Queer midwives Marea Goodman and Ray Rachlin walk through the pros and cons of choosing a sperm donor to start your family.
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Finding genetic material for your future children can be, to say the least, an emotional roller coaster. The potential costs of a sperm bank or the logistical challenges of using a donor you know can send many people down a hand-wringing internet rabbit hole. As queer midwives who have guided many families through these decisions, we'll outline the pros and cons of different donor options and tools for helping find the right donor for you.
First things first, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Choosing a sperm donor is important, yes. But having a child is the goal, and finding the donor is just one of the steps to getting there.
Time, thought and intention should all go into finding a donor because it's a part of how we grow our families—but don't get too attached to one way of doing this. When you're running around after your future 2-year-old trying to get them to put on their pants, you won't be thinking about where you got their genetic material.
Known donors vs. anonymous donors
Known donors are people within your community—friends, or your partner's relative, someone who is willing to donate their sperm so that you can create a family. An anonymous donor is someone who has donated to a sperm bank, and the bank in turn takes care of the logistics and sends you the sperm before your insemination.
But there are pros and cons for choosing each.
Generally, but not always, known donors agree to have some kind of relationship with your future child. Know that these relationships vary tremendously and are customizable depending on what all parties involved want.
Many people want a known donor because they want their kid to have a relationship with the person that gave them some of their genetic material. It can be wonderful to have someone to call when a child asks, "how did you make me?" Also, fresh sperm from a known donor has a higher sperm count/motility rating which can increase your chances of conception.
On the flip side, having a known donor is sometimes more complicated. The legal process of second-parent adoption—the process of the non-gestational or a transgender parent gaining parental rights—is more layered in some states when the donor's parenting rights must also be severed (we always recommend consulting a lawyer familiar with your state's laws before beginning a queer family or single-parent family formation).
Also, since it's an intimate relationship, occasionally these dynamics can get complicated. There are stories of known donors changing their minds after the child is born and vying for custody, which is a very scary prospect, especially for queer parents in this homophobic world. However, many of these concerns can be mitigated by signing a donor contract and completing a second-parent adoption after the child is born.
Some parents prefer the anonymity and simplicity of not knowing their sperm donor personally. Sperm banks do the leg work of sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing, sperm counts, legal separation and genetic testing, which makes second-parent adoption proceedings simpler. When people donate sperm to a sperm bank, they have the option to make an open or closed donation. An open donation means potential future children may contact their donor after they turn 18.
Unfortunately, sperm is wildly expensive. One vial of sperm costs about $900 per vial. Frozen sperm has lower conception rates than fresh sperm because it does not live as long. To maximize your chances of conceiving a baby, most people using frozen sperm will use intrauterine inseminations (IUI) with a midwife or doctor to conceive, which is an additional expense. People with no fertility issues generally average four to six IUI attempts before getting pregnant, so the costs can add up.
There's no right answer in this known vs anonymous donor debate. We recommend creating a list of your priorities in choosing a donor. Is affordability the most important factor? Do you want your child to have a relationship with their donor? Do you like the anonymity and simplicity of using someone you've never met? Take some time with these questions and, if you have a partner, discuss them together before moving forward. We made these pros and cons charts for each choice for you to use as reference.
Pros and cons of using a known donor
|Known donor pros||Known donor cons|
|Familiarity||Potentially complicated relationship dynamics|
|Higher conception rates: 15-20% per cycle for people under 35, decreasing with advanced age||Complex logistics if they are not local|
|More affordable initially||Higher legal fees|
Pros and cons of using an anonymous donor
|Anonymous donor pros||Anonymous donor cons|
|Anonymity||Expensive (including the additional cost of midwife or doctor visits and procedures)|
|Many different options to choose from||Lower conception rates than fresh sperm: 12-18% with intrauterine insemination and 5-10% with intravaginal/intracervical insemination for people under 35, decreasing with advanced age|
|Legal simplicity||Child cannot contact them until they are 18|
|Lack of Black, Latino, Native American, Middle Eastern and Asian donors|
Personal preferences in choosing a sperm donor
Here is where the decision gets more personal. People choose their sperm donors for all sorts of reasons: Some want donors with whom they or their partner share an ethnic or cultural background. For others, they care that they graduated from a top-tier university or are an athlete.
We encourage people to choose two, maybe three qualities that are the most important to you—and don't worry too much about the rest. Choosing a donor can sometimes contain echoes of eugenics, which we recommend steering clear of as much as possible.
A note about race and racism: In the U.S., it is way easier to find sperm from white donors than it is to find sperm from donors of other ethnicities. This is due to many reasons, one being that sperm banks are typically located in mostly white areas, and they use the same marketing strategies to recruit Black donors and other donors of color that they use to recruit white donors. There is also a long history of U.S. medical institutions experimenting on Black people's bodies, which leaves many Black communities feeling mistrustful of modern Western medical institutions.
For many clients of color, finding a sperm donor with the same ancestry or ethnic background as themselves or their partner is an extra hurdle in addition to all of the emotional and financial costs of choosing a donor. We know many folks who have tried to find known donors within their own communities as a response. As with everything, racism plays a role in folks' conception options.
Here is another list of qualities many of our clients look for in a potential donor. Be sure to write your own list of what's most vital to you personally. After writing as many qualities as you can think of, we recommend circling two or three that are the most important to you and go from there.
Ideal donor qualities:
- Shared interests
- High sperm count
- Health history
- Family genetic history
- IQ levels
Phew, that's a lot about sperm! To wrap up, we want to reiterate that the sperm you choose isn't necessarily the most important thing in making a human. Babies subconsciously model their facial features and mannerisms after the people that raise them… so don't stress the genes too much. And, if you try with one donor a bunch of times without a successful pregnancy, it's OK to change sperm donors partway through. That's one of the benefits of getting to choose your sperm donor—you can always change your mind.