The Supply of Sperm

[After I wrote this I learned that the term “identity release” is trademarked by The Sperm Bank of California.   The correct generic term is “open-identity donation.”   I have accordingly changed the language I used here.]

Over the past couple of years the spectre of a sperm shortage has occasionally appeared in the papers and hence, on this blog.   More recently, the issue has been raised in the Pratten case, which I’ve been writing about.    The argument presented there is that requiring that donors agree to the release of identifying information when a child conceived with the sperm turns 18 (or some other set age) will either cause or exacerbate an already-existing sperm shortage. 

As I wrote earlier, I was at the ASRM last week.  I spent a fair amount of time in the exhibit hall.   Many sperm banks were represented there, and not surprisingly most of those were large operations that ship nationally and generally internationally.    I stopped to chat with a number of the vendors and frequently asked them about the supply of donors.   (If any of you are reading this and if I’ve got anything wrong here, please do correct me.) 

Now let me string together the caveats first.  This is totally anecdotal.   There’s no pretense of a scientific survey here.   In many instances I didn’t know the job description of the people I spoke to.   And they weren’t speaking from hard data, for the most part.  This was impressionistic.  With all that said, I’ll still summarize and pass along what I learned, for whatever that is worth. 

One issue all the sperm providers confront is the patchwork of regulations they face.   Different states/countries have different standards sperm must meet before it can be shipped.   I’m sure a uniform standard would make things easier, but no one expects that to happen.   Keeping up with regulations is a cost of doing business. 

 (Another thing that varies a great deal country-to-country is whether a man can be paid to provide sperm.   Personally I don’t suppose it matters much whether you call the money that changes hand payment for sperm or whether you call it compensation for time and trouble or whether you call it something else.  But it stands to reason that offering more money will probably induce more men to provide sperm.    This would seem a simple application of basic economic theory.  I didn’t discuss this with any of the providers at the ASRM, so this is just me reasoning out loud.)     

There was a general consensus among the people I talked to that most men who want to provide sperm   are rejected.   It might even be safe to say that a substantial majority of men get rejected.   There are many reasons why a man might be rejected:   low sperm count, not enough sperm survive freezing/thawing, problematic family/medical history, failing to return for follow up screenings, and so on.   Further, the percentage rejected has climbed over the years as the average sperm counts for men have declined.   

It’s also apparent that the willingness of a men to provide sperm to a bank varies across culture.   In some cultures it is less acceptable to provide sperm to create children you will not raise and the supply of sperm from men from those cultures is accordingly much more limited–sometimes even non-existent.  To the extent those purchasing the sperm are trying to match certain characteristics,  these shortages are quite consequential.   

I also asked more generally about the willingness of men to have their identity disclosed to the child at some point.    Obviously not all men are willing to do this.   But some men are and indeed, it sounds like for some men this is a more appealing option.    And the characteristics of men who are willing to be identity-release  open identity donors seems to be different from those who are only willing to donate anonymously.    They are (warning:  generalizations follow) older, more likely to have children, and more likely to be motivated at least in part by altruism.  

To me these all sound like good things for any number of reasons.   A man motivated by altruism would, it seems to me, be more likely to take care to provide a sound medical/family history.   A man who has children might be more likely to consider and comprehend the consequences of what he’s doing that a man who does not yet have children.   This makes me think he would be less likely to subsequently regret his decision.  

I don’t think a single one of the people I spoke to suggested to me that requiring open identity donations donor ID would lead to a shortage of sperm (beyond the shortage of sperm from particular categories of donors, which I’ve already mentioned.)   Now there may be people who I didn’t ask,  so I don’t say that no one thinks there will be shortages.    But I cannot recall anyone who thought this was an inevitable result of requiring donor’s to consent to the eventual release of identifying information.     

I don’t doubt that there are places where it is very hard to get sperm.  If Canada only has 40 donors, that’s not going to be enough.  And as Fiona noted in her comments, any switch in systems will surely result in temporary shortages.    But many things contribute to sperm shortages (you can read my other posts on it for some of them) and I think if some of those factors were overcome, then the open identity donation identity release requirements would become manageable.


11 responses to “The Supply of Sperm

  1. I know this is entirely tangential, but I find it ridiculous that “identity release” is a trademarked term. You might as well trademark the term “sperm donor.”
    an “identity release” donor is simply a donor whose identity may be released!
    That would be like me trademarking the term “black dress” or “high heeled shoe.”
    In contrast, the term open identity donor is NOT what it sounds like. The donor’s identity is not open. It may be released to a specific party 18 years hence, true but that’s almost as far from open as an anonymous donor.

    One of the sperm banks offers “willing to be known” donors. perhaps they should trademark that too? than every clinic will have to come up with theri own convoluted terminology.

