the planet. So why are lesbian couples facing a donor shortage?

Like most Canadian lesbians, Paula and Nicole sought out foreign semen when they wanted to have a child. They settled on a donor who looked like their favorite ’80s television star and, through some Internet sleuthing, found another local family on Facebook who had used the same donor. Then, when they were pregnant, they bumped into another queer couple at their prenatal class.

“[W]e were just talking and realized that we used the same sperm donor and…their friends were actually the other couple we connected to [on Facebook],” Paula said, in a recent study by feminist legal theorist Stu Marvel in the Canadian Journal of Women and the Law.

Now, Paula and Nicole—whose names Marvel changed for the study—know at least nine families in the province of Ontario who have used the same telegenic donor.

What are the odds? Not bad, it turns out. In her study, Marvel estimates in the study that children born through donor insemination in Canada could have anywhere from 100 to 615 half-siblings worldwide in an extreme case. In 2011, the National Post also reported that a single donor at ReproMed, Canada’s only national sperm bank, could potentially have up to 75 offspring in a city the size of Toronto.

Semen is one of the most abundant resources on the planet, with men producing an estimated 1,500 sperm cells every second. But in places like Canada and the U.K. where sperm donation is limited, family building is a unique logistical challenge, especially for lesbians.

Last Monday, the newly established U.K. national sperm bank admitted that it had acquired just nine registered donors in their first year. The sperm bank’s chief executive, Laura Witjens, told The Guardian that a full third of the patients seeking sperm in some U.K. clinics are same-sex couples, and that demand is on the rise. A 2013 report from the U.K.’s Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (HFEA) found that the number of same-sex female couples using donated gametes had increased by almost 30 percent over the previous year.

But ever since the U.K. ended “anonymous” donations in 2005—children will now be able to learn the identity of their biological father once they turn 18—domestic sperm has been in short supply.

For U.K. residents, foreign companies like the massive Denmark-based sperm bank Cryos International provide what local men will not. Cryos founder Ole Schou told The Daily Beast that they export approximately 96 percent of their production to other countries. Their motto? “We keep the stork busy.” In addition to providing U.K.-compliant sperm directly to licensed clinics, Cryos also ships sperm to customers’ homes in dry ice and nitrogen tanks.

The sperm situation in Canada is even more complicated.

In the 1990s, Canada was home to several sperm banks but they were dealt a significant blow in 2000 when Health Canada tightened regulations surrounding donation. In 2004, the Canadian Parliament passed the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA), which regulated human cloning but also banned compensation for sperm donation. Most clinics closed. The Canadian Supreme Court later deemed much of the AHRA’s provisions unconstitutional but paying sperm donors—standard practice in the U.S. and many other countries—remains illegal nationwide, punishable by a $500,000 fine or up to 10 years in jail.

In other words, Canadian men who wish to donate sperm must not only meet extraordinarily high standards, they must also do it out of altruism. Or else.

Under such draconian conditions, it’s not surprising that the supply of domestic sperm in Canada is throttled. In 2013, the Calgary Herald reported that ReproMed had around 50 donors and further estimated that over half of the annual need for inseminations in Canada came from lesbian couples. Filling this vacuum of demand instead is a large distribution network of Canadian-compliant sperm supplied by American corporations like Fairfax and Xytex.

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Heather Brooks, a registered nurse at Outreach Health Services in Ontario—the largest distributor of Xytex sperm in Canada—told The Daily Beast that most of their clients “don’t really care about the citizenship of the sperm.”

“I have clients that actually prefer that the donors are not Canadian,” she said, as it decreases their chances of unexpectedly meeting them in person.

When it comes to situations like Paula and Nicole’s growing network of donor siblings, Brooks notes that Canada has no legal restrictions on how many times sperm from the same donor can be used. By contrast, many countries like the U.K. and Sweden restrict insemination by either the number of children that can be conceived from a single donor or by the number of families that can use his sperm.

The U.S. does not have legal limits in place but the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) recommends restricting a donor to 25 live births for a population of 800,000—a standard that is difficult to maintain because a significant percentage of women do not report these births.

In Canada, it is up to distributors like Outreach Health Services to urge clients to report their births and to self-regulate accordingly.

“We do have geographical restrictions,” Brooks told The Daily Beast. “I’m privy to where those births have been reported and, based on the population, we can determine whether to restrict that donor in that area or not.”

But without full reporting there is no way to ensure that two couples with the same donor don’t end up in the same Lamaze class. Concerns about accidental incest have also been raised in countries where limits are relatively lax. In Canada—where sperm donation is at once closely regulated and largely untraceable—the future is bound to get messy, especially for lesbians.

At the moment, Paula and Nicole are approaching their child’s network of half-siblings with an open mind by hosting a Facebook group, composed primarily of other lesbians and single women, who share their same donor. Some women, Paula told Marvel, “lurk and don’t say anything,” but others want to organize a camping trip. Many of their friends say it’s “weird and crazy” to connect with these other families, but Paula and Nicole see it as a way to build community out of a unique situation.

Going forward, however, experts in the field say that Canada’s policies have to change. Family law professor Dr. Nicholas Bala told The Daily Beast that Canada’s restrictions “harm lesbian couples in particular,” although they also affect large numbers of single women and heterosexual couples as well.

“For certain things, an altruistic system can work. I think that this clearly is not one of them,” said Bala.

Brooks notes that organizations like Outreach Health Services would have had access to more complete information about donor births if the Canadian Supreme Court hadn’t repealed a provision of the AHRA that would have established a registry.

“I really would have welcomed that,” Brooks told The Daily Beast. “But unfortunately it was kyboshed out of the act so now we’re back to square one.”

In her study, Marvel recommends re-instituting this registry and placing federal limits on the number of families that can use the same donor.

As for the floundering U.K. national sperm bank, The Guardian reports that chief executive Laura Witjens plans to increase sperm donation by urging men to “prove their manhood.” Apparently “Do it for the lesbians” won’t cut it.