[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.