    • The fact that they trademarked a phrase says volumes about what’s really going on. I’ve taken the liberty of thumbing my nose at the industry below.
      Campus Sperm Donor Recruitment Slogans:
      Sometimes you feel like a nut….
      So easy a caveman can do it
      Good to the last drop
      The pause that refreshes
      How do you spell relief
      Finger licking good
      Once you pop you can’t stop
      Let your fingers do the walking
      A little dab l do ya
      Plop Plop Biz Jiz Oh what a release it is

      Campus Surrogacy Recruitment Slogans:
      Nothing says lovin’ like something from the oven

      Fertility Clinic Slogans
      You’ve come a long way baby
      We bring good things to life
      We love to lie and it shows
      Even better than the real thing

      • I’m not sure what point you wish to make here. Most sperm banks are in business to make money. (It might be worth noting that the Sperm Bank of California is actually a not-for-profit. It may be the only one of its kind.) Given the internet and modern shipping it’s a competitive business. (That was quite clear at the ASRM.) Sperm banks spend a lot of money on the design of their websites, etc. Just as in any other setting, if you put time and effort into developing a way of describing what you do, you have a right to protect your investment.

        Is the larger point that you think sperm banks should not exist? That may be, and it’s worth discussing. (I think they serve an important purpose.) But I don’t quite see what the problem with invoking trademark law is.

        • Not even a chuckle? Listen your not in competition with them or trying to sell your donors to the American public. Your a law professor discussing topics relevant to your area of practice and if you wrote that you offered someone a Kleenex rather than a tissue to dry their eyes about something – well I think it would be just stupid for Proctor and Gambell to admonish you for that.
          I was making a joke about the big business of it all. I thought “we bring good things to life” was really funny. Because it is. Its really funny.

    • I’m not an expert on trademark law, but I’m pretty sure that someone who is an expert would tell you it isn’t ridiculous at all. For instance, the phrase “cling-free” is, I believe, trademarked. Many companies can sell dryer sheets that prevent clothes from clinging, but they cannot use the “cling-free” phrase. Same thing with “easy-off.” Any sperm bank that wants to can set up a system where donors agree to be contacted at some point. But they cannot take the name “identity release” any more than I can sell a new oven cleaner and decide I’d like to call it “easy off.” These phrases get associated with particular products/producers and that’s what trademark protection is about.

      Maybe there is a larger point. I think the Sperm Bank of California pioneered the idea of donors whose identity would later be available. I don’t think anyone was doing it before them. So they gave it a descriptive name–but it was not a phrase that was in use before. The fact that many other banks copied them (in terms of the service they offer) doesn’t give them the right to steal the name. There are plenty of other ways to get across what the service offers–like open identity donor. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if other sperm banks have trademarked their own offerings.

      Again, I’m not an expert, but “willing to be known” is probably too common to be trademarked.

      • I feel like picking the pepper out of the flysht today. Did you notice that you crossed out “Donor ID” ? That is not the trade marked term right? You said “identity release” was their trade marked term and if that’s the case, you missed a spot in the same paragraph a couple sentences up. Still think its ridiculous that your not allowed to write whatever you want.

        • My bad. I shall try to go and fix it.

          There are surely whole blogs where the virtues of trademark law are discussed. This isn’t one of them–I don’t know enough. But I think the idea is that it protects investments people make in developing brand recognition. And as I understand it, you have to vigorously patrol the use of it or you will lose your trademark. But really–let’s let this one go?

  2. I was helping a friend of mine find her father (she ultimately found him on her own she’s amazing) She and her brother who she found through the DSR now know that their father was married when he was donating. I don’t think he told his wife at the time. He and his wife have one adopted child that is still in high school so needless to say he is very happy now to have children of his own in his life finally.
    To me it sort of seems like he wanted to have kids of his own but he did not want to leave his wife so he went ahead and donated sperm so his family line would not end with him. I find this fascinating. The wife knows now of course. When Julie spoke of older donors being more inclined to open identity (did I phrase that right) I was reminded of her story. I wonder if there are more donors like him who have infertile wives or are not wanting to raise kids that are motivated by wanting their family line to continue.

  3. I’m going to catch hell for saying “children of his own” aren’t I? If I’ve offended anyone I’m sorry. The girl he is raising as if she were his own, belongs to someone out there as well and with any luck she will one day meet that man as well. When people say “my own child” they don’t mean ownership they mean one that they made with their own genes, a child that is related to them as either son or daughter – a descendant. Its interesting that my friend and her brother can actually commiserate with their adopted sister in that they too know what its like to not know who or where their father was. Which ties together nicely with the how are donor conceived kids like adopted kids. Maybe they can be supportive to her once they meet her.

  4. Yeah Kaiser is not for profit too – that status is tenuous at best.

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