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Ready to Start Your Family? How to Choose a Sperm Donor

Updated: May 6

I have noticed that once people with access to eggs and a uterus decide to start a family, the donor search quickly takes center stage. All everyone wants to talk about is sperm! This article contains information on genetics, types of donors, and sperm banks.

Reproductive technology has come a long way in the past 50 years, and the options available can be overwhelming. If you are brand new to your journey, I recommend that you start here, with an overview of the different components of trying to conceive.

choosing a sperm donor, zoom in of sperm swimming in dark blue background

Queer Midwives Ray Rachlin and Marea Goodman recommend writing down all the traits that are important to you in a donor. If you are in a partnership, do this separately. Do it without judging yourself. Get it all on paper so that you have a starting place. Then begin narrowing it down to 3 of the most important traits.

Nature v. Nurture

When you choose a donor, you are really choosing that person's genetics for a few generations back. Yes, physical traits are dictated by genes, and also we can never guess exactly what a person will look like because gene expression can vary. There's a lot of debate about whether or not personality traits are inherited. A person's ability to love, form meaningful relationships, show empathy, and express themself are all dictated by how they are raised. Some questions to consider:

  • Are there certain characteristics that are important to you for you donor to have?

  • In a partnership, how important is it to you that your donor and partner share similar physical or personality traits? Ethnicity?

Anonymous v. Known Donors

Many people beginning their TTC journey are attracted to using an anonymous donor because the process is straightforward from a legal, social, and logistical perspective (at least for the parents). Note that any sperm bank donor is considered anonymous, even if they have an open ID, because they are a stranger to you. Donors sign away all legal parental rights when they donate. There are many options to choose from and because banks are carefully screening the donors, the risk of STIs is low and the efficacy of the sperm is established. No one is masturbating in your bathroom, which could be awkward.

All that said, using a sperm bank is expensive. Every single vial of sperm costs upwards of $1,000 and with frozen sperm you need to plan for 4 vials per live birth so you could be looking at $12k+ if you are planning for a family of 3 children (note: sometimes it takes less and sometimes it takes more; sperm vial prices vary bank to bank). Also important to keep in mind that if you are looking for a donor who is a person of color, there is a shortage of BIPOC sperm in the US.

Current best practice indicates that donor-conceived people should be able to explore a relationship with their donor, which they can't with an anonymous donor.

Cost is a big reason why many consider known donors! Known donors can have a relationship with the child growing up. Children have access to medical history and questions about their genetics. Fresh sperm also lives longer and is much easier to use at home for DIY insemination. Note that while known donor sperm may be cheaper (or free), you will need to save money for legal fees to dissolve the donor's right to parentage. You will also likely cover the cost of any STI testing.

As you decide what kind of donor to use, I also suggest researching what Donor Conceived People (DCP) have to say about their experience. A 2020 survey revealed that 80% of DCP want to contact their donor, and only 9% of respondents did not want any contact with their donor. The U.S. Donor Conceived Council has a resource page for parents. Their blog is also worth checking out. There is an active subreddit r/askadcp where potential donor recipients can ask questions.

The current research indicates that DCP have a right to access their donor identity for both medical reasons as well as personal reasons, and many countries have passed legislation to prohibit anonymous donation.

Frozen v. Fresh Sperm

Another consideration in selecting your donor is whether their sperm will be fresh or frozen. Fresh sperm lives for much longer, around 72 hours. Thawed sperm only lives for about 12 hours (max is 24 hours). The implication is that you will need to be very good at tracking ovulation if using previously frozen sperm. I have had clients who struggle with irregular ovulation fail to get pregnant using frozen sperm, then switch to fresh and get pregnant on the first try.

Legal Considerations

In Illinois, under the Parentage Act of 2015, the sperm donor has no legal right to the child as long as the sample is provided to a licensed physician. (1) This is the only time that donor agreements are specifically upheld in our state. This covers sperm obtained from sperm banks. For known donors, you will need to work with a lawyer in order to terminate parental rights. Legal rights of donors vary from state to state.

Sperm Banks

Sperm banks are unregulated in the US and with the exception of the Sperm Bank of California, they are all for profit. I repeat, their purpose is to make money off of you. They will charge extra for more information about the donor. I'm not saying all sperm banks are evil, but please do your research before selecting one.

More information on specific sperm banks is coming!

While the FDA recommends limiting each donor to 25 children, each bank has it's own policies. See Donor Dylan for an example of someone who has discovered 96 donor children in 6 countries from their time as a sperm donor. Furthermore, sometimes families find out much later that a policy was not upheld when they begin contacting donor sibling families. Historically, banks have either Open ID donors (who can be contacted when the child turns 18) and fully anonymous, but with more at-home genetic testing available anonymous donation is becoming more unlikely and even impossible.

There is also the possibility of asking your known donor to donate sperm through a bank, which can work especially well if your donor lives far away. This process is cheaper than buying sperm. Be prepared for some homophobic hoops since most banks are designed for hetero couples with infertility. This may be important to you or not, so just keep it on your radar as you begin researching different banks.

cover of book "what makes a baby" showing sperm and egg, inclusive explanation of how babies are conceived

Talking to your children

The research is resounding: talk to your child(ren) early and often about how they came to be. Ideally, they should not be able to remember a time when they didn't know they were donor conceived. There are wonderful children's books made for different family building scenarios to help you start and continue the conversation.

  • What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg

  • Zak's Safari by Christy Turner

  • Mommy, Mama, and Me by Leslea Newman

Keep in mind that while this is a big decision, ultimately the goal is to grow your family. There is no right answer or correct path. Sometimes, there are moments of grief: over not being able to make a baby without some help, over a potential known donor declining, or even about finding the "perfect" donor and then needing to change donors. Be gentle with yourself and leave space for that grief as you move through the process.


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